The structure of a direct democracy government is simple, and yet profound. The people have the final say in every decision that the government makes. That is because in this government structure, the people are the government.
It is a government structure that is viewed as the purest form of absolute freedom in the world today outside of the ability for each individual to self-govern themselves. In a direct democracy, every person is given a vote on every decision that must be made. After the votes are tabulated, the majority percentage of voters will have their recommendation implemented by those with the authority to do so.
The closest large-scale example in our world today of a direct democracy is Switzerland, which employs elements of this government structure. The cantons of Glarus and Appenzell Innerrhoden in Switzerland are the only known pure forms of direct democracy that exist.
Some communities in the United States, established during the colonial period, still carry on traditions of direct democracy with open town meetings.
Because this is such a unique government structure, there are certain pros and cons of a direct democracy that can be examined.
List of the Biggest Pros of a Direct Democracy
1. There is no need to register to vote in a direct democracy.
In the two cantons where a direct democracy is employed, every citizen receives a ballot whenever a decision must be made. That is because ballots are sent to every address automatically. That eliminates the need for a specific registry of authorized voters, like one would find in other democracies, because everyone is already qualified to vote. That saves time for all parties involved.
2. It demands participation from each person to be successful.
A direct democracy does not work unless everyone is involved in the voting process in some way. No voice is ignored. People can express their approval or their rejection of an idea without a threat of government interference. In theory, a direct democracy could enact compulsory voting laws that require citizens to vote in each election or face penalties for a failure to do so. As of 2013, 11 democracies in the world enforce compulsory voting laws, or 50% of the 22 countries that have such a system.
3. Citizens can propose political changes at any level.
In Switzerland, citizens can propose changes to the constitution through a popular initiative or ask for optional referendums to be held on any law that is voted on in any legislative body. This occurs on the federal, cantonal, and municipal levels. A simple majority is considered sufficient for changes at the municipal or the cantonal level. A double majority is required for votes that involve constitutional issues.
4. Governments at all levels must offer information transparency.
Voters cannot authentically decide a course of action to take if they are not presented with complete and accurate information. This structure of government requires that all citizens be given the same information and shared within an equal timeframe. That makes it possible for decisions to be made quickly and forward progress to be achieved. Votes can be requested in real-time or they can be limited to certain times throughout the year. In the two Swiss cantons, direct votes are held an average of 4 times per year.
5. Direct democracies encourage personal accountability.
Every citizen within a direct democracy is responsible for their own contribution to the governing process. Instead of political double-talk or communication semantics that try to downplay personal responsibility, each person has an established and clear voting record regarding each issue. It gives individuals a chance to learn from their mistakes. This structure also provides people the chance to discuss issues with others without the threat of political conflict that is often seen in other democracies.
6. There is a certain level of discipline that a direct democracy demands.
Within a direct democracy, each citizen is able to advocate for what they think the best course of action should be. They are also given the opportunity to convince others that their way is the best. No issue is restricted within this government structure. Even when someone finds themselves in the minority or a supermajority is not large enough to pass a specific amendment, the freedom to be able to live under such a structure provides a measure of satisfaction which voters in other democracies may not be able to experience. Through that satisfaction, the discipline to move forward, even if one does not get their way, is present.
7. A direct democracy encourages cooperation.
Achieving a supermajority for major changes to the government can be a difficult proposition. It can be difficult enough in the United States to achieve a 60% majority that is required for something like a tax increase. Within a direct democracy, cooperation and networking is encouraged because that is the only way to achieve a desired outcome. Different groups and affiliations come together to negotiate, so there is the possibility of achieving something that works for everyone.
8. It eliminates low voter turnout issues that govern as the majority.
In the United States, voter turnout rates of the voting age population rarely exceed 60%. Since 1932, it has happened only 4 times. In 1996, just 49% of the voting age population cast a ballot in the presidential election. Turnout rates have been declining in the U.S. since the 1850s, when nearly 80% of the voting age population cast a ballot. With low voter turnout, a minority of the population votes for the majority. In a direct democracy, this issue disappears. Everyone has an equal voice and clear majorities are required, based on the population, not the number of people who actually went to the polls.
9. A direct democracy allows for immediate replacement of government officials.
In most governments, an elected official serves a specific time in office. There may be options to recall if certain actions or behaviors from the official can be proven. In a direct democracy, a petition can be generated by the people to remove someone who is not performing in office immediately. This is another step toward honest government representation.
List of the Biggest Cons of a Direct Democracy
1. There is a deeper time investment required for decisions.
Between January 1995 and June 2005, citizens of Switzerland vote a total of 31 times, covering 103 questions of national governance. The number of votes on regional or cantonal issues is not even tracked because it happens so often. Because every citizen gets a say on every issue that faces the governing authority, there is a deeper time investment that must be planned for under this government structure. Not only must there be time scheduled for each vote, there must also be time for debate on each vote. In a true direct democracy, no one is authorized to make a unilateral decision.
