There are many forms of Direct Democracy, it isn’t a “ONE SIZE” fits all. All of these SOLUTIONS can be adapted and improved upon in Canada and other Countries. Citizens should design their own so that they are ensured that it will be the best fit for their Countries.
As long as we implement the i-ACUSE “Citizen’s Convention of Consent Declaration Contract Form” We will remain in control of our Governance.
Traditional democratic institutions are failing. It’s time for an upgrade.
DIRECT DEMOCRACY is not set in stone or only one way. We get to choose how we want to do things as long as a high enough consensus of people agree. In today’s society, we have everything we need to create a secure viable solution even without having to leave our homes…
However, we need to be aware of how citizens usually get manipulated to ensure that we don’t get too much of a “SAY” even in Direct democracy. This means that we will have to be vigilant in our own education concerning our independent/collective governance world wide to ensure that everything we do in each Country is for the People and that we are not being manipulated again by the 1%, our Politicians, the Corporations and the United Nations.
There are many forms of Direct Democracy. We can choose the consensus to be higher than 50+1 %, up to 100% if we wish depending on the issue. Liquid democracy can be incorporated for people to choose someone else as their proxy vote.
*** Since many Scholars are not always of the same understanding given their compartmentalization needs when researching specifics within their specified work areas, we suggest that you read many books and watch videos on the subject so that you can see the many variances of how so called “experts” think and perceive things as they may not be what is right for you and your Country…
A procedure and a political right that allows a given number of citizens to put their own proposal on the political agenda. The procedure is initiated by a prescribed number of eligible voters that leads to a referendum in its second step.
This procedure is triggered automatically by law (usually the constitution) and requires that certain issues must be put before the voters for approval or rejection.
A popular vote procedure whose use lies exclusively within the control of an authority. In this form the author of the proposal and the initiator of the procedure are the same. Direct democracy in terms of a citizen-initiated or obligatory referendum is not concerned.
Liquid Democracy versus Direct Democracy through Initiative and Referendum: Which Is Best?
Liquid democracy (LD) has been adopted as the basic model of democracy of, among others, many Pirate Parties. It is supposed to be a practicable alternative to both representative (RD) and direct democracy (DD). But is this really the case? I believe this view is based on a misunderstanding of how modern direct democracy systems (with the main example of Switzerland) actually work. In this article, I argue that the attractive features of LD are already incorporated in modern DD systems in the form of initiative and referendum (I&R) as it functions today in e.g. Switzerland. At the same time, LD has some clear weaknesses that make it both impracticable and undesirable. DD through initiative and referendum, not LD, is the way forward.
By Arjen Nijeboer, May 2013
The merits of liquid democracy (LD) are often described as follows. Direct democracy (DD), meaning all citizens take all political decisions themselves through popular assemblies, is desirable as it equally distributes power among all citizens and allows everybody to have a say. But it can only work in small, simple communities as they existed in the past (e.g. ancient Greece). Modern states, however, are too large and too complex to be governed by popular assemblies. People don’t have the time and knowledge to take all decisions directly, so direct democracy is both impracticable and undesired. That’s why representative democracy (RD) was introduced. People give away their voting rights to representatives, who decide in the name of all voters. But RD has many disadvantages: representatives can take decisions that go against the will of the majority of citizens, citizens become alienated, political party ideologies with their fixed packages come to dominate the democratic system, etc. Now LD is said to be the ideal mix of direct and representative democracy: people can still vote themselves on any political issue, but they can also delegate their vote to a fellow citizen, who can also again vote himself or delegate his vote to yet another citizen or politician. Moreover, this can be done separately for any issue. Citizens can decide at any time if they want to take part in decisions or if they rather give a mandate to someone else. This way, a highly complex pattern of delegations and proxy voting appears. Finally, software such as Liquid Feedback makes it possible to not only vote, but also open a discussion channel between citizens and politicians, so they can inform each other and learn from each other.
But a careful analysis of modern I&R systems shows that they are already a mixture of direct and representative democracy, and that all of the above features of LD are already present there.
