Currently we use a representative democracy, where we vote for a single representative who then decides almost everything. This means that we may have to vote for a representative who agrees with 80% of our beliefs, but who we disagree with 20% of the time, because he is the closest 'fit' to our actual beliefs.

There is an idea of a direct, or pure, democracy where everyone votes on each issue, rather then having a representative to stand in on these votes, which theoretically could allow a more accurate representation of our actual beliefs by allowing us to give the answer we want on each issue directly.

Unfortunately a direct democracy is rather impracticale for any decent size of people. Setting up polls every few years to pick representatives is already a hard and expensive process, but doing it for every single vote would cost too much, and people wouldn't want to wait in line to vote on every issue.

However, with our new technology online direct democracy votes have become pretty common, though on much less important issues like reality show winners. I'm wondering what would happen if we could manage something like this for important government decisions.

One of the biggest issues with online direct voting is the possibility of fraud is considered too high. For the sake of this question please ignore that possibility, assume we have created methodologies, technology etc to the point that each person gets only one vote and the threat of fraud is no higher then we face with our current polling systems.

The other big issue is that a system that required going online to vote would make it harder (though not impossible now of days) for the very poor to vote, anyone without a computer, smart phone, or other home-accessible means of going online. I also would like to not focus too much attention to this issue right now, while recognizing the possibility, by assuming that some sort of approach has been implemented to assist those that are poor. I'm happy to hear suggestions for how to minimize this risk, but for the sake of this question assume that the poor have approximately the same ability to vote as middle class and above, or at least the same ability to vote relative to middle class as they have now (no doubt that can't afford cars are unfairly underrepresented now in areas that don't have good public transportation currently).

This question only assumes that the ability to do instantaneous and reliable political votes from home or even smart phone is possible, not that were using a direct democracy. My main question is rather we would convert to a direct democracy, maintain our current representative democracy, or choose some hybrid with representatives for some votes and direct votes for others.

Going along with this how would politics be adjusted by the presence of (the possibility) of direct votes. Would the common populations be better represented? In particular it seems that some people would follow politics, and thus vote, more often then others. Would political decision become more strongly effected by individuals who bother to vote and thus be slanted in favor of certain groups or factions (again, assuming that the poor somehow have the same ease of access to quick online votes as the rich). Would the net effect be policies more aligned with the median desire of the population?

Finally, would this change the way that votes were courted? Would certain factions be courted for votes more because they are more prone to voting, for example? I may ask a follow up question on this last part, so there isn't as much need to go into detail here as the above two questions, but I'm curious about any concepts that may help influence what follow up question I ask.

  • $\begingroup$ Are you looking for the standard causes for why direct democracy fails with large populations, or are you starting from the assumption that it would work? $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Aug 21, 2015 at 18:53
  • $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon I want to assume that the ability to handle quick, accurate, instantaneous votes work only. Rather or not that leads to direct democracy, or a hybrid of one, is part of the question I pose. IF the answer is no it doesn't for reason xyz, and those reasons are not limits of collecting votes or the potential limitation of poor not having access to internet to file their vote, which I'm aware of but don't want to focus on for this question, I'm more then happy to hear about it. $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Aug 21, 2015 at 19:04
  • $\begingroup$ Is no-one else watching Gatchaman Crowds Insight? $\endgroup$
    – Fhnuzoag
    Aug 22, 2015 at 10:04
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    $\begingroup$ With regard to possible hybrid approaches, I have often wondered about creating a new political party whose elected representatives merely pass along any decisions they must make during the performance of their office to their respective electorates. For example, a senator of this party would post any bills that come before him on a website, let anyone who lives in their state vote on it electronically, and then vote accordingly during the actual vote in the Senate. $\endgroup$ Aug 26, 2015 at 20:59
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    $\begingroup$ USA: technically we have a republic with democratically elected representation. That differs from Canada who has a representative democracy. The difference is meaningful enough that virtually every election cycle in the US it has to be re-explained $\endgroup$
    – pojo-guy
    May 6, 2018 at 13:27

10 Answers 10


The nation would be run by a relatively small number of unelected individuals

Most people wouldn't vote. Even people that are interested wouldn't vote on most issues, because there are too many issues to be voted on for the average person to learn about, gain an opinion on, and vote on. This is one major reason that representatives are helpful. Congress has, this year, voted on 246 resolutions, and this has been a year with comparatively few of them. A busy year can see well over a thousand. (source: https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/statistics)

If those had all been voted on by a direct democracy, how many people do you think would have read over all of them? Most people would vote in one of two ways: either they'd vote along the lines of whatever their favorite media source was telling them, or else they'd vote only on the few bills that they though were important. The rest of the bills would be voted on by the small minority of voters who would be willing to read and vote on everything. This would mostly consist of retirees.

