Direct Democracy: should we have more of it?

Direct democracy, with its origins in Ancient Athens where free adult males were entitled to attend forums to decide community issues, is prevalent in certain jurisdictions today. In Switzerland and a number of American states, mainly in the west of the country, citizens have the opportunity, through initiatives and referenda, to vote on a variety of issues. In this year alone the Swiss electorate have rejected the introduction of a federal minimum wage and approved measures to reimpose EU immigration quotas and to implement a lifetime ban on convicted paedophiles from working with children.
US states where the practice is common, such as California, Colorado and Oregon, often hold multiple votes on varied and sometimes controversial matters. Recent high profile examples are Washington and Colorado’s legalization of marijuana in November 2012.

People in the above jurisdictions are also empowered to put questions to a vote before the voting population, including amendments to the state, or in Switzerland’s case, federal Constitution if a certain number of signatures are gathered over a given period of time. The Swiss have more opportunities to vote than any other country as direct democracy occurs on different levels, at the municipal, cantonal and federal levels.

Should the use of direct democracy be more widespread? Should other countries adopt the blueprint used in parts of the United States and Switzerland? Supporters say it would broaden and strengthen democracy by giving the masses more of a say in the political process. There is also an argument that more direct democracy creates a more politically informed electorate more likely to participate in politics. Political scientists have queried this latter point and considerable research has been conducted into whether US states where direct democracy is commonplace boast higher turnout rates compared to those where the opposite is true. Several studies have found that initiatives and referenda can stimulate turnout in ‘low information,’ or less ‘visible’ electoral contests such as midterm Congressional elections as opposed to higher profile Presidential elections when on the same ballot sheet.

Critics of direct democracy claim that it can thrust large, often complex policy decisions into the hands of ordinary citizens who do not possess the knowledge or expertise to make informed decisions. Earlier this year Switzerland rejected a proposal to purchase Gripen fighter jets from Sweden. Would the vast majority of voting adults have adequate knowledge of the country’s defence requirements? Would voters take the time to study the pros and cons of adopting this measure before casting their votes?

Additionally could the regular use of referenda result in ‘voter fatigue’ – a phenomenon used to describe when there seems too much to vote on. On a given November election day a Californian or Coloradan may be asked not only to vote upon perhaps 8-10 initiatives but also choose their member of Congress, Senator, state officials and, depending on the year, Governor and President as well. By putting more issues on already crowded ballots, would we, the voters, be giving ourselves too much to think about as voting day nears?

I for one believe in spreading the direct democracy process so as to give citizens more of a say in how their region or country is run. By doing this it may make ordinary people feel like a more empowered part of the political process. Yes that would mean transferring certain power from politicians and civil servants and moving it to ‘the masses’ as some may put it, but maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. Politicians are hardly experts on all issues and like most voters they too do not have time to properly scrutinise and analyse each vote they make. They are swayed by their own beliefs and ideologies (and not to mention the party whipping system) just as us mere mortals outside of politics are. That is not to say that legislatures should be redundant but governments could offer referenda on matters that would prompt constitutional change and allow citizens to petition and gather signatures on issues to be put before voters in a way similar to the initiative process described above.

Of course if more countries, such as my native Britain, were to better embrace direct democracy, there would be plenty to discuss as to how it would operate. (How long would supporters of a particular measure to be put on the ballot have to collect signatures for instance?) Whatever the terms might be I’m sure many of us would welcome the further, more frequent opportunities to effect change that the greater use of direct democracy would give us.