The Swiss example
Let’s take the example of Switzerland, which is the only country in the world to have a fully developed I&R system up to the national level. Through elections, citizens give a mandate to representatives, who reside in the parliament. But if enough citizens raise their hand (by signing a petition) the mandate for that particular decision goes back to the citizens who then decide directly through referendums. Besides voting on laws that have been prepared by the representatives (for 2 which 50,000 signatures must be gathered), citizens can also put their own law proposals to a vote. Regular Swiss citizens can write their own law proposals, and if they gather 100,000 signatures, the government is obliged to put the proposal to a vote. Besides, the Swiss constitution says that in a number of cases (such as constitutional changes) the issue always has to be put to a referendum. Votes are always binding. An important feature is that there are no turnout quorums: votes are always valid, even if only 5% of the citizens vote. This is important because of the mandate principle: those who do not participate, de facto give a mandate to those who do vote. So the group of voters must be able to decide without further requirements. All national, cantonal and local referendums and elections are combined in two to four voting days each year. Prior to a voting day, all citizens receive an official voter brochure in the mail in which the government summarizes the issues at stake, and in which both the yes‐ and no‐campaigns get equal space to give their arguments. Voter participation averages 50%. The Swiss system is totally based on the principle of popular sovereignty, meaning there is no power above the citizens that can enforce laws that the citizens don’t want. Through I&R, citizens basically have the same decision rights as politicians do, and the citizens can always have the final say if they want to. All I&R rules and regulations are in the Swiss constitution, and this can only be changed through a popular vote. So Swiss politicians cannot even change the I&R system unless the citizens agree.
In the Swiss system, citizens have all the possibilities that LD wants to give them. Citizens can either take political decisions themselves, or decide (through non‐activity) to let the parliamentarians decide, or decide not to decide at all by not taking part in any political activity. If citizens want to trust another citizen, politician or organization about how to vote, they can simply follow the view of that person/organization and vote accordingly. They don’t formally have to hand over the power to that person to decide, and abstain themselves from voting (proxy voting). Why would they? Formalized proxy voting is an unnecessary complication of a process that already de facto exists in a well‐designed I&R system.
That is my main critique of LD: through unnecessary formalization of proxy voting, it complicates a voting process that should be as simple, transparent, orderly and fraud‐proof as possible. Let’s elaborate on that. First, citizens must be able – as much as possible – to understand and oversee the democratic system as a whole, including where the mandate(s) lie, in order to create the transparency and trust in the system that any democracy needs to survive. Second, all citizens must be able to use a democratic system, not only young and highly educated internet nerds, but also your 83‐year old grandmother and your 18‐year old neighbor who has only finished primary education. Third, proxy voting differentiated by topic as proposed by LD may give rise to lack of clarity and conflicts. If I have delegated my vote when it comes to privatizations but want to vote myself on healthcare, what to do when a privatization of hospitals comes up? The more complex the delegation of votes, the more time and hassle it costs to arrange everything – time most citizens don’t have or don’t want to spend on such issues. Forth, a voting system should rely as little as possible on complicated computer systems that can only be understood and controlled by the few agencies and people who run them. LD, with its highly complex patterns of delegations, is only possible through highly complex and intransparent software systems. In the Netherlands, voting computers have actually been abolished after a campaign by internet pioneer and hacker Rop Gonggrijp, who pointed out the inherent dangers of fraud by the government and highly specialized professionals. The 3 Netherlands went back to pencil and paper, which are much less prone to fraud, among others because the counting of votes is much more decentralized and the process can be checked and recounted much more easily by non‐specialists.
That’s why the majority of citizens, if given the choice, would probably prefer I&R systems over LD. And in a democracy, the form of government is by definition supported by the majority.
Simplicity and transparency are preconditions for any voting system. The Swiss I&R system meets these demands, LD does not. Maybe LD can work well inside relatively small political organizations (such as the Pirate Parties) with people who know and trust each other because of their shared ideologies, but not in states where all kinds of people – who do not know or necessarily trust each other – have to live together.
Moreover, I&R systems are much easier to introduce in today’s political systems than LD. LD requires a total rebuilding of democracy and a substantial re‐education of citizens. I&R only require the adding of a few simple I&R instruments to existing political systems, which for the rest can remain unchanged (unless they have other problems – however those problems can be solved through the use of I&R so the introduction of I&R would logically be the first step to take). I&R are already known to the public at large. Opinion polls everywhere in the West show that roughly between 70 and 85 percent of the people want the introduction of I&R. If you ask them if they are in favor of liquid democracy, you only get puzzled faces – even as you try to explain it. I&R have proven itself as a successful model for large state democracies (not only small private organization democracies) for over a century – LD has not.