These individuals would effectively run the country, and everyone else would have a diminished political voice.

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    $\begingroup$ Of course, this can be addressed with a hybrid system. (You can pick a representative, but you can change him, or contradict his vote on individual issues. You can even have different representatives for different types of votes.) $\endgroup$ Aug 22, 2015 at 21:03
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    $\begingroup$ I never thought of the idea of specialist representatives. I wonder what the word for that system of government would be? $\endgroup$ Aug 26, 2015 at 20:12
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    $\begingroup$ @TristanKlassen I think it might be called a delegative democracy. $\endgroup$
    – Cel Skeggs
    Oct 31, 2015 at 4:51
  • $\begingroup$ Honestly, that would be better than the current system where its run by a very very small selection of elected individuals. But i disagree with that being the end result. People would realize things are not going the way and they truly have the power to change things to how they want, and so they get more involved. Inevitably, someone pounces on this and will start a service that summarizes the laws in layman's terms, and earn money off ads and/or subscriptions to the service. If allowed, it would greatly increase the population of voters. $\endgroup$
    – Ryan
    Jan 23, 2017 at 21:59
  • $\begingroup$ Diffuse costs with concentrated benefits - those who vote are those with the most to gain/lose, which the general populace doesn't care much. That isn't a single group of individuals like some kind of aristocratic cabal, but every different issue will have different set of motivated voters. Narrow special interests control their pet issues, while society as a whole ignores them and dies from a thousand cuts. $\endgroup$ May 7, 2018 at 14:25

The ancient Greek Philosophers were actually quite sceptical if not dismissive of Democracy, and most seemed to be of the opinion this system could only work if a relatively small number of people actually were able to vote.

Much of this was a reflection of the changes to Greek society after the Persian Wars. Up until them, only the landed Hoplites could vote, having earned the vote with their willingness to stand together and spill blood for the polis. This was also a form of Timocracy, since the only people who could afford the kit needed to become a Hoplite were people who owned their own family farms. The full armour and weapons of a Hoplite in modern terms would be much like buying a large car or SUV, and Hoplite armour and tactics were also designed to downgrade both the poor (who did not have the weaponry to effectively break a phalanx of Hoplites) or the aristocracy (mounted troops in this period only had projectile weapons like javelins, which also were not able to make an impression on a formed body of Hoplites).

The breakdown came after the Battle of Salamis, where the rowers demanded and were given a vote since they claimed (with good reason) their contribution was equal to any Hoplite. Rowers in the ancient world were actually professionals, since untrained men or unwilling slaves could upset the rhythmic actions needed by oarsmen to carry out complex manoeuvres in a galley. Suddenly instead of a few hundred voters, there were something like 5000 people eligible to serve on the Juries and vote on the issues of the day.

As Thucydides points out on multiple occasions in "The History of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenian Jury was easily swayed by Demagogues to vote for or against issues out of passion rather than reasoned debate and critical thought. Strategoi (like Thucydides himself) could be exiled or even executed if their opponents could inflame the Jury against them. Ill considered plans could be granted support, the two most famous being the decision to execute all the men and enslave all the women and children of a small island city state which defied Athens (The Mytilenian Revolt; rescinded the very next day by a shamed jury facing remorse, although the demagogues argued that changing their minds would signal weakness to both Athen's allies and enemies, they voted to send a ship to countermand the order which arrived just in time to prevent a massacre), and of course the ill fated Sicilian Expedition, which destroyed the flower of the Athenian army and fleet, and led to the ultimate downfall of Athens itself.

Direct democracy in the modern world would face a similar problem of demagoguery and lack of reflection on the issues being debated. The matters being raised and the timing of the votes could also be manipulated (much like FaceBook illegally manipulated their subscriber's feeds in an "experiment" to manipulate the members preferences; imagine if FaceBook, owned by a prominent Democrat supporter, did this on a large scale during an election: http://www.forbes.com/sites/gregorymcneal/2014/07/04/facebook-faces-possible-ftc-investigation-for-manipulation-study/).

