What Is Direct Democracy? Examples From History and Today

Do you like the idea of being able to decide which laws actually go into effect in the area where you live? If so, you are a fan of direct democracy. Discover what is direct democracy and learn about some real-life examples of this unique form of government.

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What Is a Direct Democracy?

Direct democracy is a form of government in which the citizens directly decide on policy initiatives themselves rather than relying on elected government officials to handle this, which is what would take place in an indirect democracy, also known as a representative democracy. Direct democracy is not nearly as common as indirect democracy, though governmental systems sometimes have elements of both.

Direct Democracy: Key Characteristics

In a direct democracy, there are still elected officials at the highest form of government. However, they don't have the final say in what laws will be passed or policies implemented. That decision-making stays with the people.

  • compulsory referendum - A compulsory referendum would be held in a government where legislators cannot enact legislation without the approval of the citizens. Proposed laws are placed on a ballot by legislators, then citizens vote to decide whether or not they will be enacted.
  • popular referendum - A popular referendum allows citizens of a government to petition to vote on existing legislation. When this happens, voters get to decide whether the law in question will stay in effect or be overturned. In effect, the people have veto power where this is allowed.
  • ballot initiative - In places where ballot initiatives are allowed, laws proposed by citizens (rather than by legislators) can be placed on the ballot for citizens to vote on. This is also referred to as a citizen-initiated referendum. In the United States, 24 of the 50 states allow ballot initiatives.
  • recall - Where recall elections are permitted, there is a mechanism in place that would allow the citizens to remove elected officials from office before the end of their term.

Modern-Day Direct Democracy Examples

It's important to note that countries functioning primarily as representative democracies do allow for some elements of direct democracy. Discover examples of some countries that include elements of direct democracy in their approach to government.

  • Direct democracy is such an important part of Italy's system of government that the country's prime minister in 2018 added a cabinet position for National Minister of Direct Democracy. There, voters were able to reject laws that would provide legal immunity for political leaders and allow for water to be privatized, among many other matters.
  • In the United States, which is a representative democracy, many state and local governments allow for direct democracy in the form of ballot initiatives, compulsory referendums and recall elections. For example, in Alabama, any amendments to the state's constitution have to be approved by a majority of voters via a statewide referendum.
  • The Brexit decision, which led to U.K. citizens voting to leave the European Union, is a unique example of a decision made via the process of direct democracy. Even though the United Kingdom and the European Union are both indirect democracies, parliament opted to call for a referendum regarding this matter.
  • Prior to the passage of a new constitution in 2001, the Crow Nation had a Tribal Council that functioned as a direct democracy. All tribe members belonged to the tribal council, and so had a direct say in all matters related to governing the tribe. Votes were taken at each meeting of the Tribal Council.
  • In Switzerland, citizens can propose constitutional changes to the legislature, which are then voted on by popular initiative. Swiss citizens can also request a referendum on any law that has been enacted at any level of government.
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Historical Direct Democracy Examples

The early days of direct democracy trace back to ancient Greece (Athens) and Italy (Rome).

  • Athens, Greece is believed to have been the first example of direct democracy. In the 5th Century B.C. Members of the male citizenry could opt to participate in governmental decision-making as part of the assembly (boulê), which controlled the government. They could also serve as jurors in the courts of law, where there were no judges.
  • The Roman Republic had elements of indirect and direct democracy. The process through which citizens of the Roman Republic could make and pass laws is an example of direct democracy. Citizens also had the right to veto laws that were enacted by the legislature.

Learn More About Government

The subject of government is an interesting one that is a lot more complex than it might seem at first glance. Who knew there were so many different types of democracy? Once you've learned about them, move on to exploring even more types of government around the world.