Direct Democracy: Lessons from the United States

From referendums on Scottish independence and the European Union to the recall of MPs, the popularity of direct democracy is growing in the UK. But, warns Todd Donovan, the American experience shows that more democratic is not always better. 

A century ago, direct democracy – referendums, the recall of elected officials, and citizen initiated laws – played little role in governing any place other than Switzerland. The changes since then in popular expectations and democratic practice have been remarkable. Today, the use of referendums and popular votes on citizen-drafted laws (the initiative) is widespread and increasing. Citizens in established democracies have come to view direct popular votes on political issues as an important component of how democracy is supposed to work.

Clearly people now expect voters, not representatives, to decide the fate of major issues. When Europeans were asked in 2012 to rate how important it was for democracy that ‘citizens have the final say on important issues by voting on them directly in referendums’ their average response on a zero-to-ten scale was between eight and nine. Apart from the Netherlands, Belgium, and Finland, where referendums are rare, substantial proportions of Europeans rated the need for referendums as ‘extremely important’ to their general conception of how democracy should work.

In much of Europe, 30 to 50 per cent of these survey respondents said that voting directly on important issues was extremely important for democracy. Some of the greatest expectations for direct democracy are found in the three European countries where referendums are most common: Switzerland, Italy, and Ireland.

Democratic Perceptions

In many countries where citizens expect that democracy requires direct popular voting on policy the prevalent perception is that their own country is not characterised by referendum use (see Figure 1). Over one-third of people in Britain viewed referendums as extremely important for democracy, but only 13 per cent thought the statement, ‘citizens have the final say…by voting directly in referendums’ applied well to Britain, where referendums are rare.

Figure 1. The expectations gap: European's attitudes about the importance of referendums in general, and as used in their own country.

It would seem, then, that there may be a sizable gap between popular expectations for direct democracy and how things are perceived to work in practice. This does not mean that democracy has become any less direct. The recent use in Europe of independence referendums, devolution referendums, national referendums on treaties, directly elected mayors and popular referendums, suggest steps toward greater direct democracy in practice.

Figure 2.  

All of this presents a dilemma for representative democracy. As more matters are decided directly by plebiscite, voters may expect an even greater say. Even before David Cameron promised a vote on the matter, a substantial proportion of people in the UK expected to have the final say on important issues such as membership in the European Union. A referendum on Europe could fuel expectations for future referendums in the UK, just as the MPs’ expenses scandal beget a move for popular recall of MPs.

Recall of MPs in the UK may not be too far off. The 2010 Coalition Agreement provided for a form of citizen initiated recall. The Recall of MPs Bill was introduced in the Commons in September 2014. Compared to offences that trigger a recall in the US (a provision only at state and local level), the Bill is narrowly tailored. Yet in requiring signatures on a petition totalling 10 per cent of parliamentary electors in a constituency, the Bill sets a threshold that is lower than many places in the US. Opinion data displayed in Figure 1, and government promises of referendum and recall suggest a response to popular expectations of some manner of direct democracy in the UK. But what can the US experience teach Britain about direct democracy?

The American Experience

The United States provides an extreme (and expensive) example of how far direct democracy can be used in practice. About half of American states have a mix of three forms of direct democracy: recall, popular referendum and the initiative. Most of these provisions for direct democracy were adopted between 1898 and 1918, when a confluence of reform movements (‘farmers’ cooperatives, labour organisations, prohibitionists, suffragettes) took on powerful corporate interests that controlled state legislatures. They succeeded in amending state constitutions, particularly, but not exclusively, in the west.

In around 30 states, petitions can force special elections where voters are asked to remove or retain a state or local elected official. In several states a recall with sufficient signatures can launch a by-election for any reason. In Wisconsin, a sitting Republican governor, Scott Walker in 2012, and several state legislators, were the subject of recalls over legislation that curtailed bargaining rights of public sector workers.

Recalls of governors are difficult (only three have been attempted in the US, and Wisconsin's did not succeed). But attempts to recall state legislators are less rare, and the Wisconsin legislative recalls were an extreme example of an opposition party attempting to reclaim control of a chamber. Wisconsin Democrats targeted six Republican state senators in 2011 with by-elections and defeated two and then defeated another in a 2012 by-election, coming within one seat of winning control of the state senate. The recall campaigns generated national attention, over $125million (£77m) in campaign spending (much from out of state), and incapacitated the legislature for months.

While recall is rare, referendums and initiatives are a standard part of legislation in several states. Twenty-four states have rules for popular referendums. This allows groups who can collect enough petition signatures, the ability to have a vote asking if an existing law should be vetoed. In 24 states the citizen initiative also allows anyone who collects sufficient petition signatures the power to write their own legislation and place it directly before the voters, generally without any input from the legislature. On top of all of this, legislatures in every state regularly refer state constitutional amendments to voters.

Between 2000 and 2012 Americans voted on nearly 1600 statewide referendums and initiatives, about half of which were the result of popular petitions. To put this in perspective, the Swiss voted on 113 national referendums and initiatives during this same period.

Many states adopted some, but not all, of these populist institutions. Others have the full menu, in combination with a judicial branch where high court justices are directly elected. Wisconsin, for example, has the recall, but not popular referendums or initiatives. Wyoming and Utah adopted referendum and initiative, but have rules that make it very difficult to collect enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. The most expansive (or extreme) forms of direct democracy can be found on the Pacific coast (California, Oregon and Washington), and in a handful of western states that adopted recall, referendum and the initiative, while also implementing petitioning rules that made it easier to collect petition signatures.

