Outlining a Progressive Future

Creating Actual Democracry – Letting People Vote on Proposals

As promised in my first blog on democracy I will now begin a series of posts on filling the democratic void in society, both in governance and resource distribution fields. My first post will be on what I think is possibly the most obvious response one may have to a discussion on increasing democracy ‘why can’t we allow all people to vote for legislative proposals?’ 

For me, it’s a pretty fair and reasonable response. I mean, why can’t we let people vote and have an actual say on the legislation that we all claim to be so important? However, logistically, such a question can and does cause serious problems and would require a significant amount of resources and time.

For me there are two ways we can move to let people vote on national or state legislation:

  1. Through the creation of an American style ‘popular ballot’ system (noting that this occurs only at the state level)
  2. Through creating a system which allows for votes on all pieces of legislation at both a local, state and federal level.

Both of these have logistical issues around, so I will look at them separately in different posts.

Popular Ballots

Occurring in nearly every state in the US a ‘popular ballot’ gives the opportunity for the people of a state to vote on a particular issue in a completely binding manner. The issues are always brought up by ‘the people’, with a requirement of a certain amount of signatures to have the issue put on a ballot paper. The vote then occurs at the same time as regular voting, meaning that there can often be many popular ballots on a particular day at any time. It is votes such as this that have seen gay marriage outlawed in many states and have seen action on issues such as adoption, abortion and affirmative action (these are this big issues occurring in popular ballots at the moment).

What does this achieve?

The obvious thing this action achieves is giving people the option to vote on issues that are important to them. These actions allow people to have a direct say in the way a place is governed, although in a somewhat limited way. This, for me, both provides a level of agency when it comes to the way decisions are made as well a level of ownership of the governance of a particular area. These are both good things.

What are the Negatives?

There are a few negatives to such a process:

  1.  The requirement of having thousands of signatures to get an issue on the ballot paper reduces the amount of issues that can be considered ‘important to the people’. The problem here is that taking the initiative to start such a signature drive and gaining so many signatures requires a large amount of resources, which is not available to some. This means that it can often only be the issues of ‘wealthy/well funded’ organisations that are placed onto the ballot paper.
  2. The long time it takes to have an issue placed on a ballot paper (just say it occurred every election cycle in Australia, it would take at least 3 years for new votes) means that governments can implement unpopular initiatives that may be too late to reverse. For example, when the Howard Government in Australia introduced Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU), there was quite a large amount of vocal opposition to the proposal. If a popular ballot system were to have been available it would have been possible to place this issue on the voting rolls. However, by the time this vote would have occurred we would have already seen many student unions collapse due to lack of funds, making it more difficult when the vote is overturned. 
  3. Information: One of the biggest problems people bring up with these issues is the access to information available in complex legislative decision making processes. Legislation is often extremely complex and difficult to understand and it is argued therefore that this should be left up to ‘experts’. I personally disagree with this conclusion as (a) it assumes that all politicians are experts and (b) it assumes that people are too dumb to understand the important decisions that directly affect them. I disagree with such an assumption and simply argue that all that needs to occur is a free and fair campaign on either side to allow the vote to occur.

Overall, however I think these three ‘negatives’ are outweighed by the positives that come with such ballots. The first two points can easily be overruled just by realising that in the current situation in most countries there isn’t even any chance for people to vote on issues. Therefore, even with these two flaws, this system is better than the current one. The last point can, as I said, be mitigated through ensuring there is the opportunity for a free and fair campaign from all sides on the issue (acknowledging the difficulties with defining a free and fair campaign).

Although I think there are options to go further than this (to be discussed later) I think allowing public ballots is a good step forward in increasing democratic principles. These ballots allow people to vote on important, even if somewhat limited, issues and gives people the opportunity to gain some real democratic agency. 


April 10, 2009 - Posted by | Democracy and the State, Options for a Progressive Future


  1. Great post. One quick comment: I think you brush negative number three aside too easily. Simplifying the argument that politicians are “experts” and people are “dumb” doesn’t acknowledge the fact that politicians have a day-to-day lived experience with the budgetary realities of governing.

    I think it is reasonable to say that when issues arise to be put forward for popular ballot that, in general, people will be more supportive of government spending – or tax cuts – that a bottom line may allow.

    I think that one case against popular ballots is that with decision-making rights come decision-making responsibilities, and the population-at-large, not accountable to anyone (no one can vote you out of the citizenry) may not make decisions on one hot issue that reflect society’s needs across the board.

    I think your criticism of the arguments against popular ballots can be expressed in a more nuanced, and more accurate way.

    Comment by James | April 14, 2009 | Reply

  2. James. Thank you for your response. You are probably right that in some ways I have simplified the argument here a little too much in the regards to the information issue. However, in response to your comment I still think that the information issue can be overcome.

    First, I do agree that there is an issue with the lived ‘day-to-day’ experience with the budgetary realities of governing that politicians do have. However, having a situation where one requires a large of signatures to get votes on a ballot paper generally removes a large amount of these ‘day-to-day’ issues (note, I will be discussing this more in a blog I will post hopefully tonight or tomorrow).

    Second, although ‘accountability’ is an issue I think in the long run one could argue that although one cannot lose their citizenry, they can easily lose the benefits that come through the good policy that they have voted against. In the long run bad policy affects almost everyone (except in cases of minority oppression, which is why I am in support of a bill of rights that would overrule any citizen ballot) and I think in the long run having bad policy inflicted upon a population is probably a very good way to ensure ‘population accountability’ when it comes to these sorts of votes.

    Last, I disagree with the premise that people are more likely to be in supportive of government spending or tax cuts whilst ignoring the bottom line. Whilst this may occur in some circumstances, I bring to your attention examples in the United States (including Massachusetts last year) where people have voted overwhelmingly against moves to abolish the income tax in their state (to be honest I don’t know if these moves have ever been voted for in any states and would be interested to know.)

    Comment by simon2013 | April 14, 2009 | Reply

  3. […] Actual Democracy – The ‘Online Senator’ Model By simon2013 Following on from my recent post on popular ballots I am now going to discuss the ‘Online Senator’ model of increasing democracy. Now, for […]

    Pingback by Creating Actual Democracy - The ‘Online Senator’ Model « Polswatch | April 14, 2009 | Reply

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