Internal party democracy
Apparently, some new political parties want to introduce “DD” or LD through a change in the internal party structure. They want the members of the political party to be able to control the voting behavior of the elected representatives of the party. This way, they argue, a change of the state democratic system wouldn’t be necessary. For several reasons, I don’t think this is the way forward. First, representatives should not be puppets on a string. As long as their mandates aren’t taken back by the citizens, representatives should have the freedom to follow their own insights, intuitions and conscience. Second, if you base a democracy upon a voluntary organization, it’s guaranteed that you will see a break‐up of the internal party democracy when things really come to a head. Democracy should be a guaranteed at all times, through state laws. Third, if only a small political party has “internal party DD”, its influence upon the democratic system is small if not irrelevant. It would only have a decisive influence if at least a majority of representatives would belong to parties with internal DD. But then it’s not necessary anymore to realize DD through internal party democracies – since a majority is in favor of DD as a principle, it is easy to realize DD within the official state democracy.
What about the discussion channels between citizens and representatives that are opened by LD software such as Liquid Feedback? Again, such discussion channels already exist in I&R societies. They aren’t limited to the internet there (let alone a single piece of software) but they consist of a very broad range of means of communication and information: TV, radio, print publications, 4 discussions within all kinds of organizations, internet discussion forums, ad‐hoc public meetings, Twitter and Facebook, talks at the hairdresser’s, you name it. People themselves decide who to listen or talk to, what communication channels to use for that, and even whether they want to debate anything at all. It is unnecessary and undesirable to limit discussion channels to a single piece of software. It must also be recognized that discussion and voting are separate processes with a totally different dynamic. The discussion and visioning process should be as free and unregulated as possible, while the voting process must be fixed by clear and simple rules. In fact, research shows that the internet actually scores quite low in the list of information sources used by Swiss citizens; most people rely on voting advice given by all kinds of organizations through the media, and the official voter brochure that we mentioned above. This even goes for young people. The internet is not a necessary precondition for direct democracy. Switzerland’s current I&R system was basically introduced between 1848 and 1891, even before the large‐scale introduction of electricity. Radio and TV didn’t exist back then (not to speak of the internet) but the I&R system functioned just as well.
The practical means of communication or voting are not the problem. They have already existed for centuries, and computers and the internet are a welcome addition to them but not an absolute necessary precondition. The main problem is the willingness of politicians to share power with and to listen to the citizens. The introduction of I&R, with the right set of rules and regulations, ensures that the people always have the final say, whether implicitly (because they allow the politicians or other citizens to decide) or explicitly (because they take back their mandates and decide through I&R, whereby they can always freely follow voting advice given by others). In other words, a well‐designed I&R system restores popular sovereignty: the principle that there is no power above the citizens, that laws only have authority because citizens have been able to approve them in some way. In such a situation, politicians can’t do anything else but to listen carefully to citizens, to really engage in discussions with them and to carefully draft laws so that they have the broadest possibly public support. Otherwise, politicians would face defeat after defeat at the polls. In fact, in Switzerland the I&R system forces politicians to form broad coalitions in which every part of some size is included. Through I&R, the opposition parties can launch referendums and initiatives and also win some votes if the public supports them. That’s why opposition parties and citizen groups in I&R countries are taken much more seriously than in RD’s.
The way forward
This article hopefully demonstrates why the struggle must concentrate on gaining the political rights of the people to have the last say, not on discussions about software. Whether people vote through the internet, through snail mail or through polling stations is really a secondary matter. In Switzerland, you can actually choose whether you want to vote through the paper mail, polling stations, and (in some cantons) also the internet. Wherever internet voting is allowed next to snail mail and polling stations, no less than 85% decides to vote through paper mail while only 10% uses the internet. Let’s not forget that the customer is always right.
About the author Arjen Nijeboer is a journalist and author. He is spokesperson of the Referendum Platform (the Netherlands), a co‐founder of the Initiative & Referendum Institute Europe and a member of Democracy International. With Jos Verhulst, he wrote Direct Democracy: Facts and Arguments about the Introduction of Initiative and Referendum (Brussels: Democracy International, 2007) (free download in 8 languages at www.democracy‐international.org). Please see this publication for further information on how modern I&R works, and for scientific references to the facts and views mentioned in this article.
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BEWARE of DELIBERATE, MANIPULATIVE TRAPS
The book below, is a great example of a very interesting book Direct Democracy: The International IDEA Handbook that was created in conjunction with theUN. They offer many great points however, it becomes obvious that this book was also designed to keep the manipulation of those wanting Direct Democracy within their grasp of control. You may find it in different languages on their website by using the link above or the photo link below.
