The purest form of democracy is called a “direct democracy.” This structure of government requires the direct participation of all citizens in the decision-making processes of the government. It is a method of governing that stands in contrast to what an indirect democracy offers through the use of elected representatives to make these decisions on behalf of the people.
It is even different than the structure of a semi-direct democracy, which would permit representatives to administer daily governance, while allowing the citizens to issue referendums, initiatives, and recalls. There are currently 30 countries in the world today, as of 2019, which permit referendums to be initiated by the population at the national level.
This form of government is extremely rare because of the time and cost issues involved. It currently exists in just two cantons of Switzerland: Glarus and Appenzell Innerrhoden.
These are the direct democracy pros and cons to consider when looking at this particular government structure.
List of the Pros of a Direct Democracy
1. Everyone must participate for it to be a successful venture.
A direct democracy cannot work unless everyone who lives within the defined borders of the government participates in the processes involved. Each person is given the full right of participation unless specific exclusionary rules apply. That means you would have the right to share your opinion, vote on all matters, and even help to introduce new laws for consideration. Although you have the right to not vote as well, a majority outcome will still cause governing results.
2. It offers one of the most transparent forms of government created.
Because the people hold the power in a direct democracy, then there is no way for governing authorities to withhold information from the general public. Everyone involved must be given all relevant information on the topics under consideration to offer an informed vote on the subject. That leaves little room for doubt or error that indirect democracies sometimes offer. You can’t have “fake news” in this government because it could potentially shift a person’s vote in an unjustifiable way.
3. Direct democracies rely on individual accountability.
Each person that lives in a direct democracy becomes responsible for their portion of the governing process. You would worry about your voting record instead of what an elected official does while in office. There will be times in this governing structure where neighbors will have passionate arguments about what to do, but at the end of the discussion period, the majority vote will always reflect what the will of the people happens to be.
4. Cooperation is essential to the governing process in a direct democracy.
It is impossible to govern in the structure of a direct democracy if there is no cooperation amongst the population. People are invited to come to meetings, discuss issues, and maintain an open mind throughout the entire legislative process. Although this configuration can sometimes lead to peer pressure issues, there is usually higher levels of equality to find in this government option because everyone for all socioeconomic classes has a vote which offers the same value.
5. This government structure requires a disciplined populace.
There is always the possibility that voters could be presented with a resolution that passes because of uninformed voters. Governments which operate on a pure democracy require a populace that is self-disciplined in its approach to knowing current events. People must be able to swallow their pride if a vote doesn’t go their way to continue on with their business. This process eventually creates a society where people feel invested in their lives because they have more control over what is going on.
6. It demands personal responsibility at all times.
You must turn out for each vote whenever it is called when you live in an area governed by a direct democracy. Switzerland calls the events where these votes take place as a “landsgemeine,” or a cantonal assembly. People gather in a designated area in their community in the open air to decide on specific issues. Voting occurs by having people raise their hands instead of using a secret vote. You would still be required to provide proof of citizenship or eligibility to vote before being allowed into this public forum.
7. It creates an efficient system of governing.
The cantons of Switzerland which still follow the pure democracy format only hold their open-air parliament once per year for their citizens. Glarus holds their voting process during the first Sunday in May, while Appenzell Innerrhoden holds their voting day on the last Sunday of April. Attendees show a voting card to enter the inner circle, but anyone can view the process f they wish. It is during this time that officials are chosen, votes are held on referenda, and then every count is voted.
List of the Cons of a Direct Democracy
1. Direct democracies are costly to operate.
Even though you can save money by reducing the number of elected officials drawing a salary, along with all the administrative red tape that creates, the cost of a direct democracy must be considered. The two cantons of Switzerland attempt to avoid this issue some by instituting a single voting day per year, and then appointing officials to handle other elements of daily life. If a majority vote is evident, then the measure will pass right away. If not, then someone counts every hand that is up in the air.
2. It must be structured in a way that allows everyone to participate.
Switzerland extended federal voting rights to women in 1971, but it would be another 20 years before those living in Appenzell Innerrhoden would gain permission to raise their hand during the open-air parliament. The canton didn’t start providing a sign language interpreter until 2018. For a direct democracy to be accurate in its vote, it must make the effort to provide the same quality of information to everyone involved. Failing to do so creates a potential invalidation of the results.
3. People must be knowledgeable to cast votes.
An example of this potential disadvantage comes from Appenzell Innerrhoden in 2009. The canton was “experiencing” hikers and travelers who were wandering around the hills without wearing any clothing. A referendum was brought before the open-air parliament to issue a $175 fine on those who followed this trend. It passed with an overwhelming majority, even though the BBC reports that no one in the canton had actually seen a naked hiker to the best of their knowledge.
Participation in a direct democracy requires knowledge of current events to cast informed votes. There can be a lot of peer pressure to vote in a specific way because that’s what everyone else is doing.
4. It relies on a system that offers national support.
The cantons where a pure democracy is practiced often encounter a discrepancy between what their expectations are for rules, and what the national government provides. Using the naked hiker example from the previous point, Switzerland removed public nudity from the penal code in 1991. That means naked hiking isn’t punishable on a national level, and the laws of the canton are not higher than the federal ones.
5. Direct democracies can be used to discriminate against minority populations.
The example from Appenzell Innerrhoden shows why a direct democracy can struggle when they failed to grant women the right to vote for two decades. The Supreme Court of Switzerland had to intervene eventually to even allow this to happen. People who band together in a clear majority under this structure can influence the course of action the government takes, even if that leads to a destination which is morally or ethically detrimental. That means people in minority groups must rely on outside intervention or decide to leave their home to receive fair representation.
6. People must be invested in the future of everyone for this system to work.
The majority of people cast ballots in every system of government as a way to protect what they’ve currently earned. Most voters look out for themselves first. When living in a structure that requires a direct democracy, then the outcomes become more complex. There is still a need to protect one’s best interests, but there must also be votes for the wellbeing of the government as well. This investment can draw people together into a tighter community when it works as it should, but it can also be used as a wedge to drive people apart from each other.
These direct democracy pros and cons show how important it is to be involved with the overall governing process. When you have a say in what happens in your community, then you have more of an investment in the outcomes that occur. It is often a positive experienced, but it can also be used to discriminate. That is why most forms of democracy take an indirect approach instead.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.