In many stable, prosperous representative democracies, there is a concern that voter turnout is low. It seems too many voters feel their votes do not count. Unstable, corrupt “representative” democracies are not yet culturally capable of direct democracy. Dictatorships are “light-years” away.
In stable representative democracies the people play an important, but infrequent role. They elect their representatives, but once the election is over the people can not decide on anything.
In-between elections it is the elected politicians who make all the decisions; they appoint judges, they pass new laws, they eliminate other laws, they decide how to apply the laws, they decide how much public money is to be spent and where it will be spent, they decide what treaties to sign with which country, they decide if it is necessary to build a new road, harbour or pool, or to raise or lower taxes, etc.
From election to election, if voters do not like a law or a decision, all they can do is write letters to the elected representatives and the media, demonstrate, post in internet, start a blog, use bumper stickers, wear hats and t shirts with slogans, advertise, they can also sue and hope a jury or judge agrees with them, etc., but power, real factual power, in-between elections, the people have little.
The situation will not change until we push enough for representative democracy to evolve into direct democracy.
All we can do under the current system is try to scare the government and parliamentarians into thinking that if they keep doing this or that, or do not do this or that, they will lose the next election.
Unfortunately, elections are complicated and costly activities. Perhaps that is why in most representative democracies they have elections every 4 or 5 years. This is too long time; by the time the next election comes up voters might have “forgotten”, or have in mind more pressing issues. Politicians will also work hard to convince us, again, they will do what most voter want if we vote for them.
Sometimes the party in power or its leader lose so much credibility that the party decides to ditch the leader to avoid the voters ditching both of them. The idea is to make voters believe that with the new leader things will be very different. Generally, that does not happen. It does not happen because political parties are tied to ideologies, a sort of “political religions”, of “ideological rails” they have to stay on. They are also tied to alliances, to lobbies and pressure groups whose support they need to get elected.
Political parties are trapped into their beliefs but corrupt ones also pretend to be driven by ideas like “freedom”, “justice”, “equality”, etc. In reality, they use them to dupe voters in general, even their own supporters, while they enrich themselves and their “friends”.
From election to election, because of the ideology of the parties and the pressure groups, governments and parliamentarians often do not make decisions thinking of what the majority of voters want.
Direct democracy fixes most, if not all, of that.
In direct democracy we still vote to elect representatives and government but there is a crucial innovation; we also vote to approve or rejects laws and projects the government proposes. Notice that in direct democracy the government only “proposes” because the people have the final say, amazing!, don’t you think?
This means that the people vote specifically to decide if the new law proposed by parliament becomes a law or dies, if a high speed rail is built, if health care will become universal, if a new pool or school is built, if a new treaty is signed or if taxes will be raised or lowered.
But those who do not want direct democracy try to convince us direct democracy is not as good as representative democracy,
One argument they use is: “in direct democracy the people get tired of so much voting, this is why in Switzerland, only about 40% of the people vote”.
This is a fake argument.
On most issues, it is true that only about 40% of eligible Swiss voters turn up. But most people who do not turn up do so, not because of “voter fatigue”, they do not turn up because the issue may not interest them enough, or are not clear on how to vote and prefer that others decide.
In many representative democracies voter turnout is not much better, except where the law makes it illegal not to vote, what a law! If you can not decide not to vote, what kind of freedom is that?
Let us go back to Switzerland.
For example, on a referendum to stop urban sprawl 64% of Swiss voters voted to allow urban development, 36% voted against. The turn out was low, only 38%.
But on other issues turn out is very high; 57% voted to build a huge road tunnel, 43% voted against, but the turnout was 64%.
But the really important number about turnout is that over the whole year, Swiss voter turnout is 80%. This means that every year 80% of Swiss voters go and vote in referendums.
It is obvious Swiss voters do not have “voter fatigue”. It is the opposite; it is the voters in representative democracy that seem fatigued. I suspect they are tired of many things; of the polarization that party ideology generates, of the politicians often governing but not thinking of the majority, of lobbies and pressure groups having too much influence.
In spite of that I usually go and vote, but I totally understand many feel voting is not worth the effort; “politicians do not govern for us” many say.
To change things we have to make “noise”. Enough “noise” to bring about direct democracy. If we do that we will make sure governments govern for the majority of ordinary voters.
We can also introduce proportional representation so that more voters are represented in parliament. But make no mistake; proportional representation without direct democracy will not change the root problems of representative democracy.