Download the English PDF here: Direct-Democracy-The-International-IDEA-Handbook-PDF
Our preferred type of “Direct Democracy” articles
“The Advantages of Collaborative Democracy” by Nelson Guedes
November 23, 2014
A Better World Requires a Better System
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” — Richard Buckminster Fuller
Every day there seems to be a new protest, a new revolution, or a new coup d’état. As the People of Earth struggles against the centralized hierarchical governments and corporations that dominate and control our lives, it is clear that we must break away from the illegitimate systems that have been designed to repress us and justify the control exerted by the plutocratic elite. While we are revolting against the systems, so long as we fight, rise to power and replace the current elite, we ultimately only end up with a new elite. Egypt has been a good example of that trap. That is because the system of top-down control remains, and it is dysfunctional regardless of which party holds the power. It becomes crucial, then, to break away from the patterns of domination that we have grown accustomed to. We need a new system that works from the bottom-up.
One of such systems is Direct Democracy. While Direct Democracy is far superior to Representative Democracy in many ways, it still has its troubles. Direct Democracy is actually not a new system. It has been used before, in ancient times, and it had its issues. In Greece, it still required a lot of management year-round, even when issues were not being discussed. It also only worked well with a relatively small population. As population grew, management became harder and corruption more likely. Direct Democracy has a trilemma, where the ideal system would have to include high levels of participation, deliberation and equality, which are very difficult to provide together. There are other issues that Direct Democracy doesn’t address. For instance, democracy in general is a fallacy of population. Only because a majority makes a decision together, that does not imply that such decision is the optimal one. As such, democracy does not work in practice unless the population is educated on the issues and possess the critical thinking skills required to solve them. Direct Democracy is also limited to government and does not directly influence the realm of businesses and corporations, which are a major threat to democracy. Furthermore, Direct Democracy generally still relies on majority rule, which is inferior to consensus and not necessary reflective of the needs of voters.
While Direct Democracy is a good option, today we have the technology and the knowledge to create a superior form of participatory democracy, a “Collaborative Democracy”. The fundamental principle of Collaborative Democracy is that every person who is affected by a decision made must be involved in the making of that decision. In other words, if a decision needs to be made and the person is affected by that decision, they must be involved in the process. What makes Collaborative Democracy superior, in this sense, is the fact that there are no artificial boundaries to limit participation and the boundaries that do exist limit participation only to those who are affected, which makes the whole population involved smaller and more meaningful. If you feel a decision can affect you and you can prove that it will affect you, you are allowed to bring your needs to the table and be involved. Such approval process can easily be facilitated by citizenship rights in all organizations that affect the citizen.
From this first principle, legitimacy and accountability are naturally derived based on the relationship between decision-makers and the influence the decisions exert on them. Natural Legitimacy is achieved because those who are making the decisions are those who will be affected and, thus, they are the ones who are most qualified to be involved. In contrast, under the current systems, legitimacy is derived by a single vote once every few years and the claimed “expertise” of the politician, which is hardly legitimate. Natural Accountability is derived from the simple fact that nobody would ever make a decision against their own well being for their own benefit, unlike the corrupt systems that we have now, where decision-makers are rarely affected by the decisions they make. Therefore, from the principles of Natural Legitimacy and Natural Accountability, Natural Sovereignty is achieved on an individual level and within the whole affected community of Citizens.
Another superior aspect of Collaborative Democracy is the fact that it is consensus based and directly related to the needs of the decision-makers. A consensus is reached, not by debates and voting, but by a sharing and reconciliation of perspectives and needs through a process regulated by a combination of Dynamic Facilitation and Non-Violent Communication. By sharing needs and perspectives openly, participants are able to reconcile their views and find solutions that work for every affected party. As such, a consensus is ultimately reached. Because of the consensus that is reached, all parties are actively involved and interested in the implementation of the solutions, which they themselves can be further improved by the same process. The process also includes all elements of critical thinking and it is based on the evidence provided by all parties, but unlike any other process, the goal is not to prove one side is wrong and another is right, the goal is to reconcile all information for the benefit of everyone involved.