For this reason, the Ancient Romans developed the Republican form of government, and the modern Swiss,use referendums to provide people with a "direct democracy" means to raise issues for the elected representatives to debate (but the representatives are under no obligation to approve of any recommended solution in the referendum), but "direct democracy" is shunned as an actual form of government by modern states and most political theorists.

The American Founders went even farther, including separate forms of elections for different branches of government: Direct election of representatives to the Congress, for debates on the day to day issues; Legislative election of Senators, a smaller deliberative body to consider bills from the House and to represent the interests of the separate States (changed with the 17th Amendment), and the Electoral College of the United States, to elect the President and prevent the smaller States from having their influence diluted or swept away by that of the larger and more populous States. So long as the Congress and Senate were vigilant about their roles and prerogatives (and did not shed them to the Executive, Judiciary or the Bureaucracy, a situation the Founders did not seem to have fully considered), then there was a balancing act between the legislative bodies of the United States and much less chance of issues being decided by passions of the moment.


Our society would change.

Note that these are high-level, not getting into technicalities of democracies; also I'm assuming that everyone over 18 is able to use a computer and most vote.

Education Issue - One of the reasons America has (now useless?) electoral colleges was to represent those who weren't educated to vote (it was a bit more nefarious, but whatever). BUT now you have every 18 year old getting an e-mail asking them to vote on the Justice Reinvestment Act (as an example), without having heard of it; or even people who've only watched the news, and haven't read the actual bill. Politicians are currently requested to fully read and understand an issue and vote on it the way that they believe their constituents would vote. Whether this happens, is a different thing.

Majority Rules - Your change would result in a majority-rules at all times. I'm not saying this is a good/bad thing, but it takes us far away from a representative democracy that protects special interests.

Increased Results for Referendums - Increasing the ease by which referendums are voted on would increase voter turnout.

Still Not Protected - Even if the cyber-security is watertight, there's nothing preventing voter fraud: even my boyfriend could steal my vote by going on my computer. Maybe you could have fingerprint scanners or something.

Overwhelming - Ain't nobody got time fo dat. There are 6,261 bills and resolutions currently before the United States Congress alone. Perhaps you could have them shortlisted by a representative, but this defeats the purpose.

Sneaky Representation - Somebody has to write those 6,261 bills, and they don't write the bills that they don't want to be before congress. Of course, that kind of affects us now.

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    $\begingroup$ Any reason for the -1? I'd like to improve my answers on this site. $\endgroup$
    – Mikey
    Aug 23, 2015 at 18:26

I think pundits would become extremely powerful. As others have pointed out, there are an enormous number of individual bills that have to be voted on. The average voter isn't going to have the time to research, or even care about, one percent of those. But it seems like such a waste to not vote. So why not pick your favorite pundit — maybe Rush Limbaugh, maybe Jon Stewart, maybe some Libertarian guy you've never met on reddit — and just copy and paste the voting guide they so generously provide on their blog?

I think that pretty much everyone who didn't want to let their votes go to waste would eventually find some pundit(s) they agreed with, and follow them on any issue that they themselves didn't have a strong opinion of or didn't get around to researching fully.

Pundits might actually become some of the most powerful people around, given that "all" they're doing is exercising their right of free speech. There's no impeaching them or waiting for their term to expire or any of that. So long as they have access to a computer, they can get their message out.


I'll try not to duplicate too much of other responses.

If anyone says "[political system] doesn't/won't work", I always ask "By what definition of 'work'?" People tend to exaggerate what they see as the problems with other systems and become desensitized to the things they dislike about what they're used to.

Some possible effects of direct democracy, and ways to make it "work better":

Constitutions, precedent, and so on, will no longer have weight. It wouldn't be fair in a direct democracy to prioritize old decisions, specifically those not made with direct public input. Likewise, allowing the non-elected judicial branch power is inconsistent with the philosophy. So, there will be a strong shift towards "The most recent law/policy takes precedence; don't worry about making it consistent with other laws and policies that already exist."

The legislative and judicial system would be greatly simplified. These have become insular, designed by professionals for professionals. The deprofessionalization of government would force simplification so that the participants could understand it. Remember, all those bills being proposed are now being drafted by non-professionals...

