Learn About Direct Democracy and Its Pros and Cons

When Everybody Votes on Everything, is it All Good?

Swiss citizens voting
Swiss citizens raise their hands to vote during a "Landsgemeinde" (or Cantonal assembly). Harold Cunningham/Getty Images

Direct democracy, sometimes called "pure democracy," is a form of democracy in which all laws and policies imposed by governments are determined by the people themselves, rather than by representatives who are elected by the people.

In a true direct democracy, all laws, bills and even court decisions are voted on by all citizens.

Direct vs. Representative Democracy

Direct democracy is the opposite of the more common "representative democracy," under which the people elect representatives who are empowered to create laws and policies for them.

Ideally, the laws and policies enacted by the elected representatives should closely reflect the will of the majority of the people.

While the United States, with the protections of its federal system of “checks and balances,” practices representative democracy, as embodied in the U.S. Congress and the state legislatures, two forms of limited direct democracy are practiced at the state and local level: ballot initiatives and binding referendums, and recall of elected officials.

Ballot initiatives and referendums allow citizens to place – by petition -- laws or spending measures typically considered by state and local legislative bodies on statewide or local ballots. Through successful ballot initiatives and referendums, citizens can create, amend or repeal laws, as well as amend state constitutions and local charters.

Examples of Direct Democracy: Athens and Switzerland

Perhaps the best example of direct democracy existed in ancient Athens, Greece.

 While it excluded women, slaves, and immigrants from voting, Athenian direct democracy required all citizens to vote on all major issues of government. Even the verdict of every court case was determined by a vote of all the people.

In the most prominent example in modern society, Switzerland practices a modified form of direct democracy under which any law enacted by the nation’s elected legislative branch can be vetoed by a vote of the general public.

In addition, citizens can vote to require the national legislature to consider amendments to the Swiss constitution.

Pros and Cons of Direct Democracy

While the idea of having the ultimate say-so over the affairs of government might sound tempting, there are some good – and bad – aspects of direct democracy that need to be considered:

3 Pros of Direct Democracy

  1. Full Government Transparency: Without a doubt, no other form of democracy ensures a greater degree of openness and transparency between the people and their government. Discussions and debates on major issues are held in public. In addition, all successes or failures of the society can be credited to – or blamed on – the people, rather than the government.
  2.  More Government Accountability: By offering the people a direct and unmistakable voice through their votes, direct democracy demands a great level of accountability on the part of the government. The government cannot claim it was unaware of or unclear on the will of the people. Interference in the legislative process from partisan political parties and special interest groups are largely eliminated.
  3. Greater Citizen Cooperation: In theory at least, people are more likely to happily comply with laws they create themselves. Moreover, people who know that their opinions will make a difference, they more eager to take part in the processes of government.

    3 Cons of Direct Democracy

    1. We Might Never Decide: If every American citizen were expected to vote on every issue considered at every level of government, we might never decide on anything. Between all of the issues considered by local, state and federal governments, citizens could literally spend all day, every single day voting.
    2. Public Involvement Would Drop: Direct democracy best serves the interest of the people when most people take part in it. As the time required for debating and voting increases, public interest and participation ​in the process would quickly decrease, leading to decisions which did not truly reflect the will of the majority. In the end, small groups of people often with dangerous axes to grind, could control the government.
    3. One Tense Situation After Another: In any society as large and diverse as that in the United States, what is the chance of that everyone will ever happily agree with or at least peacefully accept decisions on major issues? As recent history has shown, not much.