WHAT IS DIRECT OR PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY?
Direct or participatory democracy, classically termed pure democracy, comprises a form of democracy and theory of civics wherein sovereignty is lodged in the assembly of all citizens who choose to participate. Depending on the particular system, this assembly might pass executive motions or decrees, make law, elect and dismiss officials and conduct trials. Where the assembly elected officials, these were executive agents or direct representatives bound to the will of the people.
Direct democracy stands in contrast to representative democracy, where sovereignty is exercised by a subset of the people, elected periodically, but otherwise free to advance their own agendas. These two forms of democracy can be combined into representative direct democracy, where elected representatives vote on the behalf of citizens, but the citizens have the power to override the votes of their representatives.
DO WE HAVE DIRECT DEMOCRACY IN THE U.S.A?
A Town Meeting in New England
The founding fathers debated over what form of government to adopt in our nation's constitution, with those such as James Madison, John Adams, George Washington, And Alexander Hamilton opposing direct democracy and avocating a representative system. Others like Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Patrick Henry favored a direct democracy. In the end the idea of pure democracy was rejected and they instituted a republic in the form of a representative democracy. However, despite the framers' intentions in the beginning of the republic, ballot measures and their corresponding referendums have been widely used at the state and sub-state level. These do in fact represent a form of direct democracy.
IN VARIOUS STATES THE WAYS IN WHICH THE PEOPLE MAY THEMSELVES RULE INCLUDE:
Referrals by the legislature to the people of "proposed constitutional amendments" which are constitutionally used in 49 states, excepting only Delaware.
Referrals by the legislature to the people of "proposed statute laws" which are constitutionally used in all 50 states.
Constitutional amendment initiative is the most powerful citizen-initiated, direct democracy governance component. It is a constitutionally-defined petition process of "proposed constitutional law," which, if successful, results in its provisions being written directly into the state's constitution. Since constitutional law cannot be altered by state legislatures, this direct democracy component gives the people an automatic superiority and sovereignty, over representative government. It is utilized at the state level in eighteen states: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon and South Dakota. Among the eighteen states, there are three main types of the constitutional amendment initiative, with different degrees of involvement of the state legislature distinguishing between the types:
- Statute law initiative is a constitutionally-defined, citizen-initiated, petition process of "proposed statute law," which, if successful, results in law being written directly into the state's statutes. The statute initiative is used at the state level in twenty-one states: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. Note that in Utah there is no constitutional provision for citizen lawmaking. All of Utah's I&R law is in the state statutes. In most states, there is no special protection for citizen-made statutes; the legislature can begin to amend them immediately.
- Statute law referendum is a constitutionally-defined, citizen-initiated, petition process of the "proposed veto of all or part of a legislature-made law," which, if successful, repeals the standing law. It is used at the state level in twenty-four states: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
- The recall is a constitutionally-defined, citizen-initiated, petition process, which, if successful, removes an elected official from office by "recalling" the official's election. In most state and sub-state jurisdictions having this governance component, voting for the ballot that determines the recall includes voting for one of a slate of candidates to be the next office holder, if the recall is successful. It is utilized at the state level in eighteen states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington and Wisconsin.
In addition, many localities around the U.S. also provide for some or all of these direct democracy governance components, and in specific classes of initiatives (like those for raising taxes), there is a supermajority voting threshold requirement. Even in states where direct democracy components are scant or nonexistent at the state level, there often exists local options for deciding specific issues, such as whether a county should be "wet" or "dry" in terms of whether alcohol sales are allowed.
In the U.S. region of New England, nearly all towns practice a very limited form of home rule, and decide local affairs through the direct democratic process of the town meeting.
Obviously the idea of direct democracy is not entirely alien to the U.S.A., and it would not require a stretch of the imagination to expand it's application at the state and local level, and apply these methods to improve governance at the federal level as well.