Direct Democracy: The need for initiatives, referendums, and recalls

"I believe in the Initiative and Referendum, which should be used not to destroy representative government, but to correct it whenever it becomes misrepresentative."  ~Theodore Roosevelt

Our country was founded by rebels.  They didn't like that they were being taxed without representation, so they did something about it.
And it worked.  A new nation was born.

This instilled in our country a value of standing up for what we think is right and letting our voice be heard.  

242 years later we still do it.  

April 22, 2017, March for Science 
And it still works.  Well, sort of.  

Our country is founded on the idea that the power comes from the people, not from a monarch. But we are not a democracy.  We are a republic.  

There are lots of opinions out there as to how they differ but I like this summation. 

Democracy vs. Republic
Not just in America, but all over the world, populism is on the rise.  Populism is essentially support for the common or ordinary people.  Sometimes they are called the silent majority.  In essence it is a call to let their voices be heard by vote so that the majority can rule.  A democracy. 

Which sounds like a good thing right?   

Have you ever been to a carnival or a fair where you are asked to guess something?

Did you win?  Most likely you didn't.  Chances are pretty good your guess was wrong.  But according to a study conducted by NPR, it's okay that you might be wrong, because your guess helped the total number of guesses average to the correct answer.

So as a collective whole, the majority can get it right.  So shouldn't we just let everyone vote on every issue, law, and tax?  


We have representatives for a reason.  While the power comes from the people, it is given to our representatives to serve in our best interest and on our behalf.  But not just our behalf, but EVERYONE'S behalf.  Even those who didn't or can't vote.  Even those who didn't vote for the representative.  They are to represent all the people.  

But therein lies a problem.  Sometimes for the good of the whole, some must sacrifice.  

Whether it be with their life in war for everyone's freedom.  

Spanish American War
Or their land so that a community can develop and grow.

Or money in the form of taxes so that everyone can benefit from a public good or service

Obviously we don't like to make these sacrifices, especially if we don't feel like we should have to.  Thankfully, if we feel like our elected representatives are asking more of us than they should, we have the power to do something about it. We can vote for someone else at the next election.  

Or some of us can do something even more powerful, we can vote for an initiative, a referendum, or a recall, also known as direct democracy.

To remember the difference between them, I think of it this way.  

INITIATIVE = to initiate or start something = create a law
REFERENDUM = retract something = get rid of a law

RECALL = call back = remove an elected official from office

Basically it's a way to undo whatever your representatives are doing or not doing or get rid of them all together. 

Seems like a great tool, right?  

Well..... let's see.

Only 27 states in the United States of America have some form of direct democracy. It is probably most used in the state of California.

Californians have explicitly said that they follow Switzerland's direct democracy model which has been successful since Medieval times.

Sadly, it hasn't been quite so successful for California though.  

Californians have recalled their governor and rejected acts of legislature, but what they love the most are initiatives, especially when it comes to the budget. 

Since 1978, they have lowered taxes and mandated spending.  

This created chaos in the California State budget, which explains why they have such a poor credit rating.  

To read more about California and their initiatives, click here.  

So should direct democracy ever be used? 


The best use for this powerful tool is when there is misrepresentation.  Meaning the elected officials are not acting in the best interest of the common good or the people as a whole.  They are either benefiting only themselves, or a specific group of people.  A good example would be gerrymandering or non-partisan primaries, which was happening in California. 

An initiative has also been presented to a little town nestled between a lake and a mountain range, where the winters are cold and the summers are hot.  The tax base is low and the potholes are a plenty.  
Pleasant Grove, Utah
A select minority decided they want to use direct democracy to mandate spending to fix the roads.  They want almost 20% of its General Fund to fix the roads. Not only could this adversely affect the city's credit rating, (which they have spent years trying to repair) it will definitely affect its already strained budget.    

To read more about how a small group of people were able to get a town up in arms about the condition of the roads, click here.  

Now what is happening in this small, bucolic town probably doesn't seem like it should concern the rest of the nation.  But I submit that it should.  

Our founding fathers warned us against this mentality of switching our country from a republic to a direct democracy.  James Madison and Alexander Hamilton warns that it can give undue power to the passions of the mob or a select minority.  

To read more about what our Adams, Madison, and Hamilton said about a direct democracy, click here.  

When we bypass our representatives to get what we want, we are exposed to many risks.  Our representatives are dedicating time to research the issues so that we don't have to.  They are sometimes forced to make unpopular decisions because they know how it will benefit the common good.

With the populist movement comes an inherent distrust and dislike for our own representatives.  When our elected officials come forward to defend their decisions, they are called liars and crooks.  Why?  Because sadly, sometimes our representatives are liars and crooks, which is what created a need for direct democracy in the first place!  

So to the town of Pleasant Grove, Utah, and anyone else facing an opportunity to use direct democracy in an election here are some things to consider:  

1.  Be aware of the power you are wielding with your vote.  You are bypassing all of the checks and balances outlined in our Constitution.  Our founding fathers did not want an uninformed and manipulated public to have this kind of power. Take this vote seriously.

2. Do your research.  Don't let the person at your door asking you to sign a petition to put an initiative, referendum, or recall on a ballot to tell you what you should know.  He or she isn't your elected official.  They are someone who is passionate about an issue and want to see a change.  The power is being taken from your elected official back to you.  So you need to do the same amount of research as if you are the legislator or the city council member.

The top Google search in the UK was "What is the Brexit?"  Sadly, it was the top Google search the day AFTER the election.

3. Remember it isn't all about you.  You don't live on an island.  You live in a republic.  You live in a country that asks us to sometimes sacrifice for the good of all.  Ask yourself some hard questions before voting for an initiative or a referendum.
  • Who does this benefit?  
  • Who does this not benefit?  
  • Does the current law, code, tax, ask me to sacrifice for a greater good?  
  • Am I willing/able to make that sacrifice?  
  • How will this affect our city or state in the long term? 

4. Look outside of your community. See how this issue is handled elsewhere.

How are other cities paying for their roads?  How many other communities use 20% of their general fund to pave over potholes?  

5. Follow the money.  Use your critical thinking skills to look at those who are calling for a change.  How will they benefit from this action?  Beware that it might not be obvious.  They can easily present themselves as concerned citizens just wanting to make their community a better place.  Don't let yourself get manipulated.

In Pleasant Grove, the people who are trying to hijack the General Fund with an initiative are with the same group who tried to run for City Council a few years ago.  They were running on a ticket known as PG3.  They ran on a single issue of roads, but weren't clear as to why they were running as a group.  No matter the issue, when a group runs together for city council, I get nervous.  Municipal politics are nonpartisan for a reason. 

6. Don't hunt pheasants with an assault rifle.  Is this issue worthy of something as powerful as direct democracy?  We don't want to fall into the trap that California fell into.  They used initiatives for chicken coop regulations!

Despite my federalist leanings, I actually am supportive of direct democracy.

 I love that I live in a country that allows for the voice of the people to be heard if they are being represented by corrupt officials.  But I think we don't always realize just how powerful (and damaging) direct democracy can be.


Adrian Hale said…
Nice postt thanks for sharing