Separatist movements will be much stronger. Most individuals would have much less interest in opposing another region's or group's secession than a centralized government. And, as noted by others, majority rule would be less compromised by minority interests, leading to increased motivation by groups to form their own boundaries.

Foreign policy would be affected massively. That's about all I can say on that. It's striking how similar the international politics of democracies and non-democratic countries are, because neither are actually being driven by public will. A direct democracy... Its foreign policy would likely be more driven by ideology and ethical considerations. It would also be much less likely to wage war: the citizenry is unlikely to support policies that put them at risk.

Direct democracy benefits from citizens having available time. With time expectations of political engagement, there will be a strong drive toward shorter work hours. Social justice policies will prioritize giving people time to engage with politics. http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/you-really-dont-need-to-work-so-much Since, curiously, higher-paid workers now tend to get less time off, that means they're politically disadvantaged in a direct democracy.

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    $\begingroup$ I would argue that the attitude that "the most recent law/policy takes precedence; don't worry about making it consistent with other laws and policies that already exist" would in fact reinforce the current role of the legal profession as arbiters of the law. Layers upon layers of new legislation, each part of which abrogates some but not all parts of the previous hundred layers, will in short order render the law so complex that only a full-time professional could have even a hope of figuring it out. $\endgroup$ Aug 26, 2015 at 20:50
  • $\begingroup$ But in turn, it's much quicker to overturn rulings with new legislation. And I also meant that the public, seeing complex legal structures, would be motivated to repeal old legislation to replace it with more easily comprehensible new legislation they could deal with. $\endgroup$ Aug 26, 2015 at 20:58

If there was a reliable and cheep manner for the population to record votes then having then population vote on finer and finer grains of the running of the society has very few downsides.

Indeed it is probable that the somewhat defunct purpose of the upper house in a Westminster democracy could be usurped bu some form of popular voting.

To achieve this a new layer of political over site could be introduced, allowing citizens to form into a structure of electorates that are based on something different to residential location, such as age, gender, parents, quite possible one citizen could belong to more than one electorate, this is intended to form something similar to liquid democracy and not merely repeat the existing representational system that does the actual work of proposing and enacting legislation.

the next thing to recognise is that there are 3 possible meanings with a vote, I agree, "YES", I don't Agree "NO" and I don't care, "NOT VOTING" so that for an electorate's vote to count on a particular issue, a threshold portion of the members of the electorate would have to actually register a vote.


I don't think the system would work out very well because the average citizen is simply not educated in a way which gives them any understanding of how to actually run a nation, and because it would be heinously inefficient.

The first issue is a big one. Think about the propositions your city or state has given to you to vote on. I know I've seen several times where the legalese of the wording appeared to say one thing, but the dissenting opinion on it pointed out that the bill actually had the exact opposite effect! And this was local politics. Can you imagine national politics?

There's also the question of information. It may not be possible to even give the civilian population enough information to vote intelligently, especially in issues of defense. Think of defense budgets. How many Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicles do we need vs. how many THAAD do we buy? What's the chances of you getting the information needed to make that call?

This points towards a hybrid approach, but how do you draw the line between what is voted upon by everyone and what is voted on by Capitol Hill? With every bill passed in Washington, there will be grumblings that it wasn't put up to a vote.

And just think of how inefficient the process is. Right now there are a few hundred people who need to really understand the bills. Suddenly you would need 150 million people to really understand the bills. The cost of governance would skyrocket.

The only way I see to survive is to release our grip on the sharp lines of the system. Right now things pass, or don't pass. Once they're in law, they're there for hundreds of years. Contracts are either paid or unpaid. We would need to create grey areas so that people could apply their sense of good and bad, right and wrong.

Then all we have to do is make sure the majority doesn't vote itself bread and circuses.

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    $\begingroup$ first I have to say I appreciate your asking rather or not you were allowed to complain about my question before you complained about direct democrazy ;) I do agree with you in general, but could not a few major bills be put up to vote, or even allow users to vote on what bills will be directly voted on; any vote that gets enough online petitions will be translated to direct voting $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Aug 21, 2015 at 19:24
  • $\begingroup$ @dsollen If I were to go down that path, I'd probably do it like Asimov did his laws or how Heinlein dealt with relationships like marriage. I'd write book after book of attempts to achieve the ideal, and how it fell short =) I'd actually be interested in seeing if you could work a system where each person read and voted on a slightly different wording, and those differing results were sewn together into the fabric of a bill. That would really leverage the power of the people. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Aug 22, 2015 at 2:52

My view is that society would actually collapse. Any complex system such as a modern economy requires negative and positive feedback loops to maintain its structure.