Collaborative Democracy is also not limited to governments. It can be used within co-operatives and other organizations. It can even be used to facilitate resolution to a regional conflict, whenever it is needed. It is not defined by any time or space, it emerges when needed and subsides when it is not needed. It is not tied to location, it is tied directly to issues. It is very dynamic, organic and open. Those who participate in the process, regardless of their position in the process, rather they are customers, co-owners or citizens, their needs are taken into account.
Decisions are made by all those who are affected by them
Natural Legitimacy, Natural Accountability and Natural Sovereignty
Addresses everyone’s needs
Uses Dynamic Facilitation and Non-violent Communication
Uses logic, critical thinking and evidence
Not artificially limited by time or location
Dynamic, organic and open
Effectively facilitates and co-ordinates
Collaborative Democracy fosters a higher degree of ownership, trust and collaboration between people. This higher degree of trust and collaboration leads to a greater cohesiveness in society, a flattening of organizations and a greater distribution of wealth and power among all people, decreasing the amount of inequality worldwide. Collaboration ultimately reconciles the needs of each individual with the needs of the entire planet.
Finally, Collaborative Democracy can be combined with technology, making it easy to implement, replicate, spread and scale. This makes it a powerful tool for global change. To learn more, please visit www.openearthproject.org and www.collaboralism.org (coming soon).
Nelson Guedes is a Systems Savant, Interaction Analyst, Interaction Designer and Philosopher from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He has a very diverse background that includes a wide range of subjects from Philosophy to Economics and his ultimate goal is to reconcile Human Systems with Natural Systems. He is currently working on his book, The Code: A Simple Theory of Everything and The Open Earth Project, a system to facilitate and co-ordinate global collaboration.
This article was first published at: https://medium.com/@nelsonguedes/the-advantages-of-collaborative-democracy-9f9800da4aef
Read more at: http://www.nelsonguedes.com/
More about “Direct Democracy”
Direct Democracy Facts and Arguments about the Introduction of Initiative and Referendum
Jos Verhulst & Arjen Nijeboer with a contribution by Paul Carline
To learn more:
Download the PDF
1-1: DO PEOPLE WANT DIRECT DEMOCRACY?
There is hardly a single Western country in which there is not a (usually large) majority of the people who want direct democracy. In 1995, the ‘State of the Nation’ poll showed that 77% of the British people believed that a system must be introduced “…whereby certain decisions are put to the people to decide by popular referendum” (Prospect Magazine, October 1998)
According to a poll published by The Sun (15 March 2003), 84% of British people wanted a referendum on the European Constitution. At the same time, a poll appeared in the Daily Telegraph, according to which 83% of the British people wanted to solve questions of sovereignty by means of national referendums; only 13% believed that this was the government’s job.
The Guardian (29 February 2000) published a poll according to which 69% of British people wanted a referendum
on the new electoral system proposed by Prime Minister Blair. This clearly shows that the British people want the
last word on the organisation of their political system.
In Germany, more than 4 out of 5 citizens want the citizen initiated referendum to be introduced nationally. From an Emnid poll in 2005, it became clear that 85% of Germans had been won over (Readers Digest, 10 August 2005), and comparable figures have come from dozens of other polls.
In 2004, Emnid also asked Germans whether they wanted a referendum on the European Constitution; 79% answered in the affirmative. Previous polls showed that the German preference for direct democracy ran through all parties: of SPD voters, 77% were supporters, CDU voters 68%, FDP voters 75%, Green voters 69%, PDS voters 75%. (Zeitschrift für Direkte Demokratie 51 (periodical for direct democracy no. 51), 2001, p. 7)
According to a SOFRES poll, 82% of French people are in favour of the citizen-initiated referendum; 15% are against
(Lire la politique, 12 March 2003).
In the Netherlands, according to an SCP poll in 2002, 81% of the voters support introducing the referendum. In 1997, an SCP survey showed that there was a large majority in favour of direct democracy in all four of the biggest political parties: 70% of the CDA Christian Democrat voters, 81% of PvdA Labour voters, 83% of VVD right-wing liberal voters, 86% of D66 left-wing liberal democrat voters (Kaufmann and Waters, 2004, p. 131). According to a NIPO poll in April 1998, 73% of the voters wanted a referendum on the introduction of the Euro, and a poll in September 2003 showed that 80% wanted a referendum on the European Constitution
(which was actually held in 2005). (Nijeboer, 2005).
Moreover, the Dutch people expect a lot from democracy. The Nationaal Vrijheidsonderzoek (national freedom survey) of 2004 shows that the “promotion of democracy” was selected most (by 68%) as an answer to the question: “What, according to you, is particularly necessary for world peace?”
