Representative vs. Direct Democracy: Power of the People


Have you ever thought about how even though America is a democracy, citizens don’t really vote all that often? In the United States, the average voter can cast a ballot once every two years. The real work of lawmaking happens in Congress, where thousands of votes are taken each session. Democracy is based on ordinary people having a say in their government. But exactly how much say should people have? Keep that question in mind as we learn more about the different types of democracy. 


The Founders of the United States had to decide how much say the people would have in their government. After escaping British rule, they wanted the people to have representation, but they were also concerned that the average citizen wasn’t educated enough to vote properly. They decided to balance both interests and choose a system where the people would select officials that would vote for them. However, they didn’t necessarily have to design the government this way. The American people could have voted on laws and issues themselves instead of through a spokesperson. These two systems are called a representative democracy and a direct democracy, respectively. 

Definition: Representative and Direct Democracies

A representative democracy is a system of government where citizens elect representatives to vote on laws on their behalf. A direct democracy is one where citizens vote on every issue themselves. The key difference between the two systems is who is voting on laws, elected officials or the citizens.  

The History

The first direct democracy was in Ancient Greece. In the capital city of Athens, all citizens would meet to debate and vote on the issues of the day. In that time, citizen status was restricted to adult white males, but still, political participation was open to everyone that was a citizen. Assembly meetings were where citizens could pass laws and decrees by majority vote. The assembly also partially elected officials as the candidates were randomly selected by lottery.  

In contrast, representative democracies are based on the Roman system, which relied on leaders from different regions of the empire to be the voice of the people. In Rome, the government had three main parts: two consuls, the Senate advisory made up of the wealthy, and the citizens’ assembly, which elected the consuls. There were a number of citizen and tribal assemblies where ordinary people could discuss issues and laws. In this way, the Roman system also had hints of direct democracy, but the citizens didn’t actually vote, they could only voice their concerns to electors. Because of this, and the influence of the Senate, the voices of the rich outweighed the interests of the poor. 

Each system of government played to the strengths of its nation. In Greece, the citizens were well-educated, and power was central to the capital. The Roman empire was massive and very diverse in terms of language and culture. It would have been impossible to get the opinion of every citizen in a timely manner. The systems developed by each empire reflected the structure of their societies.  

Today, as countries have larger populations, representative democracies are more common. The United States is a representative democracy as we elect senators and members of Congress to vote for us. The United Kingdom, India, and France are also representative democracies. The only direct democracy is Switzerland, which has popular votes on issues four times each year. 

So What?

Representative democracies like the United States have their pros and cons. On the one hand, the US is very large, and less than half of all Americans vote in any given election. This means that it could be difficult to consistently contact the entire nation for votes, though technology has certainly made the idea far more possible. The main question is whether or not the public would engage in the process properly. People lead very busy lives, and much of the voting would require research, especially complicated problems dealing with subjects like the economy or foreign relations, where ordinary citizens don’t have much experience.    

However, convenience comes at the price of control. Electing officials to vote for you is riskier than voting yourself; you never know what other factors are playing a role in their decision. Campaign money, wanting to be reelected, and personal morals could all cause a divide between what the people want and what an official votes for. Additionally, when one representative speaks for a whole group of people, some minority voices will inevitably be overpowered. In a representative democracy, it is harder for the people to assert their power. So, every citizen needs to take voting seriously and make their voices known to their local and state elected officials.

Think Further

  1. Can you identify ways that society uses both direct and representative democracy outside of the political process? There may be some examples in your school. 
  2. Do you think representative democracy or direct democracy is the better system of government? Why? 
  3. Do you think the United States should become a direct democracy? Why?


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Learn More

  1. National Geographic Society. “Democracy (Ancient Greece).” National Geographic Society, 15 Mar. 2019.
  2. Saward, Michael. “Representative and Direct Democracy.” Understanding Democratic Politics: An Introduction, SAGE Publications, 2003, pp. 52–60. bs_pub_info_r#v=onepage&q&f=false.   
  3. Wike, Richard, et al. “Support for Democracy High Around the World.” Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, Pew Research Center, 16 Oct. 2017. sentative-and-direct-democracy/.