Democracy is talked about a lot – especially these days – but while it’s often discussed alongside general terms like “freedom” and “representation,” there are many forms of democracy. Even slight changes can make a big difference in how a democratic government functions. In this article, we’ll explore four main types and what they look like in practice.
Democracy means “rule by the people,” but how that rule is structured varies depending on the type of democracy. Four of the main types include Athenian democracy, direct democracy, representative democracy, and parliamentary democracy.
While there were other societies using democratic principles, Athenian democracy is the most famous type of ancient democracy. In fact, the word “democracy” comes from demokratia, which is a Greek word. Athens, Greece used a democratic government from the 5-4th century BCE. It had three main bodies:
The assembly (known as the ekklesia) would meet about once a month. Any male citizen could participate by speaking to the assembly and voting on decisions, which could involve things like food supply maintenance, military affairs, political trials, and legislation. The majority would have the final say. What if someone became too powerful? The assembly could vote to ostracise them by secret ballot. While any male citizen could participate, there were nine assembly presidents responsible for organizing the assembly and monitoring voting. These men were elected by lot and could only hold the office one time. Every Athennian governmental structures were exclusive to male citizens, so it doesn’t fit what we think of democracy today. However, at the time, the fact that all male citizens were considered equal was significant.
While the Assembly represents something close to pure democracy, the Council of 500 was the true full-time Athenian government. Known as the boule, the Council consisted of 500 men – 50 from each of the 10 Athenian tribes – who would meet every day and decide what the Assembly should take up. The Council could also issue its own decrees. Each member, who was chosen by lot, served for just one year. The lottery system was supposed to keep the council equal and random, but historians believe the Athenian elite served more often than others, so there was likely some meddling going on. Before serving, Counselors also had to undergo questioning to determine their fitness. They’d be asked questions about their public and private lives involving things like family tombs, shrines, whether they had done their military service, and so on.
The Athenian court system was known as the dikasteria. 500 jurors (male, citizens, and over 30 years old) were chosen by lot every day. They were paid for their work, which implies that Athens wanted the job to be accessible to everyone, not just the rich. Like in the Assembly, the majority ruled and the decision was final. If a jury reached a tie, there would be an acquittal. Ligitants could speak for themselves or have an advocate speak on their behalf. There was an officer who supervised the court, but the jury had all the power.
Direct democracy is when all a nation’s people – not representatives – vote on every law, bill, and court decision. While Athenian democracy has some aspects of direct democracy, it isn’t a true democracy because it was so exclusive. It didn’t consider women or slaves “people” in the same way as male citizens. While there are no true democracies in the world today, Switzerland provides one of the best examples of direct democratic processes:
Switzerland has 26 cantons that make up the member states of the Swiss Confederation. Each canton is sovereign and has its own legislature, executive, courts, police, and constitution. There is still a federal-level government, however, which is called the Federal Council. The Council consists of seven Federal Councillors from different Swiss political parties. They’re elected by a Federal Assembly every four years. The Federal Council and cantons both use some forms of direct democracy.
How the Swiss use referendums is a clear example of direct democracy. The mandatory referendum has been around since 1848. In this system, certain laws approved by parliament automatically go to a popular vote all citizens over 18 can participate in. Mandatory referendums refer to changes to the constitution, emergency laws that only last a year and have no constitutional basis, and membership to collective security organizations or supranational communities.
Next, there’s the optional referendum. Any citizen can challenge a law or decree already approved by parliament. They must collect at least 50,000 signatures within 100 days of when parliament made a decision. An optional referendum is also held if eight cantons support it. A popular vote is then held.
Switzerland also has a people’s (also known as popular) initiative. This has been around since the nation’s modern-day founding. With at least 100,000 signatures collected within 18 months, any citizen can propose a partial or total reform of the constitution. If a total reform was accepted, the country would hold entirely new elections. The newly-elected government would then write a new constitution and submit it to a popular vote. There was a popular initiative for total reform in 1935, but 72% of voters rejected it.
Representative democracy is different from pure democracy in that people elect officials who then create laws and vote on their behalf. This is the more common form of democracy. Let’s turn to the United States for a clearer idea of what representative democracy can look like:
The United States holds both local and national elections. Locally, elections can be confusing as the election administration system is decentralized. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “no two states administer elections in exactly the same way.” Generally, citizens who are at least 18 years old cast ballots for members of state legislatures and the governor, who are beholden to their state constitution. Nationally, citizens vote for the people who represent them in the House of Representatives and the Senate.
When it comes to voting for President, things are a bit strange. Thanks to the Electoral College system, citizens are not voting directly for the President and Vice President; they’re voting for electors. Each state gets the same number of electors as they have members of Congress. Each political party chooses its own potential electors, and if their party wins, these electors cast their votes for the President and VP. Because of this system, a person can win the presidency and lose the popular vote. It happened most recently in 2000 and 2016.
On a federal level, citizens don’t vote on laws; their representatives do. First, a House representative must sponsor a bill (bills can originate in the Senate, as well). It gets assigned to a committee. If it gets through this stage, the bill goes to the House for debate, amendment, or a vote. When a bill passes by a simple majority, it goes to the Senate where it’s assigned to another committee and the process begins again. A simple majority (51-100) passes the bill, but the bill must be discussed and agreed upon by a conference committee of House and Senate members. This version of the bill goes back to the House and Senate. Once this is all done, the bill finally heads to the President’s desk. They have 10 days to either sign or veto the bill. Citizens are not officially involved in this process, but they can contact their House Reps and Senators with their thoughts on what they like or don’t like about the bill. Ideally, officials will listen to their constituent’s concerns.
It’s not consistent in every state, but the United States does use ballot measures that give citizens more power to influence legislation. Citizen-initiated ballot measures, which are allowed in 26 states, let citizens collect signatures to put laws on the ballot. There are two types: direct and indirect. With direct initiatives, the measure gets put directly to a vote if enough signatures are collected. With indirect initiatives, the measure gets referred to the state legislature first and only goes to a popular vote if the legislature doesn’t enact it. Initiated state statutes are a type of citizen-initiated ballot measure. They let citizens amend state law. 21 of the 26 states with initiatives allow for initiated state statutes. One recent example occurred in Oregon in 2022. Measure 114, known as the Changes to Firearm Ownership and Purchase Requirements Initiative, was approved by 50.76%. At the time of writing, the measure was being challenged as unconstitutional.
Parliamentary democracies are a type of representative democracy, but they look very different from the United States. In fact, most of the world’s democracies use parliamentary systems. Here are two examples:
The United Kingdom uses both a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy. While citizens can’t vote for the monarch, they vote in general elections held every five years. Each of the 650 local areas – called parliamentary constituencies – gets represented by one MP in the House of Commons. Whichever candidate gets the most votes wins. Whichever party gets the most candidates in office gets to form a parliamentary majority.
Canada is still technically a constitutional monarchy, as well as a parliamentary democracy. The Governor General is the federal viceregal representative of Canada’s monarch, who is currently King Charles II. Canada also has a Senate and a House of Commons. The prime minister is officially appointed by the Governor General, but they need to have the House of Commons’ confidence. Because the people elect the House of Commons, the PM represents the leader of the party who won the most seats in parliament.