Is direct democracy effective? Yes, if it is the citizens who initiate the process: Democratic Audit

This week’s European referendum sparked much debate on the pros and cons of direct democracy. Corn Lucas leemann writes that historic votes like this may be the most atypical – and arguably the worst – examples of direct democracy. He indicates that in cases where citizens have the opportunity to launch initiatives and call referendums, this can play an important role in solving problems on non-redistributive issues.

Credit: Philippa Mckinlay CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

While historic votes, like next week’s UK referendum, attract a lot of attention and stimulate debates on direct democracy, they could in fact be the more atypical forms of direct democracy.

Direct democracy can enrich purely representative systems and have a beneficial impact on various outcomes. For most readers, the most relevant effect of direct democracy will be on political congruence – that is, the extent to which policies reflect the wishes of a majority of citizens. The optimistic promise of direct democracy is precisely that it will produce “more” democratic policies, in the sense that they are supported by a majority of citizens.

Two important types of direct democracy can be distinguished: one where governments decide to grant their citizens the right to vote on a specific measure and another where citizens can force the government to hold such a vote. The question of who can initiate the process of direct democracy may seem secondary at first glance, but it is in fact one of the most important institutional details.

When citizens can, by collecting a sufficient number of signatures, force a vote on an issue, lawmakers and the executive live in constant fear of facing defeat at the polls. Drafting bills, debating them and passing final legislation is a time-consuming and resource-intensive process. If a law is ultimately blocked at the ballot box, all legislative efforts are in vain. But when governments decide whether or not a referendum takes place, that constant threat does not exist and legislative policy can sometimes be further removed from the preferences of the majority.

In a forthcoming research article, co-authored with Fabio Wasserfallen, we examine when and how direct democratic institutions can increase policy congruence. We exploit the fact that the 26 Swiss cantons offer direct democratic institutions to their citizens, but the costs of using these institutions vary considerably from canton to canton (e.g. signing requirements, period of maximum collection). We focus on ten policies relevant to cantonal policy and conduct two surveys of citizens and legislators. Based on these surveys, we can measure the preferences of midline voters and midline ministers across cantons. The main result is that the effect of direct democracy is particularly pronounced when the government and citizens strongly disagree.

We then checked whether the actual policies matched citizens’ preferences because they had been changed by a direct democratic vote, but found no evidence of it. Therefore, we infer that it is the lawmakers themselves who craft policies more aligned with the wishes of their constituents – lest doing otherwise would simply see their laws overturned by a referendum. This is the indirect effect of direct democracy. As early as 1970 Leonhardt Neidhart wrote that the referendum is most successful when we do not observe it because politicians compromise. It’s akin to speeding tickets that have a deterrent effect – they “work” even when not issued, as long as the wait to be caught is relatively high.

What is the impact of direct democracy on a political system? When citizens can start collecting signatures and launching a referendum, it is also possible that parties will begin to rely on these institutions. A party’s goal may not always be purely political – it is also possible for parties to pursue the path of direct democracy as this allows them to force a debate on specific issues that could be electorally beneficial to them. In a research article last year, I show that over the past 100 years there has been a disproportionate increase in the use of direct democracy by parties and that these votes often relate to issues that are politically less prominent. If elections are conducted primarily on economic and redistributive issues – and the electoral system provides a fairly unbiased way of mapping votes to seats – there should be little difference between the mid-level legislator and the mid-level voter on the issues. economic. But on less important issues, where voter attitudes tend not to correlate with redistribution preferences, one would expect more disagreement and a greater opportunity for legislative minorities to push their agenda forward. via the ballot box.

In the Swiss case, there has been a disproportionate increase in votes relating to the axis of cultural conflicts – for example questions on reproductive medicine, LGTBQ issues, foreign policy and the EU, anti -immigration and environmental policy. While these questions have an economic impact, they relate above all to culture and identity. They illustrate the split between two poles: alternative green libertarian visions and traditional authoritarian and nationalist convictions. Although the specific issues may vary from country to country, they all have in common a tendency not to be part of the main dimension of political conflict.

Taken together, this reasoning implies that direct democracy is only truly effective if citizens have the capacity to initiate initiatives and call referendums. The reason is that while citizens can potentially force a vote, politicians are constantly under this threat and therefore can be expected to pursue policies closer to the preference of the median voter. Having such a system will then lead mainly to votes on non-redistributive issues – at least as long as distributive issues are the main dimension of the conflict. In this sense, direct democracy helps to solve the problems of the secondary dimension of the conflict.

In the context of the looming UK referendum on Brexit, one final thought seems relevant for a discussion on referendums. When referendums are very infrequent, they can not only be affected by the specific issue at hand, but also become in part a vote of confidence in the government. It could then be the worst of all possible combinations of representative and direct democracy, confusing decisions on issues with the popularity of government.


Note: This article represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting.


Lucas leemannLucas leemann is a senior lecturer in quantitative political science at University College London. He obtained his doctorate from Columbia University where he majored in comparative politics and with a minor in quantitative methodology. His research in comparative politics focuses on institutional origins and direct democratic institutions. In quantitative methodology, he is interested in both measurement (IRT, MrP) and modeling (mainly hierarchical). His articles have been published or are to appear in the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Politics, Political Analysis, Electoral Studies, the Swiss Political Science Review.

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