United States — June 1, 2010 11:56 am

The Dangers of Direct Democracy

By and

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.

Reforming Implementation

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)

  • Jaime L. Manzano

    The Soft Underbelly of Democracy

    Churchill’s contribution to political theory was that democratic government was messy and inefficient but way ahead of other forms of governance. But time is beginning to show that unfettered government of the people, and for the people, may, like the dinosaur, have taken the wrong turn in its evolution. It has become oversized, brain deficient, and functionally challenged. While the dinosaur was as big as a house, its brain was the size of one’s fist. As George Kenan once wrote, to get it mad, one virtually needed to cut its tail off, but then it could destroy you, and its own natural habitat.

    Enter Ben Laden. He cut the country’s tail off. As a result, we have gone to war in Afghanistan, adopted nation building as a policy extension, toppled Saddam Hussein, assumed the responsibility for reconstructing Iraq, tarred Iran along with North Korea as evil empires, massively increased domestic security expenditures, and, increased the already large investment of about $200 billion in the Middle East to gain the peace only to see it go down the toilet as the Sharon government continues to pursue a Greater Israel through settlements and West Bank expansion. Along the way, we have alienated much of Europe and, perhaps, Asia as well. The nation’s wealth, measured by the stock market, has dropped by over 30 percent, and the dollar, in terms of the Euro, by over 20 percent. Then there’s the 6 percent unemployment. And that’s just for openers!

    The Ben Laden attack forces us to review our view of reality and the world. What is it that feeds anti-Americanism to the point of violence here and abroad? What can we do to defend ourselves against it? Individuals and groups here are alienated from government and society as a whole. Some are crazies who fell off the turnip truck a way back and need to be pacified, bought off, or spanked like the children they are. But, for the mainstream, we need to rethink where our national interests lie and can best be served. Beliefs and policies that once sounded good have outlived their shelf life and need to be junked or allowed to whither away.

    Democracy is supposed to have begun in Greece where decisions were taken by voice vote in the public square. Politicians hired men with the loudest voices for support. When our Founding Fathers set up shop for the U.S., they chose to mute the role of organized clacks by qualifying voter participation using such screens as property, race, sex, and age. Since then, the Constitution has been amended to include the propertyless, all races, women, and 18 year olds. As a consequence, most of the qualities above the waist are now subsumed to those below it. Given present technology, the agitating skills of campaign managers, and the chattering of the media class, democracy has become more entertainment than governance. Elections and votes are now garnered and won after television has hooked voter attention with shows featuring sex, booze and mayhem. Campaign ads are designed to stimulate fear, hate, and the love of God, country and little children. After all of that, you can forget about voting with your head.

    Democracy is admired as a reflection of common sense and wisdom of the people. But think about it for a moment. More than half those of voting age are functionally illiterate. One wouldn’t trust the average voter with the keys to your car much less the investment of your savings, or how to spend half your income. But you do through the decisions on tax policies and program expenditures taken by the duly elected.

    Our elected officials are a reflection of the system. These bright and conscientious representatives are buffeted by the winds and whims of unstable and pliant voters. Picture this! They cling to their perches with wet fingers in the air, and ears to the ground to better sense the mood of the moment. They respond to the will of the mob as tutored and magnified by the media. Through their rantings, the country has gone to war fanned by an overload of sloganeering, e.g., “Remember the Maine, Tonkin Gulf, or 9-11.” The media strums the emotions of the masses with charged words, like terror, race, abortion, and equality, effectively neutralizing their rational meaning and fostering unthinking Pavlovian conditioned responses. So much for the watchdogs of democracy.

    Actually, no. Given that most of the voting public is led by instinct and reactions, it falls on the agitating and political classes to frame election issues and alternatives. The media record is a yo-yo of hysterics and abysmal failures. One day they call the election a public robbery. Next, they call the President an uneducated, evangelical lout. Then they say Saddam isn’t worth fighting. But then they glory in victory and the triumph of national leadership. The way the media turns hot and cold, one would think they were in need of hormone therapy and are reliable and steadfast as a baby keeping its diapers dry.

    We need to parse out what we mean as democracy. To begin with, non-democracy isn’t always bad. Take Hongkong. The voters never elected their ruler under the British. The Crown took care of that. Now they vote, but the outcome is as consequential as those held in Cuba. On the other hand, a democratic tally in Chicago circa 1962 had its farcical side. What was important in Hongkong and Chicago, but absent in Cuba, was a predictable system of laws and private property rights – capitalism to neo-socialists – and a freedom of thought and speech. While opinion found release in the media and the press, its consequences were not as changeable and damaging as the weather in monsoon season. There was, occasionally, serious digestive venting, but the system adjusted to the passions of the mob preserving reasonable dynamic societal stability.

    The administration of democratic elections used to be in the hands of the States, as prescribed by Our Founding Fathers. No longer. The government continues to be composed of member States, and balances population in the House with the equality of States in the Senate. Were population to be the sole criteria, the present government in Washington would be more white, Christian, female, coastal, urban, materially egalitarian, and mediocre. Not such a good idea.

    Washington has cut into the administrative responsibilities of the States. Voter registers have been expanded by eliminating a literacy requirement. The vote has been locked in with State automobile licensing administrations. The independence of the electoral college has been neutered. Which all goes to show that we continue to look toward more direct democracy as the solution to problems of governance. Wrong.

