Direct democracy (also known as pure democracy) is a form of democracy in which people decide (e.g. vote on, form consensus on, etc.) policy initiatives directly, as opposed to a representative democracy in which people vote for representatives who then decide policy initiatives. Depending on the particular system in use, it might entail passing executive decisions, the use of sortition, making laws, directly electing or dismissing officials and conducting trials. Two leading forms of direct democracy are participatory democracy and deliberative democracy.
Most countries that are representative democracies allow for three forms of political action that provide limited direct democracy: referendum (plebiscite), initiative, and recall. Referendums can include the ability to hold a binding vote on whether a given law should be rejected. This effectively grants the populace which holds suffrage a veto on a law adopted by the elected legislature (one nation to use this system is Switzerland). Initiatives, usually put forward by members of the general public, compel the consideration of laws (usually in a subsequent referendum) without the consent of the elected representatives, or even against their expressed opposition. Recalls give public the power to remove elected officials from office before the end of their term, although this is very rare in modern democracies. Writers with anarchist sympathies have argued that direct democracy is opposed to a strong central authority, as decision making power can only reside at one level – with the people themselves or with the central authority. Some of the most important modern thinkers who were inspired by the concept of direct democracy are Cornelius Castoriadis, Hannah Arendt, and Pierre Clastres.][
The earliest known direct democracy is said to be the Athenian Democracy in the 5th century BCE, although it was not an inclusive democracy; women, foreigners and slaves were excluded from it. The main bodies in the Athenian democracy were the assembly, composed of male citizens; the boule, composed of 500 citizens; and the law courts, composed of a massive number of juries chosen by lot, with no judges. Out of the male population of 30,000, several thousand citizens were politically active every year and many of them quite regularly for years on end. The Athenian democracy was not only direct in the sense that decisions were made by the assembled people, but also in the sense that the people through the assembly, boule and law courts controlled the entire political process and a large proportion of citizens were involved constantly in the public business. Modern democracies do not use institutions that resemble the Athenian system of rules.
Also relevant is the history of Ancient Rome, specifically the Roman Republic, beginning circa 509 BCE. The ancient Roman Republic had a system of citizen lawmaking, or citizen formulation and passage of law, and a citizen veto of legislature-made law. Many historians mark the end of the Republic on the passage of a law named the Lex Titia, 27 November 43 BC. Yet Rome carried out many aspects of democracy, both direct and indirect, from the era of Roman monarchy all the way to the collapse of the Empire. Indeed the Senate, formed in the first days of the city, lasted through the Kingdom, Republic, and Empire, and even existed past the decline of Western Rome, and its structure and regulations continue to influence legislative bodies worldwide.
Modern-era citizen lawmaking began in the towns of Switzerland in the 13th century. In 1847, the Swiss added the "statute referendum" to their national constitution. They soon discovered that merely having the power to veto Parliament's laws was not enough. In 1891, they added the "constitutional amendment initiative". The Swiss political battles since 1891 have given the world a valuable experience base with the national-level constitutional amendment initiative (Kobach, 1993). In the past 120 years, more than 240 initiatives have been put to referendum. The populace has been conservative, approving only about 10% of these initiatives; in addition, they have often opted for a version of the initiative rewritten by government. (See Direct democracy in Switzerland below.) Another example is the United States, where, despite being a federal republic where no direct democracy exists at the federal level, almost half the states (and many localities) provide for citizen-sponsored ballot initiatives (also called "ballot measures" or "ballot questions") and the vast majority of the states have either initiatives and/or referendums. (See Direct democracy in the United States below.)][
Some of the issues surrounding the related notion of a direct democracy using the Internet and other communications technologies are dealt with in e-democracy and below under the term electronic direct democracy. More concisely, the concept of open source governance applies principles of the free software movement to the governance of people, allowing the entire populace to participate in government directly, as much or as little as they please.][
Athenian democracy developed in the Greek city-state of Athens, comprising the central city-state of Athens and the surrounding territory of Attica, around 500 BCE. Athens was one of the very first known democracies. Other Greek cities set up democracies, and even though most followed an Athenian model, none were as powerful, stable, or as well-documented as that of Athens. In the direct democracy of Athens, the citizens did not nominate representatives to vote on legislation and executive bills on their behalf (as in the United States Congress), but instead voted on these items in their own right. Participation was by no means open, but the in-group of participants was constituted with no reference to economic class and they participated on a big scale. The public opinion of voters was remarkably influenced by the political satire performed by the comic poets at the theatres.
