4 Major Modern Devices of Direct Democracy

Some of the major modern devices of direct democracy are as follows: I. Referendum II. Initiative III. Recall IV. Plebiscite.

I. Referendum:

Literally, the term “Referendum” means “refer to”. It is a device whereby the public opinion or verdict can be ascertained by a direct reference to the people.

It is a process through which the verdict of a people is sought on any ordinary or constitutional law passed by the legislature of the state.

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According to Prof. Monobloc, “Referendum is a device whereby the electorate may veto an act which a legislative body has already passed.”

In simple words, we can say that Referendum is a device of Direct Democracy. It is the power of the people to approve or disapprove any bill which their legislature has already passed. They decide, through a popular vote, as to whether the bill passed by the legislature is to remain a law or not. It gives to the people the final power to decide the fate of the laws passed by the legislature.

Referendum can be of two types:

(1) Compulsory Referendum:


It means the bill, after its passage in the legislature has to be compulsorily submitted to the people for their final approval or disapproval.

(2) Optional Referendum:

It means the bill after it has been passed by the legislature is submitted to the people for referendum only when such a demand is made by a definite and fixed number of people of the state. Otherwise the bill becomes a law without a Referendum.

(i) Merits of Referendum:


C.F. Strong points out three merits of Referendum:

(i) Referendum corrects the faults of legislature which may act corruptly or in defiance of public opinion

(ii) It keeps up a useful and healthy contact between the elected representatives and the people, and

(iii) It secures that no law which is opposed to popular opinion can be passed.

Other merits of Referendum are:

1. Based on the Principle of Sovereignty of the People:

Referendum enables the people to express their views directly. It gives to the people the opportunity to exercise their sovereign power.

2. Source of Political Education:

Referendum provides political education to the people. It promotes a keen sense of responsibility and stimulates patriotism among the people.

3. Greater respect for Laws:

People are more willing to obey their self-accepted laws.

4. Makes the Legislators more Responsible:

Referendum tends to increase the sense of responsibility of the legislators. The legislators behave more responsibly because they are conscious of the fact that laws passed by them are to go in for public approval in a referendum.

5. A Guarantee against unpopular Laws:

Referendum is a guarantee against the passing of laws against public opinion. It’s a device for checking the errors committed by the legislators. It enables the people to reject unnecessary and arbitrary laws.

(ii) Demerits of Referendum:

1. People are not competent to judge the Laws passed by the Legislature:

In contemporary times legislation has become highly complex. Ordinary citizens cannot grasp the details of all the laws submitted for referendum. They cannot really judge the merit of a law.

2. Source of Delay in Legislation:

Referendum is a source of delay in the enforcement of laws. First the legislature takes time to pass a law then the people taken time to approval or reject it.

3. The System Lowers the Prestige of The Legislature:

When a law passed by the members of the legislature are rejected by the people, it lowers the prestige of the legislators.

4. In Referendum, the people can vote on the basis of their emotions and reject even good laws:

In a referendum exaggerated pictures are drawn to attract voters. In particular the opponents of the law act more vigorously to defeat the measure. The result of a popular vote cannot be always deemed as an expression of true popular opinion.

5. Delay caused by Referendum leads to inefficiency:

The common man is generally conservative and does not care to keep pace with times. The progressive reforms are therefore delayed, since they have to be finally got approved by the people in a referendum.

6. Unsuitable for a big State:

Referendum cannot be really used in a large countries like India and the United States.

Thus, Referendum has both advantages and disadvantages. It cannot be effectively and efficiently used in big states. Frequent voting in referendum is neither possible nor desirable because it can make people develop voting fatigue.

II. Initiative:

Initiative is the second modern device of Direct Democracy. It is a positive device by which people have the right to initiate measures for legislation. Under it, a fixed portion of the people can submit either a bill or a demand for law-making.