Gallup polled Europeans in mid-2003 on the desirability of a referendum on the European Constitution. 83% of them considered such a referendum as “indispensable” or “useful but not indispensable”; only 12% thought a referendum “useless”. The percentage in favour was even higher among young people and those with higher education (Witte Werf, autumn 2003, p. 15)
The majority of people in the USA also want direct democracy. Between 1999 and 2000, the most extensive poll on
direct democracy that has ever taken place in the USA was carried out. In all 50 states it was found that there were at least 30% more supporters than opponents; the average for the whole US was 67.8% for, and 13.2% against, direct democracy. It was striking that the more referendums there were in a state in the 4 years before the survey, the higher was the number of supporters of direct democracy. In states with few to no referendums, an average of 61% were supporters; in states with an average number of referendums, 68% were supporters; and states with more than 15 referendums had an average 72% support.
“The 1999-2000 surveys conclusively demonstrate that the experience of voting on initiatives and referendums actually increases support for the process”, comments Waters (2003, p. 477).
There was also a poll on the desirability of a citizen initiated referendum at federal level (the United States is, paradoxically, one of the few countries worldwide that never hold national referendums, although direct democracy is quite widespread at the state and local levels). In this poll, 57.7% were supporters and 20.9% opponents.
1-2: DOES THE POLITICAL ELITE WANT DIRECT DEMOCRACY?
From the opinion polls held among politicians, it generally becomes clear that a majority of them are opponents
of direct democracy. In Denmark, members of the national parliament were asked for their opinion on the proposition: “There should be more referendums in Denmark.” A large majority of the members of parliament was against this. In three parties – the social democrats, left-wing liberals and central democrats – there was even 100% opposition; in addition, 96% of the right-wing liberals and 58% of the conservatives were against. Only a (large) majority from the Socialists and the Danish People’s Party was in favour. (Jyllands Posten newspaper,
30 December 1998)
In 1993, political scientist Tops conducted an opinion poll in the Netherlands among municipal council members.
Less than a quarter were in favour of the introduction of the binding referendum (NG Magazine, 31 December 1993). An opinion poll carried out by the University of Leiden found that 36% of all municipal council members were in favour of introducing the optional referendum, and 52% were against it. Council members from the VVD (right-wing
liberals) and the CDA (Christian democrats) were even on average 70% against. Only the Green Left (greens) and D66 (left liberals) produced a majority of council members in favour of the optional referendum (Binnenlands Bestuur (domestic government periodical, 18 February 1994).
In Belgium, the Instituut voor Plaatselijke Socialistische Actie (institute for local socialist action) conducted an opinion poll among local social-democratic politicians about the municipal referendum. Only 16.7% were unconditional supporters of a binding referendum. (De Morgen newspaper, 31 January 1998)
Research by Kaina (2002) provides an interesting insight into the dynamics of elite support. She examined the willingness of various elites in Germany to introduce direct democracy. She divided them into a political elite, a tradeunion elite and an entrepreneurs’ elite, among others. Of the total elite, 50% expressed a “high” or “very high” degree of support for direct democracy (among the general public,this is considerable higher, at 84%).
There are large differences between the various elites, however. In the trade union elite, 86% expressed either a ‘high’ or a ‘very high’ level of support, but in the entrepreneurs’ elite, the level of support was only 36%. Among the political elite we see a picture of extremes.
In the post-communist PDS and the Greens, ‘high-very high’ support was no less than 100%; with the social democratic SPD it was 95%, and with the liberal FDP 78%, but in the CDU/CSU only 34%. (In fact, a majority in the German parliament has already approved an amendment to the constitution that introduces a fairly good direct democratic system; unfortunately, a two-thirds majority is required and it is particularly the CDU politicians who have blocked it.) If we look at the voters, however, all the parties without exception have a large majority support for direct democracy.
The conclusion: CDU politicians do not represent the people on this point and not even their own voters, but appear to be bowing to the wishes of the business elite.
1-3: POLITICAL POWER AND DIRECT DEMOCRACY
What many politicians think about whether and to what extent referendums are desirable is very much linked to their own proximity to political power. The more power they have acquired within a representative system, the more they seem to oppose direct democracy. Some examples of this follow.