Solon (594 BCE), Cleisthenes (508/7 BCE), and Ephialtes (462 BCE) all contributed to the development of Athenian democracy. Historians differ on which of them was responsible for which institution, and which of them most represented a truly democratic movement. It is most usual to date Athenian democracy from Cleisthenes, since Solon's constitution fell and was replaced by the tyranny of Peisistratus, whereas Ephialtes revised Cleisthenes' constitution relatively peacefully. Hipparchus, the brother of the tyrant Hippias, was killed by Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who were subsequently honored by the Athenians for their alleged restoration of Athenian freedom.
The greatest and longest lasting democratic leader was Pericles; after his death, Athenian democracy was twice briefly interrupted by oligarchic revolution towards the end of the Peloponnesian War. It was modified somewhat after it was restored under Eucleides; the most detailed accounts are of this fourth-century modification rather than the Periclean system. It was suppressed by the Macedonians in 322 BCE. The Athenian institutions were later revived, but the extent to which they were a real democracy is debatable.
In Switzerland, single majorities are sufficient at the town, city, and canton level, but at the national level, double majorities are required on constitutional matters. The intent of the double majorities is simply to ensure any citizen-made law's legitimacy (Kobach, 1993).
Double majorities are, first, the approval by a majority of those voting, and, second, a majority of cantons in which a majority of those voting approve the ballot measure. A citizen-proposed law (i.e. initiative) cannot be passed in Switzerland at the national level if a majority of the people approve but a majority of the cantons disapprove (Kobach, 1993). For referendums or propositions in general terms (like the principle of a general revision of the Constitution), the majority of those voting is enough (Swiss constitution, 2005).
In 1890, when the provisions for Swiss national citizen lawmaking were being debated by civil society and government, the Swiss adopted the idea of double majorities from the United States Congress, in which House votes were to represent the people and Senate votes were to represent the states (Kobach, 1993). According to its supporters, this "legitimacy-rich" approach to national citizen lawmaking has been very successful. Kobach claims that Switzerland has had tandem successes both socially and economically which are matched by only a few other nations. Kobach states at the end of his book, "Too often, observers deem Switzerland an oddity among political systems. It is more appropriate to regard it as a pioneer." Finally, the Swiss political system, including its direct democratic devices in a multi-level governance context, becomes increasingly interesting for scholars of European Union integration
Direct democracy was not what the framers of the United States Constitution had in mind. They saw a danger in majorities forcing their will on minorities. As a result, they advocated a representative democracy in the form of a constitutional republic over a direct democracy. For example, James Madison, in Federalist No. 10 advocates a constitutional republic over direct democracy precisely to protect the individual from the will of the majority. He says,
John Witherspoon, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, said "Pure democracy cannot subsist long nor be carried far into the departments of state – it is very subject to caprice and the madness of popular rage." Alexander Hamilton said, "That a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure, deformity."
Despite the framers' intentions in the beginning of the republic, ballot measures and their corresponding referendums have been widely used at the state and sub-state level. There is much state and federal case law, from the early 1900s to the 1990s, that protects the people's right to each of these direct democracy governance components (Magleby, 1984, and Zimmerman, 1999). The first United States Supreme Court ruling in favor of the citizen lawmaking was in Pacific States Telephone and Telegraph Company v. Oregon, 223 U.S. 118 in 1912 (Zimmerman, December 1999). President Theodore Roosevelt, in his "Charter of Democracy" speech to the 1912 Ohio constitutional convention, stated "I believe in the Initiative and Referendum, which should be used not to destroy representative government, but to correct it whenever it becomes misrepresentative."
In various states, referendums through which the people rule include:][
There are now a total of 24 U.S. states with constitutionally-defined, citizen-initiated, direct democracy governance components (Zimmerman, December 1999). In the United States, for the most part only one-time majorities are required (simple majority of those voting) to approve any of these components.][
In addition, many localities around the U.S. also provide for some or all of these direct democracy governance components, and in specific classes of initiatives (like those for raising taxes), there is a supermajority voting threshold requirement. Even in states where direct democracy components are scant or nonexistent at the state level, there often exists local options for deciding specific issues, such as whether a county should be "wet" or "dry" in terms of whether alcohol sales are allowed.][
In the U.S. region of New England, many municipalities (styled towns in contrast to cities) practice a very limited form of home rule, and decide local affairs through the direct democratic process of the town meeting.
Democratic theorists have identified a trilemma due to the presence of three desirable characteristics of an ideal system of direct democracy, which are challenging to deliver all at once. These three characteristics are participation – widespread participation in the decision making process by the people affected; deliberation – a rational discussion where all major points of view are weighted according to evidence; and equality – all members of the population on whose behalf decisions are taken have an equal chance of having their views taken into account. Empirical evidence from dozens of studies suggests deliberation leads to better decision making.
