Direct democracy in a US election year

Do you know your recalls from your referendums? Reuters

A representative system in one, a direct democracy in the other? In reality, both the United States and Switzerland are ‘hybrid’ democracies. Here’s what that means for elections, legislation, and life satisfaction.

The founding fathers of the US were adamant that the interests of the people should be represented by elected officials, rather than the people themselves. Yet today, direct democracy plays a key role in American politics.

The framers of the US constitution worried about following in the footsteps of ancient Athens – one of the world’s first known direct democracies – in part because of the risk of the “tyranny of the majority” over minority groups.

Interestingly, one minority they were particularly concerned about was the rich – a group to which they themselves belonged.

“Despite the talk in the Declaration of Independence about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, the writers of the Constitution simply didn't think that the happiness or economic well-being of the typical person was really the main thing,” says Benjamin Radcliff, a political scientist and professor at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. “The main thing was maintaining natural rights to private property.”

Nevertheless, elements of direct democracy have become woven into US political processes at the state and local levels – in spite of the fact that most of the world considers the US to be a representative democracy. Similarly, Switzerland is usually classed as a direct democracy, even though it also employs elements of representative democracy.

​​In truth, both countries can more accurately be described as “hybrid” democracies.

Laurent Bernhard, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Zurich Political Sciences Institute, believes that the chief distinction between direct democracy in the US and Switzerland lies in different origins of the motivation for the people’s initiative.

“In both Switzerland and the US, you have the offensive and defensive logic: initiatives, which are to propose something, and referendums, which are to prevent something from happening,” he says.

“But in Switzerland, direct democracy is much more an interplay between the initiative committee and parliament, whereas in the US it is much more a logic of bypassing the institution of representative democracy. In the US, it is much more about restoring the people's will.”

Counting down

In the US, the most common forms of direct democracy are the ballot initiative, the referendum, and the recall of elected officials, which just over half of the 50 states allow in some form or combination.

A couple of things make 2016 an interesting year for the US state ballot measure.

First, several major issues being addressed by ballot measures are particularly contentious: marijuana legalisation (Florida, Maine, Nevada); gun control (Maine, Nevada); universal healthcare (California, Colorado); and a state-wide ban on plastic bags (California).

In addition, weak voter turnout in 2014 prompted many states to lower their signature number requirements, meaning that about twice as many ballot initiatives have qualified for the ballot this year so far than in 2014. As of August 9, 2016, 142 state-wide ballot measures had been approved in 35 states for the 2016 ballot, with a total of 150-200 expected to qualify.

Nearly all of these measures will be voted upon on the same day – November 8, 2016 – which is also the date of the US presidential election.

Unfair advantage?

Bernhard says that the confluence of annual ballot initiatives and a presidential election – something that does not occur in Switzerland, where federal-level initiatives are voted on up to four times per year – can have both positive and negative consequences.

“It is not necessarily a bad thing from the perspective of the voters, because there is a huge debate all over the country about these issues, so the voters become very aware of all the questions,” he explains.

“But this can also be a strategic manoeuvre, when parties or organisations launch propositions for the purpose of the election and to boost the turnout of their constituency.”

Bernhard gives the example of the 2004 presidential elections, when measures against same-sex marriage were placed on the general election ballot in 11 states by the Republican Party, and went on to receive very strong support. It was argued that this contributed significantly to the election of George W. Bush, because of his strong anti-gay marriage stance.

Commenting on the current US political situation, Radcliff says: “Many think that Trump being at the top of the Republican ticket might depress turnout among Republican [voters] – and if those people don't vote, they aren't voting for the ballot measures either. This means a more Democratic and more liberal (and more African-American and Latino) electorate.”

Power and empowerment

Other challenges to using direct democracy in the US include poorly formulated or even contradictory initiatives on the same ballot, and concerns that ballot measures are voted on by small interest groups, and not a representative set of the population.

Radcliff adds that business groups can influence debate over ballot initiatives disproportionately.

“They can organise fake grassroots movements that use money to simulate popular interest, and dominate news coverage and advertising because they have money and organisation, which ordinary people lack,” he says.

However, Radcliff and his colleagues have found that in US states that allow initiatives, life satisfaction increases as the use of the initiatives increases, independent of income, education, race, age, or gender.

Their research shows that direct democracy in the US leads to happiness and satisfaction overall by making citizens feel that they have an impact on policymaking, and by providing a way to initiate policies that increase their wellbeing (or reject policies that decrease it).

“Direct democracy allows [American] voters to bypass political parties, which are dominated by business elite interests. This is most evident in the success voters have seen in raising the minimum wage dramatically in certain areas, or legalising marijuana, when legislatures would not,” explains Radcliff.

The happiness data for Switzerland is more complex; while past studies have shown a strong positive effect of direct democracy instruments on happiness in Swiss citizens, more recent research suggests that there is no significant corresponding relationship between the two – although the ability to participate in referendums has been shown to increase satisfaction with democracy in general.

Have you ever participated in a referendum or initiative? If so, what was the issue in question?

Direct democracy instruments in the United States

Direct ballot initiatives, also known as citizen or popular initiatives, are submitted via a petition signed by a certain minimum number of registered voters who have decided to bring a public vote on a proposed statute or constitutional amendment.

Veto referendums are used when a state legislature passes a law, and citizens collect signatures to get that law placed on a general election ballot so that registered voters in that state can decide whether to keep the law, or abolish it.

Finally, the recall is used when the people wish to remove an elected official from office.

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A US case-in-point

Same-sex marriage one issue that has come to nationwide attention in the United States in the last decade, thanks to direct democracy: even though California’s original Proposition 8 was brought to vote in 2008 with the goal of banning same-sex marriage, the initiative ended up sparking a larger national debate on the issue. Eventually, a federal appeals court ruled the proposition unconstitutional, and by 2015, same-sex marriage was legalised across the country.

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