Issue Report: Direct democracy

What are the pros and cons of direct democracy?

Direct democracy is the term used to describe particular forms of voting within any democratic system. The term direct democracy is commonly used to refer to three distinct types of vote: 1. referendums, which are votes on a specific single issue or piece of legislation (instead of a party or candidate); 2. citizen initiatives, whereby citizens can propose new legislation or constitutional amendments by gathering enough signatures in a petition to force a vote on the proposal; and recalls, under which citizens can force a vote on whether to oust an incumbent elected official by collecting enough signatures in a petition. The common characteristic of these mechanisms is that they place greater power in the hands of voters, as opposed to elected representatives. Direct democracy is, therefore, frequently seen as conflicting with representative democracy, in which voters elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf. By contrast, under direct democracy, voters can themselves make decisions about specific policies or issues. The main questions framing this long-standing debate include: Do citizens make good laws? Are they informed enough and capable of understanding the nuances of policies, or are representatives better at doing this? Does representative government produce reprsentative leaders that make representative laws, or is direct democracy better at this? This, and many other questions frame the overarching question and debate: Is direct democracy beneficial to democratic government?

Citizen decisions: Are citizens good at making policy?

Citizens are competent enough to make good policy

As Lupia and Mc Cubbins argue, voters do not necessarily need perfect information to make reasonable decisions. They can rely on information shortcuts and cues – and even if they are sometimes affected by their emotions their decisions do not have to be worse than the politicians’ ones. As an example we can look to Switzerland where direct democracy works perfectly well as the people are able to decide even on complex issues regarding taxes or other “complicated” policies.

Citizens are best at determining their own interests.

While politicians try to determine what’s in the best interests of citizens, citizens themselves are better at making these kinds of determinations.

Citizens have a right to sign petitions, vote on referendums

Arizona State Rep. Kyrsten Sinema said in 2008 in regards to initiatives intended to ban racial quotas: “People have a right to sign a petition, hear the arguments and then vote.”[2]

Direct democracy encourages citizens to educate themselves.

It is certainly true that direct democracy requires that citizens participate actively in the political process and that they inform themselves on the issues surrounding them. This creates a strong incentive for citizens to inform themselves on the important issues of the day.

Being part of the process is a requirement in a democracy.

Citizens identify themselves more closely with the government policies when they are allowed to cast votes. Only when they do so is the government a “government by the people, of the people and for the people.” This is not a privilege for citizens. It is a responsibility.

Nothing wrong about NIMBYism through initiatives.

The people are right when they oppose a policy in their neighbourhood that would worsen their quality of life. The politicians who advocate new nuclear power plants or motorways are usually unwilling to have them at their own back-garden; why should the ordinary people be different? In summary, NIMBYism is beneficial for society because it prevents wrong decisions made by people who wouldn’t have to carry the burden of living in a particular area.

Citizens are not informed enough to make good policy

James Boyle. "The initiative and referendum: its folly, fallacies, and failure." (1912

“a small minority of the total number of the voters and human nature being what it is probably a large proportion of the signers have not got the slightest knowledge of what they signed It is notorious that men can be easily persuaded to sign petitions for almost anything.”

Voters tend to be self-centered in a direct democracy.

Voters tend to look after their self-interests, rather than the bigger picture of what needs doing. NIMBYism (“Not in my back yard” thinking) is an example of this, where voters avoid making personal sacrifices in “their own back yard” even if the sacrifices are essential to the common good.

Voters are too apathetic to make good laws

The average voter may not be interested in politics and therefore may not participate. In a system with citizen initiatives and direct democracy, high voter apathy may make the subsequent decisions unrepresentative of broader public opinion or possibly just bad policy.

Direct democracy fosters emotional decision-making.