Effects of Direct Democracy

States vary in how much legislators can later amend (or repeal) citizen initiated laws, but in many representatives are stuck with what voters give them, at least in the short term. In some states, citizen initiatives can amend the state's constitution and effectively circumvent the legislature and the state's courts. This was the case with the 2008 vote on Proposition 8 in California, an initiative that revised the state constitution to ban same sex marriages that the state's high court had previously allowed.

More issues reach the ballot where petition rules are permissive. Wyoming requires that signatures equal 15 per cent of votes cast in a recent election, collected across remote areas of the state. Few measures ever qualify, so direct democracy plays little role there. But voters in other states are kept busy. Oregon has a much lower percentage and signatures can be collected in the state's urban areas. As a result, Oregonians voted on 32 ballot measures in 2000, although a typical year finds about eight measures in Oregon. California is not far behind. In 2008, Californians decided the fate of 21 ballot measures. In many states, no topic is off limits. Initiatives have involved high profile issues such as abortion, capital punishment, gay rights, genetically modified foods, marijuana, gun control and suicide; as well as minutia about the size of cages for hens and the regulation of chiropractors and denturists (the people who fit false teeth). Popular initiatives on taxation (usually but not always cuts) and spending (usually increases without revenue sources) have been the most common subjects in recent decades.

For the Many, or the Few?

The original impetus for direct democracy in American states was the idea that by redesigning political institutions, groups who had little presence in the legislature would be given tools to counter the influence of powerful interests that dominated state legislatures. Much has been written about whether or not the process empowers grassroots outsiders. From the start, powerful actors have always used initiative politics to promote and defend their interests, but grassroots groups and reformers frequently succeed in placing issues before voters.

Critics of America's direct democracy point out that because of massive population increases (which inflated the number of signatures needed on petitions), it is now nearly impossible for volunteer efforts to qualify measures in many states – some canvassers are paid several dollars per signature they collect. A petition effort in California will cost millions of dollars. Given that, and the high costs of television advertising, America's initiative contests are among the most expensive elections in the world. In 2012 alone, just under $800 million (£500m) was spent on ballot measures in the US – eight times more than the total spent by political parties, candidates, and nonparty actors in the 2010 UK General Election. Half of that spending was in California alone (See Figure 3).

Figure 3. The campaign costs of direct democracy, most expensive initiatives and referendums, 2012. • Source: National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Despite all of this campaign spending, prominent economists and political scientists contend that the initiative process results in a state's policies more closely reflecting public opinion. The threat of an initiative may move policy of its own accord. After animal rights activists were poised to qualify an initiative that would mandate larger cages for hens, a poultry industry association agreed to work to change policy if the animal rights group agreed to suspend its campaign.

In the long run, initiatives on all sorts of topics – merely proposed, approved, or even defeated – are said to move legislators to adopt policies closer to the median voter. The Scottish independence referendum illustrated a variant of this dynamic. When polls showed there was a credible threat it might pass, leaders of the Westminster parties scrambled to offer Scots more autonomy than they may have secured without the unsuccessful referendum.

The vast sums of money involved in American direct democracy might suggest the process is now tilted grossly toward the interests of the wealthy, with non-stop television advertising duping voters into passing measures they don't really want. The reality is more complex. Voters reject most initiatives. Costly campaigns generate doubt about proposals, particularly when business groups spend heavily to defend themselves, and a no vote generally preserves the known status quo. Legislators might also respond with laws of their own that, while providing less than what an initiative is asking for, might still make an initiative seem less necessary. And while money affects outcomes, voters regularly approve measures where the yes side spent little money (for example, tax cuts, and the wave of anti-gay marriage measures in 2004) and at times they reject things where the yes side grossly outspent the no side (a 2012 Michigan proposal to protect a monopoly concession on an international toll bridge, or tobacco industry proposals to gut anti-smoking rules). Voters have been found to rely on many sources of information other than television ads, and polls show large majorities like the initiative process.

Billionaire Pluralism

America's direct democracy does not appear to give a clear, systemic advantage to the left or right (See Figure 4). Much has been made of the influence of conservative billionaires in US politics, but one paradox of direct democracy is that America's billionaires and multimillionaires are frequently the patrons of liberal and conservative causes alike, sponsoring dozens of campaigns for their pet causes (rather than their economic interests). Several billionaires have recently funded initiatives dear to the left: promoting gay rights, legalisation of marijuana, stem cell research, green energy policies, tax increases, and regulations on carbon emissions and gun ownership. For issues close to the right, another set of billionaires have funded initiatives to cut taxes and weaken public sector unions. The super rich also take on measures that don't fit easily on a left-right spectrum: electoral reform initiatives have been a hobby for a number of billionaires.

Figure 4. Billionaire pluralism: Selected Fortune 400 list contributors to Initiative campaigns.

Grassroots initiative politics are dead in California and some other states, but vigorous competition in the direct democracy arena remains. Citizens regularly decide the fate of a range of issues that – for better or worse – would not otherwise get beyond a legislature. The dangers of California-style direct democracy are numerous – haphazard, irresponsible state budgets and threats to minority rights are the most obvious. But defenders of the process note that it engages voters and increases participation in elections. As the UK and Europe move toward far more democratic forms of politics, the arguments about the costs and benefits of direct democracy are likely to increase with every new referendum and recall.

Todd Donovan is Professor of Political Science at Western Washington University.