Switzerland has an interesting system where citizens may directly call for a legally binding referendum, ranging from a simple questions ("Should religious calls for prayers be prohibited?") to complex ones (constitutional changes). It seems that this system is quite rare in other countries - most either don't have federal referendums altogether, have extremely high barriers for organizing a referendum, or the referendums are not legally binding (United Kingdom).

Why is this so? Isn't it great if citizens can directly vote on important issues?

  • Are you asking for an empirical answer (for example, statements by legislators explaining why they didn't include this feature) or a theoretical answer (for example, philosophers or political scientists explaining why this is a bad idea) ? May 2, 2017 at 19:12
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    The bane of direct democracy: Always remember that the people who decide your country's fate are the same ones for whom there is a label on the frozen pizza plastic wrapper that says "remove before eating". May 2, 2017 at 21:49
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    "or the referendums are not legally binding (United Kingdom)" The UK's constitution doesn't provide for binding referendums but a referendum can be made legally binding by the legislation for the referendum. The European Union Referendum Act 2015 did not provide for a legally binding referendum, as was made clear in the briefing paper for the-then draft Bill. In contrast the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, which provided for the so-called AV referendum, would have caused the AV system (and boundary changes) to be implemented had the majority voted for AV.
    – Lag
    May 3, 2017 at 7:36
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    There is a bunch of different procedures to call for referendums in Switzerland, in particular to block laws or government decisions, but at the federal level popular initiative is only available for constitutional changes. Hence, the infamous minaret ban was actually put forward as an amendment to the constitution and article 72 now reads something like “(1) Relations between church and state is a provincial matter (2) the federal state and the provinces can enact measures to ensure peace between religious communities (3) building minarets is forbidden.” Make of that what you wish…
    – Relaxed
    May 3, 2017 at 15:47
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    @ElGuapo That's not actually correct. Parliament can never be bound by it's own Acts. They can word an Act in the manner of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, but there is nothing to stop Parliament from later repealing that act regardless of what it says or what the referendum result was. Such an outcome would be unlikely for political, not legal, reasons. For a referendum to be "legally binding" it would have to operate from a supreme constitution i.e. one whose rules take precedence over the legislature (as for example is the case in the USA).
    – JBentley
    May 4, 2017 at 12:41

4 Answers 4


The Problem of Democracy

A lot of ink has been spilled about the central problem of democracy. On one hand, the reason to have a democracy is because people should have some input into their governance. On the other hand, people do stupid or terrible things with that power.

The ancient Greeks (and later the Romans and Christian writers) considered democracy to be a failure of government. Plato (Republic, Book 8) explains that a democracy is ruled by useless desires (such as misplaced survival instincts or the desire for personal wealth). In a democracy, these misguided people are allowed to rule, which results in chaos.

This view was shared by Aristotle (Politics, Book 3 part 8), who summarized the problem as:

For tyranny is a kind of monarchy which has in view the interest of the monarch only; oligarchy has in view the interest of the wealthy; democracy, of the needy: none of them the common good of all.

Outside the classics, this view exists up until today. In the 19th century, English philosopher J.S. Mill (On Liberty, Chapter 1) attributed the problem to public opinion. Nearly all people use their naive opinion as a basis for political decision making. They base their support, voting, and other choices on there own personal opinion based on their personal experience - and they don't see a problem in this. Governments led this way do what their citizens want, rather than what is effective for obtaining what their citizens want. In addition to poor governance, Mill describes how democracies are driven to control people's personal lives - the "tyranny of the majority".

So the problems common throughout history are that democracy is unstable, leads to poor governance, and easily becomes oppressive rather than free.

In Practice

Although I cited philosophers, in practice politicians have followed these kinds of ideas. The American founding fathers implemented many features to prevent citizens from having direct influence on the government:

  • Legislation can only be created through legislators, not citizens.
  • Senators (members of the upper chamber) are not to be selected by citizens, but by state legislators (this feature later removed).
  • Federal judges are not elected, but appointed for life terms to prevent citizens from influencing them.
  • The electoral college prevents citizens from directly choosing the President and Vice President.