When presented with a single yes/no question, usually without any information on the issue at hand, people tend to make spur-of-the-moment decisions based on emotions, driven by anger, fear and hatred. For example, in the first Irish referendum on Lisbon Treaty, 15% (!) of the voters made up their mind on the day of the referendum itself. [3]

Direct democracy disables unpopular but necessary decisions

The problem with direct democracy is that the general public can hardly ever think about the issues at hand in the long-term. People may be aware of the fact that something needs to be done about some burning issue, however, they are unwilling to propose any plan if it entails some discomfort to them. An example of this is called NIMBYism: “Not In My Backyard” point of view. In practise it occurs when a broadly necessary thing, such as wind-turbines, are rejected “in my back-yard” due to selfish interests. Elected leaders can help push these kinds of necessary decisions through.

Direct democracy often results in radical measures

“There seems to be little capacity for discrimination [in Direct Democracy]. Again very radical measures and many indeed of dangerous tendencies are not always rejected by the people or if they are there are not a few cases in which this result seems to have been brought about by accident rather than by serious moral purpose.”

General statements against direct democracy

Having to vote on every issue is a burden on citizens.

One con of direct democracy is that the people have to vote on EVERY issue, which would take time away from your day.

Vs rep government: Is DD superior to rep government?

Rep democracy produces un-representative leaders.

Individuals elected to office in a representative democracy tend not to be demographically representative of their constituency. They tend to be wealthier and more educated, and are also more predominantly male as well as members of the majority race, ethnic group, and religion than a random sample would produce. They also tend to be concentrated in certain professions, such as lawyers. Elections by district may reduce, but not eliminate, those tendencies, in a segregated society. Direct democracy would be inherently representative, assuming universal suffrage (where everyone can vote).

Direct democracy helps check political class

Politicians are the victims of many things: be it their selfish interest (or bias) which may result in rearing to corruption, or just the pressure that rich and well-organized interest groups exert to persuade the politician that it is in his electorate’s interest to pass (or vote down) the legislature in a move which is in all actuality detrimental to the majority of his voters (see a book by Fareed Zakaria Illiberal Democracy Home and Abroad). That means that often the politicians do not represent the people of the electorate, and thus act in contradiction to democracy. Direct democracy places a check on these shortcomings.

Direct democracy is too slow and inefficient.

Another objection to direct democracy is that of practicality and efficiency. Deciding all or most matters of public importance by direct referendum is slow and expensive (especially in a large community), and can result in public apathy and voter fatigue, especially when repeatedly faced with the same questions or with questions which are unimportant to the voter.[4]

Direct democracy makes politicians timid and ineffective

James Boyle. "The initiative and referendum: its folly, fallacies, and failure." (1912)

“The greatest of our American authorities Prof Oberholtzer says in the new edition 1911 of The Referendum in America that it will make officials timid shambling ineffective men.”

Opponents cannot amend/refine bills in direct democracy

James Boyle. "The initiative and referendum: its folly, fallacies, and failure." (1912)

“the modern Initiative is far inferior in principle to the ancient Pure Democracy for the latter theoretically anyhow possessed the principle of majority rule.[…] The authority to formulate a law is equal to the power to pass it if the latter power does not include the right to change it or amend it before it is passed. Therefore under the Initiative and Referendum the majority 92 or 95 per cent find themselves in this predicament they must either accept the bill which the 8 per cent has drafted for them on its own motion and without consulting any other authority or proportion of citizens. The majority must either do this or they must succumb to Philosophic Anarchism, the absence of any Law except that of the individual will.”

Direct democracy enables unfortunate minority rule

James Boyle. "The initiative and referendum: its folly, fallacies, and failure." (1912)

“An overwhelming objection to the system is that wherever it has been tried it has resulted in minority rule Even in Switzerland the most favorable State possible for the system Direct Legislation is always by minorities.”

Citizens prefer electing reps over passing referendums

James Boyle. "The initiative and referendum: its folly, fallacies, and failure." (1912)

“citizens take far greater interest the election of men than they do in the passage Laws All observers native and foreign are impressed with the apathy of voters to the propositions submitted to them.”

Democracy: Does direct democracy uphold democratic principles?

Direct democracy promotes democratic principles.

Initiatives, recalls, and referenda are the ultimate opportunity to the citizens to say “Hang on a minute, this is not in my interest at all”, and for citizens to directly shape the policies that affect them. This is the ultimate form of democracy, and is certainly more democratic than a pure representative democracy.

