Is direct democracy effective? Yes, if it is citizens who start the process


In the first of a series of posts on the merits of referendums Lucas Leemann writes that landmark votes like the recent EU referendum may be the most atypical – and arguably worst – examples of direct democracy. He indicates that in cases where citizens have the ability to launch initiatives and call for referendums, it can play an important role in resolving problems on non-redistributive issues. This post was originally published before the EU referendum on Democratic Audit and is re-posted now with permission. 

While landmark votes, like the recent EU referendum, attract a lot of attention and spur debates on direct democracy they might actually be the most atypical forms of direct democracy.

Direct democracy can enrich purely representative systems and have a beneficial impact on various outcomes. For most readers, the most relevant effect of direct democracy will be on policy congruence – i.e. the extent to which policies reflect the wishes of a majority of citizens. The optimistic promise of direct democracy is exactly that it will yield policies that are ‘more’ democratic, in the sense that they are supported by a majority of the citizens.

We can distinguish two important types of direct democracy: one where governments decide to grant their citizens the right to vote on a specific measure and another where the citizens can force the government to hold such a vote. The question of who can start the direct democratic process may appear secondary at first sight but it is actually one of the most important institutional details.

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