We could easily list many more, including examples from other countries. Founders of modern democracies are aware that popular rule is a problem to be avoided, rather than something to be embraced. Probably the fairest synopsis is that although the public should have input into the system, their input has to be moderated.

Scientific Examples

In political science, we often describe states with "too much" democracy as being populist. Populism is generally a danger to citizens' rights and liberties. Much of this theory was developed by William Riker, but it is still common in spatial voting theory, social choice theory, and other fields.

Riker's basic concern was with electoral systems. How does the electoral system influence policy? Essentially, his conclusion is that elections restrain elected officials and policy, not empower them. Furthermore, the populist example (where citizens empower representatives to enact their will) is meaningless. Public support is unstable unless it is moderated by some kinds of institutions. Relying on public opinion directly for policy would lead to policies which are chaotic and inconsistent, as public opinion ebbs and flows. The result is that in these kinds of states, most public policy is wasteful: it changes too quickly or is quickly forgotton, never allowed to be useful.

In the modern liberal democracy (where policy is somewhat insulated from public opinion) voting is less detailed: we either accept or reject a candidate. Voters punish candidates who create policies they don't like. In this situation, policy is more consistent, less prone to large fluctuations, and leads to better outcomes.

I won't cite all of Riker's work, but this synopsis may be useful to anyone interested.

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    That is a great answer; you could extend it by incorporating some exqmples of populist appeal and laws against referendums. For instance - Germany has very defined criteria for calling a referendum and very tight restrictions on what constitutes a binding win. For obvious populist reasons... May 3, 2017 at 5:46
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    Would you mind adding examples of chaotic and inconsistent policy in Switzerland ? Ancient philosophers and people with power avoiding it to give it away don't seem like a good evidance and if modern science supports it then there should be statistics for it ?! Hope you understand my concern :)
    – user13899
    May 3, 2017 at 7:37
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    Ok, so if I get this right, legislation done by a million people is bad, but legislation done by some 200 people is good. How does that work exactly?
    – Masked Man
    May 3, 2017 at 16:45
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    @MaskedMan - That is worthy of it's own question. The short story is that those 200 people are different than the population at large. Different in good ways. May 3, 2017 at 17:23
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    People do stupid things with that power You don't say. My town decided to call a public vote on how to spend this year's $1.5M budget. Cool! Our roads and parks could use some of that. The crumbling XVII-century forts surrounding the town could be restored for visitors to see. Unemployed people queuing every day outside charities could use some training or job programs. Guess which proposal was the most voted? Spending $250,000 on astroturf for a football field in the suburbs. The second most voted one? Another $250,000 to build a whole new football field in a different suburb. Ugh.
    – walen
    May 4, 2017 at 7:58

From a theoretical viewpoint, this paper on voting theory discusses one of the more fundamental problems, namely if the proposal system allows related issues to be divided so as to give binary options for questions then majority rule can cause a winning combination which nobody wants. The classic example is something like:

  1. Q: should taxes be lowered?

  2. Q: Should spending on schools be increased?

When both questions get answered in the affirmative, then the governing system's finances rapidly run out.

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    @Christoph: Your solutions conveniently leave out who should alter the questions. And that's diverging from the question anyway, which asks for citizens directly proposing referenda, i.e without interference by the sort of agency you're imagining.
    – MSalters
    May 3, 2017 at 8:21
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    Can't this problem be solved by having citizens take a test before answering questions ? In this case a test about where tax money is from and how it is dispatched currently. Yet stays the questions of who write the test... May 3, 2017 at 8:32
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    This is at both @Christoph, and the Masked Man who asked about 200 vs 1 million people above. More then just who you have the what of the situation. What is being cut for school spending to increase and overall taxes to decrease? Road work? Public Buildings hours? So that the school gets more hours the kids of low income families now can't access the computers at the library after 6pm or on Saturdays cause there is no money to pay the staff? Government, even on a city level, is complex. Its far easier to get 200 people to understand these issues then 1 million people.
    – Ryan
    May 3, 2017 at 21:06
  • @yanyankelevich At least in the US, usually when people propose a required test before gaining voting rights, it is shot down as classist/racist/otherwise discriminatory (heck, even voter ID laws get called that). So it might sound nice in theory, but in practice would be way too messy to implement "correctly". In the end, you'd still have a restricted group of citizens making the laws instead of all citizens.
    – user812786
    May 4, 2017 at 13:26
  • @yanyankelevich That is a wonderful idea. Now give the power of who decides what that test is to the person you distrust the most in the world... Is it still a good idea?
    – Questor
    Mar 28 at 23:20

