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4.1 Direct Democracy

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.

Learning Objectives

In this section, you will learn:

  1. What democracy means.
  2. What the difference is between direct and indirect democracy.
  3. Ways that direct democracy plays a role in contemporary government.

The precise definition of democracyDirect rule by the people; also often used to mean any government system in which people get to vote in free and fair elections. is direct rule by the people. In a true democracy, the people would vote directly on whatever comes before the state—laws, amendments, and decisions by government. If your class votes for a take-home exam instead of an in-class test, that would be an example of democracy. And anything that invites people to participate in decision-making in some meaningful way, such as elections, can be said to be democratic. But that’s not the same thing as a democracy. Why does this matter? First, words should have meaning, so that when we talk about politics, for example, we’re all speaking the same language. When Americans call their government a democracy, they are also implying that they are directly in control of government. It probably would surprise many of them to learn that the Founding Fathers, about whom so many American citizens like to wax nostalgic if not poetic, thought that ordinary citizens should have a definite but limited role in directly controlling the government. Calling the government a democracy may also lead to unrealistic expectations of how government works and how quickly it responds. In fact, most of the modern “democracies” are designed to be a little bit slow and a little bit unresponsive. In this chapter, we’ll see why.

The usual example of a true democracy is ancient Athens. The word democracy derives from Greek roots, “demos” (people) and “kratis” (power). Athens, still the capital of modern Greece, was the richest and most powerful of Greek citystates, at a time when Greece was divided into dozens of competing tiny states. Athens had democratic elements in its government from about 500 BCE off and on until the Romans effectively conquered Greece in the Second Century BCE. Other Greek city-states had democratic governments, but Athens is the one about which we have the best information.

At its peak, ancient Athens had between 250,000 and 400,000 people (estimates vary), of whom as many as two-thirds were slaves. Only free male citizens (who had completed military training) were allowed to participate actively in politics, so that only about 20 percent of the male citizens could actually vote. And, unlike a true democracy, they didn’t vote on everything; they elected councils above them to handle some decisions. But big decisions, such as going to war, were made by the assembly, a monthly gathering of eligible citizens. The assembly had a quorum (the minimum number needed to be present for the decisions to count) of 6,000, making it one of the broadest-based governing bodies in history.

This is what we now call direct democracy, in that the people, however defined, make government decisions directly. Direct democracyGovernment mechanisms by which citizens can vote directly on laws and financing measures for various levels of government. has the virtue of including more people and giving them a voice, and the people aren’t always wrong. Others have suggested that there’s a price in giving everybody a voice. The challenge of direct democracy for Athens is the same challenge that direct democracy faces today: Leaving decisions to people who may not be paying enough attention, and may get caught up in the passion of the moment, can lead to bad decisions. For the Athenians, that meant throwing out good leaders in favor of demagogues (candidates and leaders who say what people want to hear, as opposed to, perhaps, what they need to hear), and entering wars that succeeded only in squandering Athens’ blood and treasure. So, as with most ideas in politics, direct democracy involves trade-offs.

Contemporary Direct Democracy

Direct democracy is still with us today, nonetheless. In nearly 90 nations, and in the United States, people do sometimes vote en masse on laws. In the U.S., 27 states have some form of initiatives and referenda, which are tools of direct democracy.


InitiativesA proposal for a new law, coming directly from the people and usually requiring a minimum number of signatures from registered voters to qualify for the ballot. allow people to propose laws directly, either to the voters as a whole (direct initiative) or to state legislatures (indirect initiative). With a direct initiative, the people vote, and if it passes, the measure becomes law. With an indirect initiative, the measure goes first to the state legislature, which typically can pass the measure into law; ignore it, in which case it goes to the people for a vote; or pass their own alternative, which goes on the ballot along with the original measure. This brings voters into a gray area, since state constitutions don’t always make clear what happens if both measures pass.

Initiatives usually require some number of signatures of registered voters to make it on the ballot. In 18 states, voters can use the initiative process to amend state constitution.

Direct ballot measures tend to peak when the economy is soft; in the U.S there were 183 measures from the people on state ballots in 2010, but only 34 in 2011. In the latter year, 22 of those passed. In 100 years of initiative history, Oregon (351) and California (329) have had the most initiatives on the ballot, by far.

In the U.S., initiatives grew out of the frustration of voters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who found themselves unable to budge state governments on various issues. They saw state government as too beholden to powerful interest groups such as mining and railroads, and saw the initiative process as a convenient end-around maneuver to get past legislatures that appeared to be locked down by lobbyists.

As with everything in government, initiatives have been used for good and for greed (which is which naturally depends on your point of view). Citizens have used the initiative process to make the political process more transparent, to increase funding for schools and various other public programs, and to require more training for child-care providers. They have also been used to cut taxes, raise taxes, decriminalize marijuana, limit abortion, and, in Oklahoma, make English the official language of the state. Citizens certainly have the right to ask for these things. But when citizens in successive years raise spending on schools but cut taxes (as they did in my state, Washington), you should begin to get an idea of the challenges of the initiative process. Voters may not be paying enough attention to recognize that simultaneously raising spending and cutting revenue may not be very good policy.