The legislature has to then compulsorily deliberate upon the measure and give its decision. In each case, the bill is submitted to a referendum for a final decision by the people. If the majority of- the people approves the bill, it becomes a law. If the of the people disapprove it, the bill stands rejected.

In simple words, initiative means the right of the people to submit bills for legislation. The bills initiated by the people become laws only when approved in a referendum. Initiative is thus the positive power in the hands of the people by which they can get passed the laws of their choice and need.

A. Merits of Initiative:

Since Initiative also involves Referendum (A bill initiated by some people becomes a law only when approved by the majority of all the people given in a referendum) the arguments in favour of referendum are also applicable to Initiative. However, some distinct merits of initiative require separate mention.

1. Better Obedience of Laws:

A law proposed by the people themselves is more willingly obeyed by them. It checks revolts.

2. Laws are based on Popular Will:

Secondly, it removes the danger of sectionalism because all the people act for passing the law. People get directly involved in law-making.

3. Means for eliminating the Lapses of Legislature:

Thirdly, it rectifies acts of omission on the part of the legislature. It ensures that legislation is not governed by private interest. People at large can undertake law-making.

4. Secures Better Laws:

Under it, a bill is initiated by the people. Then the legislature given its decision on it. Thereafter, the bill faces the whole electorate and becomes a law only when approved by a majority.

B. Demerits of Initiative:

1. Initiative lowers the Morale of Legislators:

First, Initiative virtually supersedes the legislature. Legislature tends to become slow and inefficient.

2. People cannot be Good Legislators:

Initiative can lead to faulty legislation. The popularly initiated measures are, generally, unskillful in form.

3. Vested Interests can dominate Law-making:

It can provide an opportunity to the demagogues to exploit the situation. Ignorance, credulity and selfishness of the masses is played upon and exploited for group advantages by vested interests.

Thus there are both merits and demerits of Initiative. The fact is that it cannot be used in big states with large populations.

III. Recall:

Recall is the third popular device of Direct Democracy. It means the power of the people to recall their representatives/legislators who may not be acting according to dictates of public opinion or who may be misusing their authority as the representatives of the people. Where Recall prevails, the voters possess the right to call back any elected officer or representative who fails to carry out his duties faithfully.


1. Recall Keeps the Representatives in discipline:

It is an effective way of keeping the representatives disciplined.

2. Checks Selfishness on the Part of Representatives:

It keeps the representatives away from temptations because they always fear their recall.

3. Prevents Corruption:

It is a weapon against political corruption and defection.


1. Recall can be a Source of injustice:

Recall can lead to an injustice. The people are not the embodiment of wisdom. The opponents of a representative can play a big role in recall.

2. Cheeks the Representatives from becoming Active Actors:

The representatives cease to be independent. They always act under fear of recall.

3. Recall should never cover Judges of the Courts:

The recall of judges can lead to reign of incompetence, ignorance and superstition. It should not cover Judges.

4. Recall can be based on ill will and Party Politics:

Personal grudges can lead to recall.

IV. Plebiscite:

The term ‘plebiscite’ is of French origin. It means, “An appeal to the suffrage of the people”. Latin word ‘Plebiscitum’ which means decree (scitum) of the people (plebis) also constitute a source of the term of Plebiscitum. Plebiscite, as such, means the device for knowing public opinion on any issue or problem or policy. It means to know the wish of the people over any particular issue or decision. The verdict is then used by the government as the basis for policy formulation on that issue. According to Leacock, “It is used for any kind of popular vote on an issue.”

Thus, Referendum, Initiative, Recall and Plebiscite are the four modern devices of Direct Democracy. These are being used mostly in Switzerland and in some states of American and Australian federations. In most of other states, these are not being used because of some internal limitations.

The large size of a modern state and the large size of the electorate make it difficult for a modern state to adopt and use devices of Direct Democracies Most of the modern states have been living with Indirect Democracies. Even in Switzerland, which has been the home of Direct Democracy, these device are being used along with representative institutions.

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