Introduction we can understand it as a demand


‘Ngawethu!’ were the fervent chants that reverberated across South Africa in
the 1990s, as Nelson Mandela forged the path towards an apartheid-free land.

Connoting to ‘Power!’, ‘It is ours!’, this is only one of countless
manifestations of the democratic ideal of ‘power by the people’. Such calls
seem to arise during times of deep-seated social, political or economic
conflict between the political elites of nations and their citizens. Thus, we
can understand it as a demand for decision-making to be returned from
governments to the people.


First and
foremost, it is important to determine whether the political institutions of
modern democracies are compatible with the democratic ideal of ‘power by the
people’. In doing so, this essay will detail the theory of direct democracy,
specifically through the analysis of referendum and initiative processes.

Furthering this, explorations of the combined use of direct and representative
democracy in countries such as the United States, Australia and the United
Kingdom will aid in illustrating the merits and downfalls of each. Ultimately,
leading to a conclusion on the feasibility of direct democracy in the modern


Direct and representative democracy

democracy can be defined as a political system that permits ‘ordinary citizens
to vote directly on laws rather than candidates for office’ (Matsusaka, 2005,
p.187). Contrastingly, representative democracy is when the legislature
undertakes actions, such as policy-making, on behalf of the citizens (Gailmard,
2005, p.3). This distinction is crucial as there is concern that the schism
between elected representatives and the population is not reconciling quickly
enough to cope with the advancements of modern society. With the escalation of
these sentiments, the two types of democracies will inevitably collide- the
opposing arguments of which will be assessed.


Referendums and initiatives

The two main
instruments of direct democracy are referendums and initiatives. The former
refers to votes on approved laws that are initiated by a governing body, the
result of which is typically legally binding upon the body that authorised it
(Leduc, 2002, p.73), while the latter refers to new laws that are proposed by
ordinary citizens by way of collecting a minimum number of signatures from
eligible voters (Matsusaka, 2005, p.187). This is known as the direct effect of
direct democracy, whereby intermediary institutions are excluded and
information is not filtered before reaching citizens. Both processes politicise
society, by demanding public participation in policy-making and promoting
candid interaction with the state. 


Rise of direct democracy

democracy has ostensibly weakened the duality of democracy being the governing
‘of the people’ and ‘by the people’. Although voters select their preferred
representatives during elections, these representatives are free to vote on
public policies in the way they want rather than what electors want. Mishandling
of such responsibility has resulted in a ‘democratic deficit’, whereby turnout
in election voting and political participation has significantly declined
(Leduc, 2002, p.70). As shown in Figure 1, voter turnout in European elections
has been decreasing between 1979-2014, reaching an all-time low of 42.61% in
2014 (Banks, 2014). This political apathy can be explained by widespread
disaffection regarding the reluctance of representative democracy to evolve based
on society’s needs and wants.


1: European election turnouts (Europarl, 2014)


positive attitudes towards referendums and initiatives are gaining ground. When
asked whether ‘Referendums and citizen initiated referendums are good things’,
54% of Canadians, 50% of New Zealanders and 70% of Americans answered
affirmatively (Bowler, Donovan and Karp, 2002). Indeed,
shifts to direct democracy often take place when the government cannot keep up
with dramatic social, economic and political changes in society. As we are now faced with a shift from an industrial
economy to one based on information technology (Tolbert, 2003), gross wealth
inequalities are being magnified worldwide. As
shown in Figure 2, over 70% of the global adult population own less than
$10,000, while only 8.6% of the same demographic own more than $100,000. Understandably, many are no longer content to sit
idly by while a purportedly representative government continues to act in their
own vested interests.


Figure 2: Global wealth
distribution (, 2017)


Voter median theorem

representative democracies, policy congruence refers to the degree to which
public policies reflect the majority will of the electorate (Leemann and
Wasserfallen, 2016). Within this theorem, the government and voters move along
a continuous scale that indicates their degree of support for a specific policy


legislature is ‘unconstrained’ when it passes laws at its ideal point, and when
there is no initiative that the proposer and voters prefer to the legislature’s
ideal policy. On the other hand, the legislature is ‘constrained’ when voters’
preferences are also moderate, as it renders the difference between the
legislature’s ideal policy and the proposers’ best proposal inconsequential
(Gerber, 1996, pp.107-108). This allows proposers to posit a more appealing
proposal, after which the legislature will be more motivated to pass laws that
are closer to the voters’ ideal point. Both scenarios err towards the
preferences of the median voter and serve to enhance policy congruence. 


