A statewide referendum in Kansas saw an overwhelming majority of citizens reject plan to insert anti-abortion language in the state constitution in August. It comes as a slew of similar votes on abortion rights are expected in the coming months – putting the question directly to the people after the Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade.
But are referendums and citizens’ initiatives good for democracy? This may seem like a strange question to ask, especially at a time when many believe democracy is in jeopardy. both in the United States and around the world.
Like someone who research democracy, I know the answer is not simple. It depends on the type of initiative and the reason for which it takes place.
First, some simple distinctions. Referendums and citizens’ initiatives are mechanisms of direct democracy – forums in which members of the public vote on issues that are usually decided, in representative systems, by legislatures or governments. Whereas with referendums it is usually the government that asks the questions on the ballot, with citizens’ initiatives – more common at state level in the United States – the vote comes from outside government, usually through petition campaigns.
Appeal to the masses or settle accounts
The fact that a majority of democracies retain some form of direct democracy speaks to the legitimacy with which citizens’ voices are heard, even when, in fact, most decisions are made by our elected leaders. Often, national governments hold referendums to put important issues directly to their citizens.
But why would governments ever decide to leave the decision to the people? In some cases, they have no choice. Many countries, among them Australiademand that constitutional amendments be approved in popular referendums.
In other cases, these votes are optional. British Prime Minister David Cameron, for example, was not required to undertake a 2016 referendum on maintaining EU membership. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos enjoyed broad legislative support that same year to ratify peace agreements with a rebel group through an act of congress. But he leave the decision to the peopleIn place.
One of the reasons leaders voluntarily bring important issues to voters is to resolve disputes within their own political parties. The Brexit vote is an example. The British Conservative Party was deeply divided on British membership of the EU, and – as Cameron would later acknowledge in his memoirs — his position as leader of the party, and therefore as prime minister, is increasingly threatened.
In these cases, the government actually uses the people as an arbiter to settle an internal dispute. It’s a high-risk move, though. For Cameron, going to the campaign trail meant the end of his term as prime minister. And six years later, the UK is still grappling with the fallout of this vote.
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Sometimes leaders seek public support on issues where they expect strong opposition during implementation. Colombian Santos expected resistance to the peace deal from opponents, including wealthy land interests. He used the people as a kind of force field to protect politics. But again, the strategy failed. The Colombian agreements were rejected and have since faced powerful resistance when subsequent attempts were made to implement them through legislative approval.
But do these two high-profile cases illustrate the fatal flaws of referendums and direct democracy in general? Maybe not.
However a lot of misinformation has been circulating before the two votes, the results probably reflected the preferences of the people quite accurately. Moreover, they illustrate the dangers for political leaders of putting issues of crucial importance in front of voters – they cannot be sure that they will like the results.
And when their referenda fail, they can roll back causes that are close to those politicians’ hearts. For example, Brazil organized a gun control referendum in 2005. He failed, and later Pro-gun rights president Jair Bolsonaro used his failure to try to ease restrictions on guns, saying the failure of the referendum allowed him to do so.
tool of demagogues
Sometimes the prime minister or the president wins. A kind of referendum was used in Australia in 2017 to lobby lawmakers to legalize same-sex marriage. Tory politicians were ready to hold a vote, with the same kind of ‘arbitrage logic’ as in Brexit – they were opposed to same-sex marriage, but preferred to follow the public will, rather than continue to fight for this internal division. publish.
In the end, the pro-marriage prime minister opted for a “mail-in inquiry” rather than a formal referendum. And the bet worked for the Australian leader – a very large majority expressed support for same-sex marriage and the Prime Minister succeeded.
For every Colombian-style debacle, in which a leader holds an optional referendum but fails, governments can be said to put issues to a popular vote to produce a force field and win. Public approval can insulate the policy from further opposition, or at least undermine it. This was the case of same-sex marriage in Ireland, voted by referendum in 2015. The following year, Ireland settled the question of access to abortion, overturn a ban by a two-thirds majority.
Referendums are not only used by democratic leaders, but also by autocrats and demagogues. Russian President Vladimir Putin presented a series of constitutional reforms to voters in 2020, including the one who knocked down Limitation of Putin’s previous term in power.
Making politics align with people’s will
There are no national referendums in the United States, but American voters have extensive experience with state-level initiatives — and state-wide referendums as well. These votes have the potential to force governments to respect the will of the people in cases where lawmakers might resist popular policies.
Yet problems can arise with these exercises in direct democracy. Although these are probably citizens’ initiatives, the influence of political parties, special interests, lobbyists and big money can transform them into something quite different, as was the experience of California in the 1990s – which in turn undermined public satisfaction in the initiative process.
But recently, we’ve seen a series of state initiatives that look more promising – where majorities of citizens are demanding that their state legislatures make their policies more responsive to public opinion. Florida voters ex felon vote approved; Arizona voters approved larger budgets for public schools; Missouri voters forced a reluctant legislature to expand Medicaid in their state. All of these initiatives were backed by popular public support.
More recently, Kansas said “no” in a referendumto insert pro-life language into their state constitution.
“Let the people decide!”
The potential of direct democracy mechanisms to improve citizen representation depends on the context in which they take place, including how they are placed on the ballot and the motivations of those who placed them there.
At one extreme are autocrats like Putin who have held votes that increase his power and tenure. On the other, citizens frustrated by lawmakers whose actions stray far from public opinion. In between are measures sponsored by governments who may want to isolate policies they care about with the help of popular support, and parties who raise their hands, in the context of internal divisions, and say: “ Let the people decide”.
Susan Stokes is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.
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