2. A direct democracy isn’t a cheap form of government.
In Switzerland, the cost of the average election campaign is about $42 million. Additional money is spent to protect the validity of each election by installing quantum cryptography to stop data corruption and hacking. In the United States, more than $6.5 billion was spent on the 2016 elections. Even if each question posed in a direct democracy is 10% of these costs and elections are limited to once per quarter, these are direct expenses that come straight out of the taxpayer’s accounts.
3. Direct democracies have large indirect costs to consider as well.
Whenever there is a vote held, there are indirect costs that affect the economy. In the United States, every national vote creates a cost of over $500 million in lost employment productivity. Each vote costs about $50 million in the U.S. just to count, even with automated voting. Since every decision in a direct democracy is put up for a vote, these costs would be faced repetitively, in addition to the overall campaign costs that might be in play.
4. A lack of honesty throws the entire system away.
An election is usually a competition between people who want something and people who do not want something. Even in a direct democracy, the individuals who have greater wealth are going to be able to purchase more influence for their campaign compared to those who do not have access to assets. Then, since every decision is put to a vote, each ballot measure becomes another opportunity for corruption to influence the governing process. There must be a structure in place that requires honesty within a direct democracy for it to work as it should.
5. It requires all citizens to maintain an open perspective.
Everyone has moral absolutes that they are unwilling to compromise on. Within a direct democracy, this is a luxury that may not be possible. Even if someone has deeply held convictions about a certain subject, proposal, or amendment, a supermajority of the population would eliminate the objections of the individual. Without a perspective that is truly open at the individual level, a direct democracy struggles to succeed. Those who are defeated, but feel they are in the moral right, typically do not comply with the wishes of the supermajority.
6. There is a need to have educated voters.
For a direct democracy to be a beneficial form of governing, it requires its population to be well-informed on every subject matter. That means voters must educate themselves about each issue as it comes up. In a true direct democracy, that would even involve military decisions, international treaties, and local law enforcement guidelines. Voters would need to research regulatory pros and cons, taxation pros and cons, and every other role that government plays in their lives. Otherwise, a group of uneducated voters could lead a nation toward an unwanted path, especially if they were a large enough group to form a supermajority.
7. There is an absolute need for participation.
In a direct democracy, one cannot simply choose not to vote. Even if someone feels apathetic to a certain decision of amendment, their role is clearly defined. They must cast a ballot for or against the measure presented.
8. It can lead to population shifts.
Imagine living in a community where people who think like you are outnumbered 3-to-1. With every election, a supermajority is achieved that implements legislation with which you don’t agree. You still get to vote, but your perspective is dismissed because it is in a true minority. What are you going to do? If you’re like most people in this situation, you’ll move to a community that shares more of your views. This can lead to population shifts that can be burdensome, especially to smaller communities or regions.
9. The will of the majority is not always the correct action to take.
Here’s an extreme example. Let’s say you live in a direct democracy and an amendment is proposed that legalizes murder. You vehemently disagree with this amendment. You tell everyone to vote it down. You might even offer statistics or pros and cons to consider. When the vote comes, there are enough to have the amendment pass. Now suddenly, anyone can kill anyone else and it is legal. Just because the majority may vote for something doesn’t mean it is the correct action to take on behalf of the entire society.
10. Voting usually involves money.
When people vote, they do so with their own self-interests in mind. Those self-interests usually involve money, namely how much they can earn by voting a certain way. Because people usually vote with their own interests first, it can be difficult to establish a true direct democracy. There are some decisions that would require personal spending, like infrastructure repair or emergency medical care services. For a transition to a direct democracy to occur, many households would have to change how they vote and that could be very difficult for some to do.
11. The majority can create tyranny within a nation.
The United States’ founding fathers refused to adopt a direct democracy system because they saw that the majority could enforce a dangerous tyranny. This occurs because the majority of the electorate can, and often will, place its own best interests above and at the expense of the minority. As this issue progresses, it creates minority oppression that is comparable to what a tyrannical government would cause. This is why Switzerland introduced the concept of the double majority, which is patterned after the U.S. House of Representative and the Senate. The people may vote for a measure, but if the cantons do not agree, then the measure does not pass.
12. It creates a niche industry that can involve paying for votes.
Limited direct democracy initiatives have worked their way into a handful of states where initiative activities can direct elected representatives to vote on or create laws regarding certain ideas from the people. About 60% of all initiative activity in the U.S. occurs in just 6 states. Because signatures allow an initiative to be approved, a niche industry has developed in these states that will pay people to collect signatures. In extreme examples, some people may even be paid to contribute their signature to the provision. To stop abuses of this system, states like Oregon have made it against the law to pay signature gatherers a piece-rate that is based on each signature gathered.
The biggest pros and cons of a direct democracy allow people to have more freedom and a secure voice in their government. It could also allow a majority of people to oppress certain groups in a harmful manner. Because of the numerous challenges involved, most direct democracies only occur at the local level.
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