Direct Democracy


Politicians are often unwilling to wade into highly political waters if they fear it will harm their chances for reelection. When a legislature refuses to act or change current policy, initiatives allow citizens to take part in the policy process and end the impasse. In Colorado, Amendment 64 allowed the recreational use of marijuana by adults, despite concerns that state law would then conflict with national law. Colorado and Washington’s legalization of recreational marijuana use started a trend, leading to more states adopting similar laws.

Too Much Democracy?

How much direct democracy is too much? When citizens want one policy direction and government prefers another, who should prevail?

Consider recent laws and decisions about marijuana. California was the first state to allow the use of medical marijuana, after the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996. Just a few years later, however, in Gonzales v. Raich (2005), the Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. government had the authority to criminalize the use of marijuana. In 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder said the federal government would not seek to prosecute patients using marijuana medically, citing limited resources and other priorities. Perhaps emboldened by the national government’s stance, Colorado voters approved recreational marijuana use in 2012. Since then, other states have followed. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia now have laws in place that legalize the use of marijuana to varying degrees. In a number of these cases, the decision was made by voters through initiatives and direct democracy (Figure).

A image of a ballot that reads “No. 2 Constitutional Amendment Article X, Section 29. Use of Marijuana for Certain Medical Conditions.”
Caption: In 2014, Florida voters considered a proposed amendment to the Florida constitution that would allow doctors to recommend the use of marijuana for patient use. The ballot initiative received 58 percent of the vote, just short of the 60 percent required to pass in Florida.

So where is the problem? First, while citizens of these states believe smoking or consuming marijuana should be legal, the U.S. government does not. The Controlled Substances Act (CSA), passed by Congress in 1970, declares marijuana a dangerous drug and makes its sale a prosecutable act. And despite Holder’s statement, a 2013 memo by James Cole, the deputy attorney general, reminded states that marijuana use is still illegal.James M. Cole, “Memorandum for All United States Attorneys,” U.S. Department of Justice, August 29, 2013, But the federal government cannot enforce the CSA on its own; it relies on the states’ help. And while Congress has decided not to prosecute patients using marijuana for medical reasons, it has not waived the Justice Department’s right to prosecute recreational use.“State Medical Marijuana Laws,” (July 20, 2015).

Direct democracy has placed the states and its citizens in an interesting position. States have a legal obligation to enforce state laws and the state constitution, yet they also must follow the laws of the United States. Citizens who use marijuana legally in their state are not using it legally in their country. This leads many to question whether direct democracy gives citizens too much power.

Is it a good idea to give citizens the power to pass laws? Or should this power be subjected to checks and balances, as legislative bills are? Why or why not?

Direct democracy has drawbacks, however. One is that it requires more of voters. Instead of voting based on party, the voter is expected to read and become informed to make smart decisions. Initiatives can fundamentally change a constitution or raise taxes. Recalls remove politicians from office. These are not small decisions. Most citizens, however, do not have the time to perform a lot of research before voting. Given the high number of measures on some ballots, this may explain why many citizens simply skip ballot measures they do not understand. Direct democracy ballot items regularly earn fewer votes than the choice of a governor or president.

When citizens rely on television ads, initiative titles, or advice from others in determining how to vote, they can become confused and make the wrong decisions. In 2008, Californians voted on Proposition 8, titled “Eliminates Rights of Same-Sex Couples to Marry.” A yes vote meant a voter wanted to define marriage as only between a woman and man. Even though the information was clear and the law was one of the shortest in memory, many voters were confused. Some thought of the amendment as the same-sex marriage amendment. In short, some people voted for the initiative because they thought they were voting for same-sex marriage. Others voted against it because they were against same-sex marriage.Jessica Garrison, “Prop. 8 Leaves Some Voters Puzzled,” Los Angeles Times, 31 October 2008.

Direct democracy also opens the door to special interests funding personal projects. Any group can create an organization to spearhead an initiative or referendum. And because the cost of collecting signatures can be high in many states, signature collection may be backed by interest groups or wealthy individuals wishing to use the initiative to pass pet projects. The 2003 recall of California governor Gray Davis faced difficulties during the signature collection phase, but $2 million in donations by Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) helped the organization attain nearly one million signatures.Mark Barabak, “10 memorable moments from the recall of Gov. Gray Davis, 10 years later,” Los Angeles Times, (August 1, 2015). Many commentators argued that this example showed direct democracy is not always a process by the people, but rather a process used by the wealthy and business.