Today, 113 of the world’s 117 democratic countries offer their citizens legally or constitutionally established rights to bring forward a citizens’ initiative, referendum or both. And since 1980, roughly 80 percent of countries worldwide have had at least one nationwide referendum or popular vote on a legislative or constitutional issue.
That is just at the national level. Other major democracies — Germany, the United States and India — do not permit popular votes on substantive issues nationally but support robust direct democracy at the local and regional levels. The number of local votes on issues has so far defied all attempts to count them — they run into the tens of thousands.
This robust democratization, at least when it comes to direct legislation, provides a context that’s generally missing when doomsday prophets suggest that democracy is dying by pointing to authoritarian-leaning leaders like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and U.S. President Donald Trump.
Indeed, the two trends — the rise of populist authoritarianism in some nations and the rise of local and direct democracy in some areas — are related. Frustration is growing with democratic systems at national levels, and yes, some people become more attracted to populism. But some of that frustration is channeled into positive energy — into making local democracy more democratic and direct.
Cities from Seoul to San Francisco are hungry for new and innovative tools that bring citizens into processes of deliberation that allow the people themselves to make decisions and feel invested in government actions. We’ve seen local governments embrace participatory budgeting, participatory planning, citizens’ juries and a host of experimental digital tools in service of that desired mix of greater public deliberation and more direct public action.
There is a back-to-the-future quality to this trend. In ancient times, democracy simply meant an assembly where citizens could discuss and decide public issues. Today, that sort of direct deliberation is only one piece of democracy, a term that stands for a much more comprehensive set of principles and procedural rules, including human rights and the rule of law.
Indeed, direct democracy, along with the right to vote for representatives, is itself a human right. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right “to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives.”
Confusion about the meaning of democracy and direct democracy is one reason for the myth that democracy is in decline globally. When we say direct democracy, we are actually talking about two different families of democratic votes.
The first is the citizen-initiated forum, in which people propose new laws or popular referendums intended to stop (or amend) legal decisions taken by elected officials. To do so, citizens gather support from a certain number of citizens to trigger a vote.
The other form of direct democracy involves government-initiated, or top-down, votes on issues. These can include mandatory referendums based on a change of legal provision or other kind of decision — on a bond issue, a treaty or even territorial status or independence.
There can also be government-initiated popular votes voluntarily put forward by elected or non-elected rulers. Such referendums are called plebiscites and can be highly problematic, like in Venezuela when they are manipulated to consolidate the rule of a government with waning legitimacy. The systems surrounding initiatives and referendums are often much newer than our representative systems and are not particularly well-developed in many countries.
Many direct democracies fall short in two areas: deliberation and integration. Ballot initiative systems, like those in California and Arizona for example, don’t offer space, time and supportive infrastructure for citizens and leaders to deliberate together to develop and consider a measure before voters decide upon it. And all over the world, many initiative and referendum instruments are not well-integrated into the representative systems.
Ideally, the timing of ballot measure votes, and the rules under which such measures operate, should match those of the legislative system. After all, voters casting ballots on initiatives are acting as lawmakers themselves. Switzerland offers perhaps the world’s best integrated system. But too many direct democracies resemble California’s, where the initiative process allows an almost complete circumvention of representative government.
There seems little doubt that direct democracy will become a more dominant feature of self-government, which complements representative democracy but also compensates for its waning legitimacy in our age of the distributed power of social networks.
The key challenge ahead will be to design new practices and institutions to ensure that this form of governance is properly mediated so that it enhances the public good, is not captured by organized special interests or does not merely express the prejudices or immediate wash of voters’ emotions.