Direct Democracy in America

In 1776, the American Declaration of Independence stated that government derived its powers from the consent of those it governed. In 1778, Massachusetts sought the consent of its people by asking them to ratify their constitution through a popular vote. Yet, in the US Constitution, written in 1787, representative democracy was the favoured mode of government. The trend of new state constitutions being ratified by popular vote continued however in the North Eastern states.

By the 1830s, James Madison, former U.S. President and contributor to the U.S. Constitution became an advocate of state constitution ratification. By 1857, Congress required all new states to have their constitutions ratified.

In the late 1890's, the Progressive Movement was critical of state and local governments being controlled by parties and corporations. They thought giving citizens more power was the means to honest government. They began advocating for three citizen measures, the initiative (the power to make their own laws), the referendum (to potentially reject laws officials had passed) and the recall (to be able to remove officials from office before their end of term).

Arizona wrote its constitution during the heyday of the Progressive Movement in 1912. The initiative, the referendum and the power of recall were all included in their constitution. President Taft refused statehood for Arizona because he objected to their constitution which allowed the recall of judges. The offending recall item was removed, statehood was granted, and Arizona then reverted to their own will by restoring recall of judiciary.

There are now a total of 24 U.S. states that have components of direct democracy governance. Fourteen state constitutions allow for recall elections for elected state officials and many more for locally elected officials. Those who wish to remove an official have to raise a petition with the names of around 25% of the number of people who voted for that official in the previous election.

Advocates of state direct democracy say it provides checks and balances by acting as a counterweight to powerful interest groups and addresses issues that legislators will not such as reduction of their own power and perks. Issues rather than party or personality become the focus of political decisions. Social solutions come from a broader pool of people, and provide a means of expression for citizens.

Critics say that reduction of officials' power and limitations on revenue raising has made governance more difficult. Citizen initiatives can be poorly worded, vague and generate legal challenges. The cost involved in advertising and campaigning for signatures can be prohibitive and those most able to do so are big business and wealthy interest groups.

The use of initiatives has been steadily increasing since the 1970s. Environmental protection measures have fared well on citizen initiatives. Other examples include minimum wage legislation, caps on property taxes and state lotteries.

The extensive use of the initiative and referendum system in the U.S. has illustrated many of the problems of the Direct Democracy process, however this in turn leads to an understanding of the checks and balances that need to be built into the system. These include having rules that require all initiatives to comply with basic human rights requirements, and having an independent body to advise on the detail of drawing up proposals.