In Sweden, only five referendums in total were held during the course of the 20th century. The positions of the most important Swedish parties – the Socialist party and the Conservative party – varied according to whether or not they were in power at the time. Before the Second World War, the Swedish Conservative party was strictly against the referendum; after the war, when this party was in opposition for decades, it became an advocate of referendums. With the Swedish Socialist party, things developed in exactly the opposite direction: this party began to reject the referendum from the moment they gained an absolute majority in the Swedish ‘Rikstag’. Ruin (1996, p. 173) summarises it as follows: “Parties that belong to the opposition or occupy a subordinate position display the tendency to defend the referendum. Parties that sit in government or hold an executive position tend to display a dismissive attitude.”
In Baden-Württemberg, the Christian Democrats (CDU) landed in the opposition after the Second World War. When the constitution for this German state was being drawn up in 1952-1953, the CDU argued for the introduction of the referendum. The ruling majority at that time, in which the socialist SPD was the most important partner, however,was opposed to introduction. By 1972, the situation had changed: Baden-Württemberg was now ruled by a coalition of Christian democrats and liberals. When the prospect of a change to the constitution was presented, the SPD took the initiative to also introduce referendums. This created fierce opposition from the CDU. The peculiar situation emerged in which the SPD and CDU now adopted the very same positions their opponents had held twenty years earlier.
There was ultimately a compromise: the referendum was introduced in principle, but with a gigantic threshold. In order to force a referendum, one sixth of the voters of Baden-Württemberg must register their signatures at the
town halls or council offices within a period of two weeks. Predictably, of course, not a single referendum came about during the subsequent decades. In 1994, a citizens’ group wrote very politely: “Unfortunately, in view of this shifting of position, one cannot help thinking that whether a party was for or against referendums in the past was primarily dependent on whether that party was viewing the issue from a government or an opposition perspective.” (StuttgarterMemorandum, 1994, p. 23).
It is not only the division between opposition and government parties that plays a role. In the Belgian opinion poll
carried out in 1998 by the Instituut voor Plaatselijke Socialistische Actie mentioned above, it also appeared that local politicians with an executive mandate (mayors and aldermen) regarded the referendum even less favourably than politicians with a representative mandate (municipal councillors), regardless of whether the latter belonged to the opposition or the ruling coalition parties. (De Morgen newspaper, 31 January 1998)
Incidentally, the introduction of direct democracy is not the only issue on which political parties routinely change their standpoint depending on their share of power. The same phenomenon applies to the issue of limitations on the
number of times a representative may hold the same office.
Among American voters, approximately 75% advocate limited re-electability. By contrast, only 18% of the members of the individual state parliaments were in favour, with 76% being against any restriction. Among professional lobbyists, no less than 86% were in favour of unlimited re-electability.
This is not surprising, because limited re-electability threatens the ‘old boys’ network that is so essential to a good lobbyist. One lobbyist even stated explicitly: “Lobbyists agree with the contention of the advocates of limited reelectability: this measure would sever the established links and interfere with the work of interest groups” (O’Keefe 1999).
In Flanders, the system of limited re-electability was originally part of the core doctrine of the Agalev green
party. This party believed that mandate holders should only be allowed to renew their mandate once. When it came to the crunch and some electoral heavyweights saw their positions threatened by this measure, the party position was immediately modified.
The Dangers of Direct Democracy
In Federalist No. 63, James Madison wrote that the defining principle of American democracy, as compared to Athenian democracy, “lies in the total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity.” But since Madison wrote those words, several direct-democratic institutions have been introduced into American politics. California became the first state to adopt a ballot-initiative process in 1911, enabling citizens to place a proposal on the ballot after paying a small fee, submitting a written proposal to the California Attorney General, and gathering signatures in support of their initiative.
Ultimately, the initiative process provides an important opportunity for Americans to participate in self-government. But flaws in its implementation have indicated the need for checks on the system, such as higher thresholds for signatures and a role for the legislature in proposing competing initiatives.
The People Speak Too Easily?
Although most of the Founders did not favor direct democracy, initiatives were eventually incorporated into several states’ constitutions because citizens demanded more direct ways of enacting policy change. As Tom Harman, a California state senator, told the HPR, “Sometimes, the initiatives are a populist reaction to a legislature’s inactivity on issues of importance to the voters.” He continued, “I value the initiative process, and I totally support the people’s right to make decisions, especially when the legislature won’t.” But many critics contend that this is not always a healthy solution to legislative inactivity.