A good example of the mixed blessings of initiatives is California’s Proposition 13, passed in 1978. By this initiative, citizens of California amended the state Constitution to limit future property tax increases by no more than 2 percent. Property taxes tax property owners based on the assessed value of their land and buildings. In some ways, the tax is a relic of the 19th century, when land was indeed a good measure of people’s wealth. Now that very few of us are farmers, this might not be the case. Nonetheless, property taxes continue to be a major source of revenue for state and local governments. The trade-offs in Prop 13 should be fairly obvious: Property owners were protected from rising tax rates in the often-booming California real estate market, since rising property values would otherwise mean higher taxes for property owners. Voters also were concerned that retired people could be priced out of their homes as property values and taxes continued to rise. On the other hand, state and local government have been starved for cash ever since, particularly local governments such as cities and school districts. Critics also say it interferes with the housing market since people are less likely to sell their homes (a change of ownership means a new baseline assessment for tax value; otherwise the baseline is the home value in 1975). So while it might have saved California taxpayers more than $500 billion, some of that money might have gone to things people say they want, like good schools. Clearly, it’s a trade-off.

Meanwhile, initiatives have another shortcoming. For most initiatives, you get an up-or-down vote, and the initiative is passed into law, unchangeable for a couple of years before a legislature can refine it. Contrast that with the legislative process, in which a proposed law (a bill) is discussed, debated and amended before it becomes law, and subject to change as soon as somebody recognizes that it doesn’t work as planned.

Finally, although they are called citizen initiatives, increasingly they are a tool of people with money. Courts have allowed paid signature-gatherers, a great help when you might need 200,000-300,000 valid signatures of registered voters to get a measure on the ballot. Campaigns are increasingly funded by interest groups with an axe to grind, with money coming from out-of-state both for and against measures that, ostensibly, are to be decided by the people of that state. While everyone has a right to her or his opinion, and the freedom to express that opinion as they see fit, big-money initiative campaigns seem a little different than what the original reformers had in mind.


ReferendaA measure referred by a legislature directly to the people, or a measure from the people, seeking to overturn something already passed by the legislature. (the proper plural of referendumA measure referred by a legislature directly to the people, or a measure from the people, seeking to overturn something already passed by the legislature., also sometimes called plebiscitesA measure referred by a legislature directly to the people, or a measure from the people, seeking to overturn something already passed by the legislature.) are another form of direct democracy, available in 24 U.S. states and more than 30 countries. Referenda allow legislatures to put things before the people for a vote, such as constitutional amendments and tax measures. (Every state except Delaware requires a vote by the citizens to approve constitutional amendments.)

Referenda also allow citizens to force a measure passed by a legislature onto the ballot, usually with an eye to overturning that measure. Often this means there’s an interest group that wants a new law changed, because it takes time, live bodies and money to mount a successful referendum campaign. This usually features an expensive campaign in which the law is painted as a threat to mom, decency and the republic, when it may in fact just be a threat to that particular industry. We may be for or against businesses, unions or environmental groups who want to repeal a law, but it is their right to pursue their interests.

Referenda have been used to make big decisions around the world. Voters in Scotland and Wales used referenda to decide to create their own parliaments in 1997. Voters in Norway said no to joining the European Union in 1994. Voters in Quebec, Canada chose not to secede from Canada in 1980 and 1995. Voters in Montenegro voted to leave what was left of Yugoslavia in 2006. And white voters in South Africa in 1992 voted overwhelmingly to formally end the policy of apartheid, in which South Africans of color were not allowed to vote.

In the U.S., in 2011 Maine voters used a referendum to overturn a new law that banned same-day registration for voters (register to vote and get to vote on election day). Voters in Ohio overturned a new law that limited unionized workers’ collective bargaining rights. In 2010, in Washington state, voters approved the repeal of a 5-cent tax on bottled water and other “non-food” consumables. So whatever we think of the measures, referenda give voters a chance to just say no.

Bonds and Levies

State and local governments in the United States in particular use direct democracy in another way—votes on special levies and bond measures for schools and other public facilities. LeviesA property tax measure put before voters to approve funding, usually for local special purpose governments such as fire and school districts. are usually additions to the local property tax—so many cents per $1,000 of assessed value of the property. BondsA way of financing capital projects such as new schools. Local government sell bonds to borrow the money, but only after voters have approved the taxes to pay for the bonds. are a way in which government all over the world finance projects. If an investor buys a bond, they are lending the government agency money, which means they get an interest payment, plus their original investment back. Governments use this method of financing when they need a lot of cash up front—if the local school district is building a new high school, the contractor has to get paid so he or she can pay for the materials and pay all the workers. Investors may be willing to lend money to the school district because it’s a relatively safe investment. So in a bond-issue election, local governments are asking voters to promise to pay additional property tax to pay back the investors who buy the bonds.

U.S. state constitutions often require such votes, which force local governments to explain to voters why they need the money and what they will do with it. Some states add turnout requirements to such special levies, which is fundamentally undemocratic if you think about it. If you are against the levy, and if there’s a turnout requirement, the best thing you could do is stay home. Normally, not voting means you have surrendered your voice in this matter; turnout requirements effectively reward not voting. Others argue that it simply puts more pressure on school, water and fire districts to work harder to prove to voters that they need the money. Turn-out requirements for school levies were eased in Washington state after many school districts found themselves getting “yes” votes by as much as 90 percent, only to see the levies fail because not enough voters showed up at the polls. You will have to decide which argument makes more sense to you. Some bond measures also require a super-majority, so that the measure needs a 60 percent yes-vote to pass.

Key Takeaways

  • Democracy literally means “direct rule by the people.” Sometimes this is referred to as “direct democracy.”
  • Direct democracy existed only partially in ancient Greek citystates such as Athens.
  • Direct democracy is found in initiatives, referenda, and local levy and bond issue votes.


  1. Does your state allow initiatives and/or referenda? If so, how have these been used to change the law in your state?
  2. How much do local governments in your area, such as school or fire districts, rely on special levies for funding? Is there a minimum turn-out requirement for approval?