A direct democracy is the purest form of this governing structure. Instead of having elected representatives decide on initiatives or policies, every person in that community or country has the opportunity to choose what happens.
Even though it is not unusual for someone to see the United States government as a direct democracy, it is actually a representative democracy. That is because people vote for elected officials who will then enact policies and initiatives on their behalf.
The direct democracy approach removes the intermediary. There are two primary forms practiced today, which are called deliberative or participatory democracy. The actions required of the people might involve the creation of laws, the use of sortition, and the passing of executive decisions. Conducting trials is a necessary component in this form of government as well.
Direct democracies are rare in today’s world. Towns in Vermont can decide local affairs through this process by the use of a town meeting. Several other states in New England allow this process as well. Some cantons in Switzerland follow this structure as well. There are several advantages and disadvantages to consider with this governing process that are worth reviewing.
List of the Advantages of a Direct Democracy
1. Every vote carries the same weight in a direct democracy.
When the government relies on representation for policy creation, then there are pockets of the population where the equity of each vote does not count the same. This issue is especially prevalent in the electoral college of the United States. During the 2016 Presidential election, citizens who voted in Wyoming had 3.6 times more influence than voters in California because of the structure of the election.
A direct democracy still operates on a majority vote, but it is up to the individuals to participate in that process. This advantage means that more people in each community are knowledgeable about current events because of the requirement to be politically active.
2. Governments cannot hide information from the people.
A direct democracy involves everyone. That means there are no secrets to worry about since government control is always at the local level. Without this transparency, there would be no way for the voting process to be accurate. The open lines of communication help everyone know what to do, when to do it, and which outcomes to expect from that work.
Even a representative democracy doesn’t have this advantage. There are some weird government secrets out there, like how Julia Child was making recipes for shark repellent before becoming a world-famous chef. You wouldn’t need 200,000 people to storm Area 51 either because we’d all have access to the base.
3. There is more accountability in a direct democracy structure.
Even though the approval rating for Congress has dipped to just 9% in recent years in the United States, about 90% of elected officials can use their incumbent status to secure another win. Without the presence of a direct democracy, there is no way to hold people accountable for their actions. Even a recall process is not a guarantee that the people will have the final say in what happens.
In 2012, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin faced a recall election after voters collected over 900,000 signatures to initiate the process. Walker faced the same opponent he had in 2010 and won by a greater margin the second time. This election is the only one in U.S. history where the governor and lieutenant governor both faced recall efforts and stayed in office. A direct democracy would simply ask the people what they wanted to do, and then enact policies to create those outcomes.
4. People are typically happier when they live in a direct democracy.
Because the administration operates at the satisfaction of the society, there is usually greater happiness with life and the structures of government when using the direct democracy composition. If people are not wholly in consensus with one another, there is an understanding that each individual has their voice represented on every issue.
There isn’t a need to rely on constant communication with a representative in the hopes that the elected official will vote in a way that benefits the will of the people as is done under the current governance structures of the United States.
5. Any officials that work on behalf of the people can be recalled at any time.
Once an official is chosen to perform a specific job, then they will serve out their full term unless their behavior is incompetent or illegal in most government arrangements. Under the formation of direct democracy in society, a community can instantly launch a recall on anyone who does not act in the best interests of everyone.
This advantage keeps everyone more honest when dealing with the policy needs of the community. It is present because the power exists with the general population instead of a single person.
6. More cooperation occurs under the structure of direct democracy.
Instead of separating into echo chambers, direct democracy promotes cooperation and discussion. Everyone can voice their ideas freely because each person has an equitable stake when debating policies, laws, or procedures. Since this personal representation receives promotion, there are fewer remonstrances, rebellion, and uncertainty for everyone. Each person is in a position where they can work with their next-door-neighbor to find outcomes that benefit everyone.
This advantage does an excellent job of reducing the influence of special interests or wealth-based lobbying in the government structure.
7. Direct democracy is an exceptionally cost-efficient form of governing.
The cantons of Switzerland that still use the principles of direct democracy hold their outside parliament gatherings once annually. Appenzell Innerrhoden has their voting day on the final Sunday of April each year, while Glarus holds their polling method during the first Sunday in May. Participants must produce a voting card to join the inner circle.
Even though it seems exclusionary, both cantons allow anyone to view the legislative work if they want to do so. It is during this time that leaders are chosen for the year, votes are held on the various concerns brought forward, and then each vote receives passage or denial based on what everyone in the community believes to be the best course of action to take.
8. Each person is responsible for taking actions that improve their quality of life.
Each person can advocate for their interests under the structures of direct democracy. Even if that idea is only something that would benefit themselves or their family, having the chance to voice an opinion without fear of consequences allows for an individualized representation of specific issues. This structure makes it more manageable for the government to circumvent the decisions where small demographic minorities would carry the responsibilities of the majority because of the amount of transferred information.
9. Direct democracy alters the purpose of a vote.
Other forms of democracy allow people to vote on specific issues. Only a handful of governments let the general population decide which referendums or ideas can make the ballot without some form of validation. Instead of treating the right to vote as a privilege, a direct democracy allows everyone to have a say at all times. That means it is a responsibility instead. This advantage is why there can be higher participation rates in some regions when decisions must be made. Although some people won’t care about the outcome, anyone who does will be at the roll call.
List of the Disadvantages of a Direct Democracy
1. The cost of a direct democracy must be taken into consideration.
People must take time out of their day to participate in direct democracy activities. When you consider the size of a canton in Switzerland, then you’re comparing the population to that of an average-sized community in the United States. If a country as large as the U.S. were to implement this system, the cost of lost productivity would be enormous. During the average election day, over $500 million is lost to accommodate voting rights.