Given that individual citizens (even the most intelligent and well informed ones) cannot be expected to be qualified to judge policy in all fields, you would get effectively random policy making exacerbated by chaotic herding effects causing disasterous policy oscillation. The reason why we have 'conservative' and 'progressive' political parties that alternate their time in power is that the conservatives resist changes to that which has been seen to work tolerably well and the progressive parties seek 'ideals'. Both impulses are valuable in a complex social system which needs to exhibit some social memory and process information but can also evolve and explore new pathways.

A tweak to the direct democracy system that could avoid the chaos is as follows:

  1. Policy matters to be put to public vote are categorised under P policy areas.
  2. Voting proxy organisations claiming expertise in a subset M of P policy areas may block vote on those policy areas alone on behalf of individual if so authorised by the individual.
  3. Individuals review the stated objectives and beliefs of the proxy organisations and assign their votes in each area of policy to a single proxy org. They may review and update their assignments as often as they wish.
  4. Individuals may use different proxies for different policy areas.
  5. Individuals may retain the ability to free vote or abstain on a given policy area by not assigning their vote to proxies.

Essentially the proxy orgs replace political parties with the difference that proxies can and should be focussed on a narrow range of issues and may provide advisors to the executive. For example, you could imagine military generals being swapped when a war is going badly and an alliance of proxy orgs opposed to the way in which the campaign has been conducted gather enough public support to have their own 'expert' installed as C-in-C for the theatre in question.

That brings us on to the main issue with direct democracy - it is probably a police state (either benign or malign) in which certain aspects of the system/constitution are not subject to the public vote since if they were the system would likely be unstable.

However I would say that isn't that much different to todays situation in which the way the civil service machinery operates (government clerks, police, regulators, central banks, healthcare admins etc), persists pretty much unchanged from election to election.

  • $\begingroup$ How about... A political social network (aka Facebook for legislators)? People who don't want to vote follow other's votes, or join groups (your proxies) which vote in their place. Inconsistencies on voting should be checked by the network's software. For the bills, a batallion of lawyers (all public workers, of course) translating common speak from/to legalese, for the benefit of the people. $\endgroup$ Dec 22, 2015 at 21:50

Many answers have pointed out that keeping informed about all the things that get voted on is very difficult and requires a large time investment. We can't expect our entire citizenry to do this -- at least, not at the rate that our representatives are currently voting on legislation.

One solution for this is proxy voting: you can choose someone else -- a friend or a public figure -- to cast your vote as well as theirs. Sometimes more complex variants of proxy voting are proposed: you might want your vote to copy Person A for foreign policy, but Person B for economic issues.

But that's not what you asked. You asked whether, given the opportunity, we would switch to a direct democracy with proxy voting. The answer is no, because it would be require our representatives to vote themselves out of their jobs. Electoral reform is extremely difficult even for problems with easy fixes: we have no fix for gerrymandering, for example, and no campaign finance reform. Switching to direct democracy would be much harder.


24 states and DC already have hybrid direct and representative democracy. Ballot initiatives are the origin of everything from women's suffrage and sunshine laws to renewable energy mandates and medical and legal marijuana: http://vote.org/initiatives

Few people want to vote on every little thing Congress or legislatures do. But having the ability to insist on that helps keep representatives in line.

But it's far too hard to get initiatives on the ballot, except for the rich. We need online petitioning to fix that, to get people to read the text of initiatives before signing, to save gas and paper and to reduce harassment for signatures. The other 26 states need ballot initiatives, and we need national ones.

I've been working on this for 26 years. See the news in the intro to my http://vote.org

  • $\begingroup$ Issue with your answer: "to get people to read the text". Example, Spotify's EULA now requires you notify everyone in your contact list when you install in on your phone. Also these examples If people arent even reading the legalese on things they choose to participate in, why would they read things they arent choosing? $\endgroup$ Aug 26, 2015 at 21:10

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