Some US states have a referendum process at the state level. I don't know how many states allow this. In some states it's rare, but in others (e.g., California, Oregon) it's quite common. I have voted ballots in both states with 20-30 statewide measures. Some are referred by the state legislature -- e.g., constitutional amendments, borrowing for capital projects -- and others were put there by citizens gathering signatures.

Results are mixed, and origimbo's example applies quite well. Both California and Oregon have passed measures which make it harder for local government to raise money by property taxes. Schools and local roads have suffered. California's state budget has many constraints imposed by the voters in one way or another -- at least for a while, the legislature really couldn't follow all of them.

As a voter, I've found some of these rather frustrating. If I support change on an issue, and a ballot measure on that issue is poorly written or goes to far, what do I do? If I vote for it, I may end up with a badly written policy, but if I am sending a message that I don't support the idea. At least in the legislature, proposals can be amended.

A cynical interpretation: democracy isn't about letting the people rule. It's about preventing violent revolutions like the mess in Syria -- those are bad for business. Instead, democracy gives us frequent, ritualized, non-violent revolutions. It channels rebellious impulses into a process which can absorb them harmlessly.

  • The other interesting problem with the west coast referendums are their susceptibility to lawyers, does what was written mean (only) what voters (or the writers) thought.
    – user9389
    May 3, 2017 at 14:42
  • I didn't quite get what is the problem with voting against a poorly written measure. Can you clarify?
    – MauganRa
    May 3, 2017 at 14:44
  • A poorly written measure can be vague in description and have much broader applications than intended when opened up to liberal interpretation. Someone successfully fought a "failure to stop at a stop sign" because of vagueness as it did not define a distance, and as he owned the vehicle for several years he had to have stopped it at least once.
    – Mad Myche
    May 3, 2017 at 16:23
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    MauganRa: If I vote against a measure which tries to do something I support but does it badly, my vote is likely to be interpreted as opposing the whole idea. For example, Benton County, Oregon voted in 2015 or 2016 on a measure which would ban GMO crops. This measure would have required farmers to remove GMO crops from the field shortly after passage, even if they were a month from harvest. Someone who opposes GMOs, but thinks this provision is unfair to farmers, might vote "no", but then they look just like someone who supports GMOs.
    – Danaus
    May 3, 2017 at 19:37
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    @Danaus: Call me cynical, but I suspect that a lot of proposals, both for plebiscites and legislative votes, are deliberately written to fail for precisely that purpose.
    – supercat
    May 3, 2017 at 20:42

"Isn't it great if citizens can directly vote on important issues?" - Perhaps, but a lot of great things don't happen in practice. There are historical reasons that Switzerland's political system developed the way that it did.

As one page puts it:

In Switzerland, Direct Democracy has a long tradition: The origins of Direct Democracy can be traced back to the late the middle ages: archaic forms (assemblies of the electorate discussing and deciding major political issues) have been practised in part of the country since the founding of the Old Swiss Confederacy in 1291.

The origins of Switzerland's modern system of Direct Democracy with formalized opinion polls and frequent referendums lie in the experimental phase of democracy in the 19th century when Switzerland was surrounded by monarchies on the European continent that showed little to none enthusiasm for democracy.

Another page on the same site it explains the historical origins of the modern practice in the wake of civil war. It is often suggested that the modern referendum actually has its origins in Switzerland.

For a similar practice to be adopted in other countries would require a concerted demand, and would likely face opposition from entrenched interests. Democratic rights more generally have historically been won from elites in need of legitimating their rule. Outside of Switzerland, this is simply not a concession they've been forced to make.

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