Political parties are unfortunate consequence of rep. democracy.

The formation of political parties is considered by some to be a “necessary evil” of representative democracy, where combined resources are often needed to get candidates elected. However, such parties mean that individual representatives must compromise their own values and those of the electorate, in order to fall in line with the party platform. In direct democracy, political parties have virtually no effect, as people do not need to conform with popular opinions.[5]

Direct democracy checks the tendency toward package deals.

Given that voters decide on single issues instead of a package of policies that might not fully be in the voters’ interests, the people are freer to choose what is the best for them. In a representative democracy, however, these package deals are usually comprehensive programmes that are altered after the elections are held. That means that politicians from the parties that form a government are free to choose which part of each package works the best – for them.

Direct democracy over-simplifies policies to a "yes/no" vote.

In a representative democracy, laws in the parliamentary bodies undergo a lot of scrutiny, repeated rewritings, curbings, mitigations and other checks that in the end, the law that is passed is usually okay on principle with most of the representatives. These represent all kinds of voters — and indeed, a democratic decision is one that implements the majority decision while keeping all minority rights, even though the result of that may be a little hard to read. However, direct democracy and its means (mostly referenda) need simplification (commonly to yes/no questions). As a result, most things passed by measures of direct democracy are unbalanced and that very often, measures of direct democracy contribute to majority rule without any respect for the minority.

Referenda devalue role of legislative bodies

(“Teach Yourself: Politics”, Peter Joyce): “In some countries (such as France) they were deliberately introduced to weaken the power of parliament. Although they can be reconciled with the concept of parliamentary sovereignty when they are consultative and do not require the legislature to undertake a particular course of action, it is difficult to ignore the outcome of a popular vote when it does not theoretically tie the hands of public policy makers.”

Campaigns for ballot measures often have unfair resource advantages

“Competing groups in a referendum do not necessarily possess equality in the resources which they have at their disposal and this may give one side an unfair advantage over the other in putting its case across to the electorate. This problem is accentuated if the government contributes to the financing of one side’s campaign, as occured in the early stages of the 1995 Irish referendum on divorce.” (“Teach Yourself: Politics”, Peter Joyce)

Referenda are often a malignant form of protestation.

As the post-referendum survey in Ireland shows, one of the reasons people voted against the Lisbon Treaty was that some of them saw it as a good way to protest against the government’s policies (instead of a reason one might expect – that they were against the treaty itself).

Accountability: Does direct democracy improve accountability?

Rep democracy is less accountabile than direct democracy.

Once elected, representatives are free to act as they please. Promises made before the election are often broken, and they frequently act contrary to the wishes of their electorate. Although theoretically it is possible to have a representative democracy in which the representatives can be recalled at any time; in practice this is usually not the case.

Direct democracy avoids appointment of unaccountable officials.

Elected individuals frequently appoint people to high positions based on their mutual loyalty, as opposed to their competence. And, these appointed officials are not appointed by citizens and cannot be recalled by them. In a direct democracy, these officials would be elected by, and could be recalled by, citizens. This means that these officials are much more accountable to citizens and the democratic process.[6]

Direct democracy lacks accountability of decision-making

One of the key pillars of democracy is accountability for decisions that are made. Such accountability exists in a representative democracy, where an elected representative that passes a bill will face the consequences or rewards of the outcome. The voters can vote against the leader in the subsequent election, and generally take actions that hold the leader to account. In a direct democracy of course, conversely, the broad base of voters cannot be held to account for any bad decisions they collectively make.

Bills in rep democracy pass through beneficial committees

James Boyle. "The initiative and referendum: its folly, fallacies, and failure." (1912)

“the advantage of havingureeeived careful scrutiny and the safe guard of having to pass through several Commit tees.”

Direct democracy dulls politicians' sense of responsibility

James Boyle. "The initiative and referendum: its folly, fallacies, and failure." (1912)

“A leading candidate for the Presidential non ination G ov Woodrow Wilson one of our most i learned University educators says that it has dulled the sense of responsibility among legislators without in fact quickening the people to the exercise of any real control of affairs.”

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