Co-Intelligence Logo The Co-Intelligence Institute

What's New
Our Work
Contact RESOURCES Don't Miss (Features)
Links JOIN US Subscribe
Take Action
Donate Legal Notices


Direct Democracy


In general, the term "direct democracy" usually refers to citizens making policy and law decisions in person, without going through representatives and legislatures.  The classic example of this is the New England Town Meeting where anyone from the town who wants to show up to debate and vote on town policy can do so.  Until recently, this worked for scores of communities, but low attendance at many modern town meetings has raised questions about whether they are truly democratic. 

More recent direct democracy proposals tend to focus on voting schemes (usually high tech) that would allow widespread, virtually continual voting by millions of citizens on whatever proposals surfaced.  While useful in building up a buffet of voting methodologies for possible use in other contexts, the lack of organized public deliberation about the issues in question makes such proposals look more like opinion polls than exercises of citizenship.  Wise solutions to public problems won't likely come off the top of a hundred million heads.

A third approach to direct democracy -- the "initiative process" adapted by a number of states -- allows anyone to propose a law which, if they can get enough of their fellow citizens to co-sponsor it (usually by signing petitions), can be voted on by the entire electorate in the next election.  While apparently empowering the grassroots, this process has in many instances been co-opted by special interest groups, especially monied interests who put initiatives on the ballot to increase their wealth and power in the guise of public benefit -- or to confuse voters about competing initiatives that actually come from the grassroots.  Since the monied interests have more resources to hire petition-signature-gatherers and to run powerful advertising campaigns based on extensive marketing surveys and expert PR advice (sometimes very devious, last minute blitzes that can't be answered before the election), there's a real question about how democratic existing initiative processes are.  Furthermore, such processes offer no more deliberation than the unproductive media debates that characterize most political campaigns.

So each of these approaches to direct democracy raises questions about how wise or democratic they actually are, in practice. Democracy requires participation by the broad citizenry or at least those affected by the decision. Wisdom requires thoughtful, informed consideration of the issues and consequences involved with various options.


So where do we get wisdom? One of the most important -- and probably indispensible -- sources of collective wisdom in a democracy is informed deliberation among people whose diversity approximates the diversity of their community or country. (Such a group can be large or small, as long as it meets that criteria. See the deliberation page on this site for democratic innovations that embody this understanding). Such deliberation produces public judgment, a far higher form of collective intelligence than mere public opinion. (See A Call to Move Beyond Public Opinion to Public Judgment..)

Broadly recognized citizen deliberation and public judgment bring public wisdom to the public power that is bestowed by direct democracy. Such a combination of power and wisdom begins to approach an ideal democratic form. An example of an effort to actually practice this level of advanced democracy is British Columbia's experiment with a Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform, in which 160 randomly selected citizens explored different approaches to electoral reform and the outcome of their deliberations was submitted to British Columbia's electorate for a direct vote.

Citizen deliberative councils, of wihich the above Citizens Assembly is one example, are a particularly potent source of deliberative wisdom.


Useful definition note: "It would be helpful for us to use "initiatives" for proposals by citizens, and "referenda" to mean proposals "referred" for a citizen vote by legislators, instead of using referendum generically to mean either." -- Evan Ravitz,


For an intelligent proposal for a national initiative process, see National Initiative for Democracy.

For an international academic site focused on direct democracy see C2D - Research and Documentation Centre on Direct Democracy

For a critique that supports having citizens engage in major public deliberations to advise legislatures -- but not to pass their own legislation -- see Referenda.


Home || What's New || Search || Who We Are || Co-Intelligence || Our Work || Projects || Contact || Don't Miss || Articles || Topics || Books || Links || Subscribe || Take Action || Donate || Legal Notices

If you have comments about this site, email
Contents copyright © 2003, all rights reserved, with generous permissions policy (see Legal Notices)