This is the
indirect effect of direct democracy, whereby political elites anticipate
preference deviations and adjust their policies to follow majority voter

the greater the preference divergence, the more influence initiatives and
referendums are likely to have on policy congruence (Leemann and Wasserfallen,
2016, p.750). Where representative democracy falters, the threat of direct
democracy is enough to keep it in check without needing to actually be


Issue bundling

representative democracies, ‘log-rolling’ is when legislatures ‘bundle’ issues
in large bills that are voted on as a package. Through this, legislators are
able to trade votes and gain approval of top priorities by giving support to
other issues. While streamlining discussion and negotiation can make the policy-making process more efficient, it also
means that candidates run on a large variety of issues and citizens are not
always fully aware of the individual positions being adopted (Matsusaka, 2005).

Referendums and initiatives provide the opportunity to unbundle specific issues
and reduce the likelihood of voters electing candidates who may only take their preferred position on some issues but not on others.


The choice
between direct and representative democracy should then be between individual
policy voting and package policy voting. As it is, referendums often take place
on general issues that fit uncomfortably into the left-right division of party
politics, for fear of it invoking internal splits otherwise. Indeed, the
subject matter of referendums can be said to fall into three main categories:
constitutional issues, territorial issues and moral issues (Butler and Ranney,
1994, p.2). In 2016 alone, several referendums within
these categories took place, including the referendum on refugee quotas in
Hungary and the peace deal referendum in Columbia. Similarly, Ireland
will be voting on a referendum in 2018 regarding the revocation of their
constitutional ban on abortion- a testament to the type of shifting values that
can catalyse the increased reliance on direct democratic action. The
contentious nature of such issues allow for referendums to lend greater
legitimacy to policies, since a popular vote of endorsement is necessary before
the government can enact any legislation.


and central policies, though, remain in the control of the legislature for the
sake of consistency and coherency (Budge, 2006, p.9). For instance, one of
Margaret Thatcher’s primary goals as prime minister of the United Kingdom was
to moderate inflation, by implementing higher interest rates and taxes. Evidently,
these are usually medium-term issues that citizens are unlikely to have the
expertise to decide upon, thus are more suitably managed by a governing body.


In this
sense, the co-existence of individual policy voting and package policy voting serves
to augment rather than subvert democracy, by separating voting issues according
to aptness.


Large-scale democracies

One of the
main appeals of representative democracy is the fact that it can regulate the
process of debating and voting, which direct democracy is thought incapable of
doing in large-scale democracies. This is demonstrated by Bahamas’ gender
equality referendum in 2016, during which false rumours spread that voting
‘yes’ could lead to same-sex marriage. With a 79% vote against the gender
non-discrimination bill, the soundness of the outcome was tenuous as many votes
were likely cast on the basis of support for same-sex marriage rather than
equal rights for men and women (Lowe and Suter, 2016). Without the legislature
ensuring the conveyance of relevant and accurate information, voters are easily
manipulated, which could result in low-quality decisions that do not truthfully
reflect their views. Precisely, it is the influence of such external forces
that gives rise to the volatile and unpredictable nature of referendums and
initiatives. For example, polls from the Scottish independence referendum of
2014 predicted a close victory of ‘Yes’ votes, but ultimately resulted in a
55%-45% majority for ‘No’ votes (Tucker, 2014). Moreover, the absence of
corrective measures may place long-term public welfare at higher risk of
impulsive yet irreversible public decisions. On the other hand, citizens are
more insulated from deceptive campaign information in representative
democracies, as systematic discourse and compromise is encouraged in formal
parliamentary settings.


However, in
this current age of technology, the proficiency of political institutions in
executing direct democratic procedures should no longer be underestimated. With
the introduction of ‘Blockchain’- a technology that verifies online
transmissions- many countries have begun digitalising governance and democratic
participation. In Estonia, online crowdsourcing platform Rahvaalgatus allows
users to discuss and vote on policy proposals online. Brazil, too, has replaced
physical signature collection with online vote casting (Softness, 2017). Both
countries showcase a shift towards direct democracy, with technology enabling
interactive debate and voting amongst physically separated citizens. Hence,
political institutions of modern democracies are not in fact unaligned with
direct democracy- they simply need to be updated to adapt to the modern world.


Voter competence

this, another fear of direct democracy is that ordinary citizens do not have
the interest or expertise to draft and vote on legislation. An example of this
is Colorado’s ‘English for the Children’ initiative in 2002, in which the ambiguity
of the language used in the initiative would have also eliminated ‘English as a
Second Language’ programs and contradicted the very essence of the initiative
(Bozzo and Irvine, 2010). Therefore, formulation and deliberation procedures
need to be re-evaluated to allow more focused discussion surrounding the
contents and implications of initiatives. Citizens should also be able to
suggest amendments and consider alternatives before voting on an initiative.

