Direct Democracy Pros and Cons: Where Both Sides Lean

Avatar Brittany Hopkins Contributor
Direct Democracy Pros and Cons: Where Both Sides Lean

Direct democracy pros and cons: A sizzling topic amid calls for political reform. Is more direct say in governance the answer? Here’s what both sides think. To have stories like this and more delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.

Direct Democracy, In Brief

Direct democracy pros and cons rouse renewed interest as people worldwide increasingly support democratic reform. Some in the US believe increasing direct democratic participation could bolster confidence in a splintered political system. Others believe America should protect the nation’s representative democracy.

Before further dissecting these viewpoints, what exactly is direct democracy? In theory, it’s the purest form of democracy. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, direct democracy describes political systems and processes that allow people to participate directly in decision making. Through direct democracy, people — rather than candidates, parties, or electing bodies — vote on policy issues.

Direct democratic political systems are rare. Switzerland’s semi-direct democracy offers the closest example. Although, most representative democracies do allow direct democratic participation in some ways. This includes voting on referendums, citizen initiatives, and recalls. In the US, many New England towns still hold town meetings to vote on local budgets and policies.

The UK’s withdrawal from the EU provides an example of direct democracy in recent years. In 2016, 51.9 percent of UK and Gibraltar citizens voted to leave the European Union. While the referendum wasn’t legally binding, the government did what the majority asked.

Direct Democracy Pros

Now, let’s examine direct democracy pros and cons, starting with pros.

First, direct democracy allows people to speak for themselves. Reducing or getting rid of intermediaries between the people and governance can reduce concerns about corruption and increase political participation.

Secondly, each vote cast in a direct democratic process holds the same weight. Through popular voting, people know their votes are considered equally. This can strengthen confidence in the political system. In contrast, US experts offer differing opinions on how much votes from each state help decide the country’s presidential elections — leading to voter frustration.

Lastly, direct democratic systems and processes give people more insight and control over governmental functions, like spending. “Swiss research shows that giving citizens a direct say over how their taxes are spent leads to lower public debts, more cost-efficient services, and even less tax evasion,” Reuters reports. An expert in democratic studies also notes that “… because Swiss citizens feel they can control politicians’ spending through referendums, they are more prepared to give the government money and have a more positive attitude towards the state.”

Direct Democracy Cons

Next, let’s examine disadvantages of direct democracy. 

First, it requires high levels of citizen preparation and participation. Rather than rely on representatives with experience in public policy, voters must make more effort to understand and stay informed on a wide breadth of issues. This can overwhelm voters and discourage participation. Furthermore, opponents argue that well-funded lobbyists can easily mislead the public and sway the vote.

Similarly, direct democratic processes can lead to costly and legally flawed decisions. Critics point to California, the nation’s first state to employ direct democratic processes. Some believe that voter efforts to limit the CA property tax system through a citizen initiative resulted in costly, negative impacts for the property market and local government budgets. Additionally, the Los Angeles Times notes that California voters successfully passed ballot measures the legal system rejected — wasting people’s time, energy, and money.

Lastly, direct democratic decision making can enable the majority to infringe on the rights of minorities. This is a concern in Switzerland, where voters banned mosque minaret construction and facial coverings. Voters approved both pieces of legislation despite local and international human rights concerns.

Direct Democracy Pros and Cons: Where Both Sides Lean

According to Pew Research, nearly 70 percent of Americans support direct democratic processes like citizen assemblies and referendums. Still, people on the left and right differ with respect to the prospect of increasing direct democratic participation in the US.

On the left, Democrats continually call to replace the Electoral College with a direct popular vote for president. The party nearly succeeded in 1970. Democratic lawmakers tried again in 2005 and 2016 — in light of presidential race results not reflecting the popular vote — without success. 

On the right, conservative Republicans reject calls to increase direct democratic participation. One big conservative argument states the US is a republic, not a democracy. Those who agree with this thinking maintain the nation’s forefathers set forth a mixed republic to ensure the government represented all people, not the majority. The Heritage Foundation says efforts to reform the system “weaken our republican customs and institutions.”

One of the greatest current concerns for both parties: ensuring free and fair elections amid technological advancements and foreign interference. However, Republicans and Democrats are locked in a bitter feud over how to secure elections without stepping on voter rights.