    We need to ponder the problems excessive democracy is creating. Ballots are now confusingly populated by county councils, school boards, party organizations, judges, etc., as well as state and national offices. And then, of course, there are the amendments to charters, legislative initiatives, and referendums providing grist to the agitating and chattering classes. With so many decisions, it isn’t surprising that elections are more an emotional and irreverent roll of the dice than a thoughtful exercise of choice. Even informed voters have to draw on “cheat sheets” confectioned by the local newspapers, teachers’ unions, or hot button advocates, appealing to prejudice rather than thought.

    To those who worship at the altar of direct democracy, they need to consider the risks involved. Deciding our national direction and leadership on hot button issues is full of risks if left to the exercise of direct democracy. I doubt that we really want the average voter to vote directly on issues such as our health care coverage, our social and economic security, the education of our child, or the defense of the country. There is no assurance that direct democracy makes for intelligent, moral, or equitable decision. To the contrary. Recall that Hitler, Mussolini, and Peron were elected democratically once upon a time. The word “Bolshevik” means “majority” which the commies claimed to mislead the electorate after one voting victory.

    Let’s take a simple example of democracy in operation. If three individuals go for a cup of coffee, and two vote for the third to pay. That hardly seems fair, intelligent, or moral. But it is democratic. Let’s color that scenario a little bit. Two of the individuals are men, or Jewish, or black, or seventeen, or Republican. Does that make a difference? No, unless….. Careful! Your head may be being overrun by your habitual, or inherited, conditioned response.

    Our Founding Fathers knew of the hazards of direct democracy and took them into consideration when framing the Constitution. They provided for the President to be chosen indirectly by an Electoral College equal in number to the number of representatives and senators of each state. The Electoral College was to be chosen by each State Legislature, but none of the Members of the Electoral College were to be Members of the Legislature. Members of the House of Representatives were to be elected by voters within the States, and Senators were to be elected by State Legislatures. This form of democracy was designed clearly to filter the momentary emotions of mass politics through layers and intermediaries of voters.. It fostered deliberation and thought at each level of the election process. The Founding Fathers also crafted a Bill of Rights for everyone outside the reach of ordinary legislation. Finally, they retained those authorities not delegated specifically to the Government in Washington to the states.

    We need to revisit the wisdom of our Founding Fathers. We may have sacrificed too much of their wisdom and constitutional design on the altar or direct democracy.

    You all may recall the canard that God gave Man two heads, but enough blood to make only one work at any one time. It fits the democratic process. Which head dominates is a function of accident. Take the Presidential elections. Between 50 to 60 percent of the voting-age population actually votes. The difference between candidates is very rarely as high as 10 percent. The Clinton-Bush race had a 4 percent spread, and the Bush-Gore election by a rounding error. That means that the Presidency can be won by affecting a single digit percentage of actual voters, and half that of the voting age population. Politically speaking, that’s spillage. The outcome is a matter of chance.

    So, what were the issues that decide elections? Ask Carter. It was Iranian hostages. Ask Bush. It was the economy, stupid. Neither of these issues related to their administrative performance. And Clinton? Blame it on cigars. Carter and Bush were overtaken by events totally out of their control. Clinton was just out of control. About 90 million votes are cast, so a swing of 1.8 million votes or less could carry the day. Any voting groupie can be had, not all of the time, or some of the time, but on any given election day. Since a swing of a single digit percentage of the votes can decide most elections, the political game is to affect the issue of what is affectionately called the ‘bullet’ or ‘hot button’ vote galvanized by organized or special interest agitators. The appeal is to the heart, the stomach, or the lower anatomy. A year ago “W” lost the popular vote. Today, his popularity is near 70 percent. That indicates that national leadership and and direction is unstable and a matter of chance. Like I said, democracy is a crap shoot. It’s roulette, not statescraft. Also dangerous.

    There needs to be a better design that does not leave the possibility of an Armageddon dependent of the whims of the mob. One might be optimistic that a mistake will not be made that costs the existence of humanity. But, that’s not good enough. We need to stop regressing to the primitive democracy of the Greeks. We need more wisdom like that demonstrated by our Founding Fathers. Or perhaps one needs to take up a belief and begin learning how to pray.

  • rich mckone

    The California defecit is not the result of direct democracy – it is primarily the result of union influence. The unions control the Dem party in CA. The deficit could be dealt with if it were not for the correctional employee union control of the prison budget.

    Just shifting parole supervision and technical parole violators to counties would cut billions from prison costs. With local courts dealing with technical violations, the parole violation rate would drop from 35% to the national average of 20%. That would reduce annual prison operating costs by about $500 million. It would also provide funding to counties because county supervision costs are about a third of State parole supervision costs.

    Contract beds cost $30,000 less annually than a prison bed. Housing technical parole violators in county jails or contract facilities would reduce prison costs by well over $400 million annually. These changes would eliminate the need to build almost 20,000 prison beds at a cost of $2 billion to $3 billion. The bulk of the $6.5 billion AB 900 construction funds could be applied to the deficit.

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  • Katun

    The solutions is simple and possible. 
    We need to find the philosophers and put them in charge, we need restrictive criteria for the elected ones.
    These can be made only by education, so we need to put back the teachers on the right position on our society.
    This is posible only if we change the weight point from money on knowledge.
    So, people who are smarter, more educated and with creative mind must be rewarded by society. And not the guys who have the better ability to negociate, in order to sell and buy things.
    200 years ago, the politicians was thinkers… now they are circus performers who play as business guys wish and demand!

  • Jidl

    Is there anyone who could summarize this in a paragraph for me?

  • Jidl

    Is there anyone who could summarize this in a paragraph for me?

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