Many call for increased legislative checks on the initiative process, particularly during the signature-gathering process. For an initiative to qualify for the ballot in California, the number of signatures supporting the measure must be at least five percent of the total votes cast in the last gubernatorial election if the initiative proposes a state statute, or eight percent if it proposes a state constitutional amendment. Some have suggested that these low thresholds make it too easy to place misunderstood or poorly thought-out measures on the ballot.
Several critics have also proposed banning the use of professional signature gatherers, who have little personal investment in the initiative and can persuade citizens to sign documents they do not understand. Nonetheless, reforming the signature-gathering process might not be constitutionally feasible. As Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, told the HPR, “The courts have taken a clear line against restrictions on paid signature gathering since the 1920s.”
The Problem of Citizen-Legislators
Because there is often little transparency in the initiative-writing process, citizens with no legal expertise are able to draft poorly written laws, which sometimes come with unintended consequences. For example, Colorado’s so-called “English for the Children” initiative in 2002 sought to eliminate many bilingual programs from the public education curriculum. Due to the measure’s vague language, however, if the initiative had passed many experts believe that it would also have eliminated English as a Second Language. As Bruce Cain, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, told the HPR, “[We need] more transparency in the formulation phase. If that were a more public process that allowed for more input, it would improve the quality of measures.”
Additionally, many critics claim that initiatives do not provide voters with enough options. According to Kousser, “Once an initiative qualifies for the ballot, the legislature should be able to put a competing initiative on the ballot by a simple majority vote.” Joshua Pritikin, a volunteer for The Democracy Foundation, which aims to reform the initiative process, told the HPR, “Votes on initiatives are frequently very close. … One possible reason is that the electorate doesn’t really know which way to vote.” In other words, confusion over initiatives leads to a toss-up outcome that doesn’t reflect the voters’ true will. Pritikin suggested that making the initiative process into “a more deliberative procedure,” in which citizens can debate alternatives or participate in a “formal deliberative poll,” would help to alleviate some of these problems.
Some critics of direct democracy also advocate more legislative oversight after initiatives are passed. One proposal Cain suggested was to “restrict the number of constitutional amendments or constitutional changes” that can be passed by initiative, and instead limit initiatives to “statutory changes that can be amended by the legislature after some period of time.”
Many critics also point to direct democracy’s potential to hurt minority groups, a concern that was borne out by Proposition 8 in California, which overturned the California Supreme Court’s decision allowing gay marriage. According to Pritikin, “Initiatives are drafted by their sponsors, and they tend to be drafted in a way that takes a one-sided position and doesn’t incorporate compromise by looking at solutions that are beneficial for all state residents.” In an environment of legislative debate, on the other hand, the need for compromise usually prevents legislators from proposing bills that restrict minority rights.
Initiatives are also a drain on state finances, since most mandate an increase in government spending, and voters often refuse to accept higher taxes to pay for them. As State Sen. Harman said, “[We] need to get away from initiatives that earmark funding for certain programs. Right now, the bulk of California’s revenue is directly tied to programs via the initiatives process.” He continued, “This has really limited our ability to fairly rein in spending to deal with a multi-billion-dollar budget deficit.” For example, public education in California faces drastic cuts because it is one of the few state programs from which legislators can remove funding.
Tensions in Direct Democracy
Steven Greenhut, director of the Pacific Research Institute’s Journalism Center, told the HPR that he agreed with this assessment of the “abuses” of the initiative system. But, said Greenhut, “I would hate to give up this tool for reform.” After all, he asked, “When the legislature fails, what do you do for reform?”
In many cases, the only way to get the change that people desire is through the initiative process. Reforming the initiative process might have the unintended effect of removing a valuable avenue for the public to exercise its will. As Greenhut concluded, “With initiatives, you get the good, and the bad, and the ugly.”
According to Cain, distinguishing between populist and progressive reforms can resolve some of the problems with initiatives. The ballot initiative itself emerged from populist ideals that sought to bypass the legislature in favor of the people’s will. In contrast, progressive reforms sought to “complement the legislature” rather than “supplant” it, resulting in institutions like referenda and recalls that give citizens more input into the legislative process without undermining independence completely. Fixing the initiative process will require reconciling the tension between populism and progressivism and preserving the initiative’s underlying purpose: in Kousser’s words, to “give voters a little bit more of what they want.”
Peter Bozzo ’12 is a Staff Writer and Andrew Irvine ’12 is a Contributing Writer.
Photo Credit: Flickr (procomkelly)