When you add the cost of ballots, counting, and distribution of information, each referendum could cost $2 billion or more. That would likely limit the number of meetings each month to one, limiting the amount of work that could be accomplished.
2. The issues that are up for discussion are for local impacts.
The annual gathering for a direct democracy in Glarus dates to 1387. These assemblies helped to create the current Swiss system where almost (but not all) every policy gets reviewed by voters before receiving permission for implementation. When Reuters reviewed this system in 2012, there were 6,000 people gathered in a public square to vote in issues that included a reintroduction of free burials, banning attack dogs, and whether the local transportation budget needed to be raised.
When people have a direct say over how their taxes are spent, it can lead to cost-efficient services, less tax evasion, and fewer public debts. It can also avoid the critical issues that would be managed under other forms of democracy.
3. There is still a threat of vote manipulation to consider with a direct democracy.
Each election faces the chance of having those with higher socioeconomic standing gaining more influence over those who control lesser resources. In direct democracy structures, every decision is up for debate. That means there are many more opportunities for lobbying groups to be directly involved in the voting process. These special interests could even manipulate how voters see policy information during its release.
We must recognize the complexity of so many problems in today’s society. This disadvantage leads to a remarkably high level of possible influence that minority groups may never be fully protected.
4. Each voter must be fully informed of the matters that are up for a vote.
There is always the chance that voters could vote for an undesirable resolution that succeeds because there is a lack of information available to evaluate the idea. A government using the direct democracy approach must have a self-disciplined population that understands the impact of current events.
There are times when voters in the minority must swallow their pride if a vote doesn’t go their way. It is the only way that a direct democracy continues to get word done. This disadvantage can eventually cause some people to give up because they feel like their voice is never heard.
5. There must be a high level of participation for direct democracy actions to be effective.
The total population of the canton of Glarus in Switzerland was about 40,000 people as of December 2017. When 6,000 people show up to hold their parliamentary debate and issue votes, then there is a participation rate of 15% achieved. Representative democracies can experience triple the number of voters going to the polls. Communities in the United States that practice this form of governing experience a similar disadvantage. Unless there is a willingness of a clear majority to participate in these activities, a small minority of the people will dictate how everyone lives.
6. Direct democracies don’t have a way to make fast decisions.
When representatives are elected to create policy and make decisions, then the centralized processes make it faster and easier to implement the work that needs to be done. The country or community can respond to emergencies faster, defend themselves against attack, and manage the daily needs of life comfortably. Direct democracy requires individual participation for everything.
That means every decision must go to the people for a vote. That includes sending money to people in need or authorizing military use. By the time a final tally becomes possible, it could be too late to do anything about what is going on.
7. The majority isn’t obligated to protect the rights of the minority.
Direct democracies base their decisions on the vote of the general public. That means their will is what becomes the basis of every outcome. In a 2017 episode of The Orville, a societal vote determines the outcome of one of the characters when his behavior is deemed inappropriate by law enforcement. If the vote reaches a majority level, then the character would receive the corrective action.
Majority rule means that the minority is always at a disadvantage in a direct democracy. The actions of the people can exclude racial groups, prefer a specific religion, or create other societal areas where one group gets to be stronger than all others.
8. Most decisions in a direct democracy are based on self-interest.
People typically vote for what they think is the best outcome for themselves and their family. There is little consideration offered for those who have different needs. This disadvantage is even prevalent in representative democracies. Most people will not support an idea that requires a personal sacrifice for the betterment of society. Up to 1 in 5 people in some elections don’t make up their mind on an issue until they must vote at the ballot box. This disadvantage means that the outcomes are always unpredictable, so no one can anticipate what work will need to be done.
9. There are questions of oversight that must be answered in a direct democracy.
Representative democracies create committees, sub-committees, and oversight groups to oversee the various segments of society offer equal access. The goal of this work is to protect the rights of the minority without restricting the opportunities for the majority to grow. A direct democracy must appoint people to specific jobs if there is any oversight needed. That means the parliament must choose someone to implement policies and procedures as needed. This disadvantage means that there is a fine line between a parliament of people choosing someone to work a specific job and a group of individuals voting in their community to select a government representative.
10. High levels of instability are common in direct democracies.
Even though a majority directs decisions in direct democracy structures, this disadvantage means that the majority of people are not always making the correct choice. Votes happen because of emotional responses to the issues instead of using a coherent overview of the problems presented to the community.
When people vote emotionally instead of logically, then choices involve instant gratification more than long-term benefits. This disadvantage is one of the primary reasons why there are only a handful of existing direct democracy structures operating today.
Verdict on the Advantages and Disadvantages of a Direct Democracy
A direct democracy offers society the most freedom to choose how everyone can live their life. There are never any problems with elected officials deciding to move in opposition to what the community wants to do. The price of that extra freedom is a slow implementation of policies and procedures, which can create issues during times of emergency.
That is why this governing structure is usually kept to local matters. A more formal, semi-direct democracy is used at the national level in these circumstances to facilitate asset transfers, defensive needs, and other high-level concerns.
The advantages and disadvantages of a direct democracy are more theoretical since early Athens is the largest city-state to use this option for governing. In Switzerland, the cantons of Glarus and Appenzell Innerrhoden continue to practice this structure as well. It can be useful to let citizens have more power, but it can also cause people outside of the majority to never have a say in how they live their life.
Keith Miller has over 25 years of experience as a CEO and serial entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur, he has founded several multi-million dollar companies. As a writer, Keith's work has been mentioned in CIO Magazine, Workable, BizTech, and The Charlotte Observer. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send our content editing team a message here.