However, the more participants there are the more time and money is needed to set up good quality discussions with clear neutrally presented briefings.][ Also it is hard for each individual to contribute substantially to the discussion when large numbers are involved.][
For the system to respect the principle of political equality, either everyone needs to be involved or there needs to be a representative random sample of people chosen to take part in the discussion. In the definition used by scholars such as James Fiskin, deliberative democracy is a form of direct democracy which satisfies the requirement for deliberation and equality but does not make provision to involve everyone who wants to be included in the discussion. Participatory democracy, by Fiskin's definition, allows inclusive participation and deliberation, but at a cost of sacrificing equality – because widespread participation is allowed there will rarely be sufficient resources to compensate people who give up their time to take part in the deliberation, and so the participants tend to be those with a strong interest in the issue to be decided, and therefore will often not be representative of the overall population. Fiskin instead argues that random sampling should be used to select a small but still representative number of people from the general public.
Fiskin concedes it is possible to imagine a system that transcends the trilemma, but it would require very radical reforms if such a system is to be integrated into mainstream politics. To an extent, the Occupy movement attempted to create a system that satisfies all three desirable requirements at once, but at a cost of the resulting system being widely criticized for being slow and unwieldy.
Electronic direct democracy (EDD), also known as Direct Digital Democracy (DDD), is a form of direct democracy which utilizes telecommunications to facilitate public participation. Electronic direct democracy is sometimes referred to by other names, such as open source governance and collaborative governance.
EDD requires electronic voting or some way to register votes on issues electronically. As in any direct democracy, in an EDD, citizens would have the right to vote on legislation, author new legislation, and recall representatives (if any representatives are preserved).][
Technology for supporting EDD has been researched and developed at the Florida Institute of Technology, where the technology is used with student organizations. Numerous other software development projects are underway, along with many supporting and related projects. Several of these projects are now collaborating on a cross-platform architecture, under the umbrella of the Metagovernment project.
EDD as a system is not fully implemented in a political government anywhere in the world, although several initiatives are currently forming. Ross Perot was a prominent advocate of EDD when he advocated "electronic town halls" during his 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns in the United States. Switzerland, already partially governed by direct democracy, is making progress towards such a system. Senator Online, an Australian political party running for the Senate in the 2007 federal elections, proposed to institute an EDD system so that Australians can decide which way the senators vote on each and every bill. A similar initiative was formed 2002 in Sweden where the party Aktivdemokrati, running for the Swedish parliament, offers its members the power to decide the actions of the party over all or some areas of decision, or alternatively to use a proxy with immediate recall for one or several areas. Since early 2011 EDD parties are working together on the Participedia wiki E2D
The first mainstream direct democracy party to be registered with any country's electoral commission [checked against each country's register] is the UK's People's Administration Direct Democracy party. The People's Administration have developed and published the complete architecture for a legitimate reform to EDD [including the required Parliamentary reform process]. Established by musicians (including Alex Romane) and political activists, the People's Administration advocates using the web and telephone to enable the majority electorate to create, propose and vote upon all policy implementation. The People's Administration's blueprint has been published in various forms since 1998 and the People's Administration is the first direct democracy party registered in a vote-able format anywhere in the world – making transition possible through evolution via election with legitimate majority support, instead of potentially through revolution via violence.
Some anarchists (usually social anarchists)][ have advocated forms of direct democracy as an alternative to the centralized state and capitalism; however, others (such as individualist anarchists) have criticized direct democracy and democracy in general for ignoring the rights of the minority, and instead have advocated a form of consensus decision-making. Libertarian Marxists, however, fully support direct democracy in the form of the proletarian republic and see majority rule and citizen participation as virtues. The Young Communist League USA in particular refers to representative democracy as "bourgeois democracy", implying that they see direct democracy as "true democracy".
A democratic school is a school that centers on providing a democratic educational environment featuring "full and equal" participation from students and staff. These learning environments position youth voice as the central actor in the educative process by engaging students in every facet of school operations, including learning, teaching, leadership, justice, and democracy, through experience. Adult staff support students by offering facilitation according to students' interests.
Sudbury model of democratic education schools are run by a School Meeting where the students and staff participate exclusively and equally. Everyone who wishes to attend can vote, and there are no proxies. As with direct democracy elsewhere, participants are usually only those who have an interest in the topic.
Summerhill School in England has operated a direct democracy approach to decision making for over 80 years and has often come into conflict with the UK government as a result. The school won an appeal to the high court 1999 after it was threatened with closure after which the joint statement confirmed that: "The minister recognised the school had a right to its own philosophy and that any inspection should take into account its aims as an international 'free' school ... both sides went on record as agreeing that the pupils' voice should be fully represented in any evaluation of the quality of education at Summerhill and that inspections must consider the full breadth of learning at the school – learning was not confined to lessons".
Some notable contemporary movements working for direct democracy via direct democratic praxis include: