Direct democracy can force governments to better represent the people -- but it doesn't always work out

In August 2022, a statewide referendum in Kansas saw citizens overwhelmingly reject a plan to insert anti-abortion language into the state’s constitution. It comes as a slew of similar votes on abortion rights are planned in the coming months – putting the issue directly to the people after the Supreme Court struck down the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling.

But are referendums and citizens initiatives good for democracy? It may seem like an odd question to pose, especially at a time when many feel democracy is imperiled both in the U.S. and around the world.

As someone who researches democracy, I know the answer isn’t simple. It depends on the kind of initiative and the reason that it comes to be held.

First, some simple distinctions. Referendums and citizens initiatives are mechanisms of direct democracy – instances in which members of the public vote on issues that are commonly decided, in representative systems, by legislatures or governments. While with referendums it is typically the government that places questions on the ballot, with citizens initiatives – more common at the state level in the U.S. – the vote originates outside of government, usually through petition drives.

The Chicago Center on Democracy, which I lead at the University of Chicago, recently launched a website that tracks many of these direct democracy efforts over the past half-century.

Appealing to the masses or settling scores

That a majority of democracies retain some form of direct democracy is a testament to the legitimacy with which citizens’ voices are heard, even when, in fact, most decisions are made by our elected leaders. Often, national governments call referendums to bring important questions directly to its citizens.

But why would governments ever decide to turn a decision over to the people?

In some cases, they have no choice. Many countries, among them Australia, require that constitutional amendments be approved in popular referendums.

In other instances, such votes are optional. United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron, for example, was under no obligation to undertake a 2016 referendum on continued EU membership. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos had plenty of legislative support that same year to ratify peace accords with a rebel group through an act of congress. But he turned the decision over to the people, instead.