After all, it is only through active, prolonged participation that citizens can
gain the experience needed to make more informed political decisions.


voters are shown to still be able to cast accurate votes by using informational
cues such as recommendations from family and interest groups. In a study
conducted by Arthur Lupia in 1994 concerning five California insurance
propositions, uninformed voters were still able to mirror the voting patterns
of the informed voters simply by knowing the positions that interest groups had
taken on the measures. Meanwhile, uninformed voters without any informational
cues were unable to do so (Matsusaka, 2005). This would suggest that the voter
competence argument is not as dire as it may seem- a comprehensive
understanding of the subject-matter of a proposal is unnecessary as long as
voters are made aware of applicable informational cues. Anyhow, voter
incompetence is a critique of not just direct democracy, but democracy as a
whole. If we are to follow this line of reasoning, it could be argued that
uninformed voters are also likely to make mistakes when voting on candidates,
since candidates represent ‘bundles’ of issues that are even more difficult to
discern from than single issue ballots (Matsusaka, 2005, p.198).

Tyranny of the majority

it is contested that direct democracy jeopardises minority rights – without the
legislature acting as an intermediary institution, there are no checks on the
power of the majority. Indeed, individuals who vote tend to not only be those
with higher levels of education and wealth, but are also those who feel most
ardently about the issue at hand (Matsusaka, 2005). As demonstrated in
Britain’s 2016 EU referendum, there was a positive correlation between counties
with higher levels of education and income and ‘remain’ votes- 50% of
Wandsworth, Richmond upon Thames and Cambridge’s population hold higher
education qualifications and gave 2/3 of their votes to ‘remain’, while only
14.2% of Norfolk’s population hold higher education qualifications and contributed
71.5% of their votes to ‘leave’ (Barr, 2016). This tends to leave the interests
of the moderates and less well-off either unrepresented or misrepresented,
which could impact the credibility of the outcome.


direct democracy can also strengthen minority rights where representative
democracy fails to do so. Such is the case in Australia, wherein the Turnbull
government launched the Marriage Equality Postal Survey to facilitate the
introduction of a same-sex marriage bill. With 61.6% of Australians approving a
change in the legislation (Karp, 2017), direct democracy has provided
representative democracy the exigency with which to legislate appropriately.

Although, it should be noted that the lawfulness of the postal survey was
challenged twice in High Court based on the general belief that ‘fundamental
rights should never be put to a popular vote’ (Davey and Karp, 2017). This
epitomises the long-feared tyranny of the majority, which is understandable
after 22 unsuccessful attempts by the Federal Parliament of Australia to
legalise same-sex marriage between September 2004 and October 2017 (Mckeown,
2017). Perhaps, though, this victory for the LGTBQ community would suggest that
the ability of direct democracy to defend minority rights has strikingly
improved- a valuable tool to have when the legislature is too insulated from
popular public opinion.


racial minorities overwhelmingly support the initiative process in the United
States, with 57% of Blacks and 73% of Latinos in favour of it (Matsusaka,
2005), implying that many ethnic minorities already feel cynical about the
legislature’s willingness to protect their interests. This trend is highlighted
by the fact that 64% of the American population believed that the government
was ‘run for the benefit of all people’ in 1964, as compared to the mere 19% in
2015 (Pew Research Center, 2015). The difference in attitude towards direct
democracy in Australia and the United States may be attributed to the fact that
the population of the latter has had more extensive experience with the
processes than the population of the former. Indeed, South
Dakota has been practising direct democracy since 1898, whereas Australia has
only held 44 national referendums since 1901. This could indicate that
prolonged usage and familiarity can lead to more confidence and trust in direct





democracy, like any form of governance, indubitably has its flaws. Namely, the
lack of intermediary institutions has a tendency to cause particular detriment
to minority groups. Nevertheless, direct democracy has proven to be paramount
in keeping governments in check and providing citizens with a more substantial
role in policy-making. Direct democracy has also repeatedly refined the
workings of representative democracy through its indirect effects. Countries
like the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom, embody this
coexistence. Supplementing this, feats of technology have aided existing
political institutions in modernising according to the demands of direct


As such,
there is ample reason to believe that the political institutions of modern
democracies are aligned with direct democracy. In fact, in a world where
distrust in representative government and political disengagement is so rife,
the principal issue should no longer be whether representative or direct
democracy is more suitable. Instead, consideration should be given to how to modify and improve said political
institutions in such a way as to more thoroughly integrate direct democratic
rule into modern democracies. This being said, representative democracy should
not be entirely abandoned- the two types of democracy function to complement
and strengthen one another. In turn, reinforcing the democratic process and
ensuring that the democratic ideal of ‘power by the people’ is not undermined
by ‘power of the people’.