The Perils of Direct Democracy

Direct DemocracyIn 2016, the Netherlands was mostly in the grips of the so-called Ukraine referendum. It was the Dutch incarnation of the Brexit vote. It has triggered a whole movement of people in the Netherlands demanding ‘Direct Democracy’. What does this really mean, and is it really better than the current model?

Direct versus Representative Democracy

Most countries currently have a so-called representative democracy. In this form of democracy, the voter chooses a person or party to represent them for a period of time. During that time, the elected person represents them in the government and makes decisions.

In a direct democracy, there is no representative. The people decide directly. This was the model of democracy used in ancient Athens – well, in Athens, only the male land owners voted, but it is still direct.

Until recently, it was impossible to run an entire country through direct democracy. Decisions are made each day, and you can’t query a multi-million population for every one of those. Enter the internet. If you can create a safe encrypted infrastructure with verified software, you can put things to the vote daily or weekly. Direct democracy is within our grasp.

After the Ukraine referendum debacle in the Netherlands last year, one new political party stepped forward which goes so far as to declare themselves ‘human voting machines’. They will not make any decision themselves, but query their members on each and every vote they make using an infrastructure as described above. They are going for that die-hard full-on direct democracy (for their party’s votes in the parliament anyway.

The question is: will it work?

Some context: the Dutch Ukraine referendum

Before going to that question, I think some context is in order. The Ukraine referendum was held regarding a treaty between the EU and the Ukraine, following the annexation of Crimea by Russia. A recently implented Dutch law said that a referendum could be forced if there were enough signatures on a petition to hold a referendum. Certain media groups and political parties banded together to do just that. And in April 2016, the referendum was held. 61.1% of voters voted against the treaty with the Ukraine.

Direct democracy at work! A victory for the Dutch population and the Netherlands did not ratify the treaty, right?

Wrong. That’s not quite what happened.

Direct democracy problem 1: what are we voting for?

The Ukraine referendum had the following question:

Are you for or against the law for approving of the association-agreement between the EU and the Ukraine?

In other words, a somewhat convoluted way of asking if you like the agreement between the EU and the Ukraine. But… what’s in that agreement? The agreement is a 700 page document covering everything from trade to farming to financial and military support. What if I was against only 1 page of those 700?

To complicate it further, the instigators of the referendum and their media buddies whipped up a mob to vote against this treaty to stick it to the EU. Yep, for a lot of people this vote was not about the Ukraine, but about the EU. Others voted against it because they feared the farming and trade rules would allow the agricultural company Monsanto to sink its claws into the Ukraine. Still others did not want to antagonize Russia.

In short, everybody was voting for something completely different. You saw the same thing happening during the Brexit vote in the UK. Let me be clear, I’m not saying that those opinions were wrong, I’m just saying that a lot of people did not vote for the issue that was being queried.

Direct democracy problem 2: what’s the question?

There is an underlying problem: who gets to formulate these questions? If we were to truly have a direct democracy, the person writing down the questions would become the most powerful person in the country.

Unless you also delegate that to a vote as well. Everybody can put in suggestions, and you can vote on these.¬† That complicates the process even more, though. The number of stupid questions would be enormous. Worse, pressing issues that don’t affect a lot of people might disappear into obscurity entirely.

Direct democracy problem 3: what’s the majority?

A direct democracy rules by popular vote. However, not everybody votes. People can be lazy, busy, uninterested, or ill. If you look at the Dutch referendum, only 32.2% of voters actually voted. That’s barely above the 30% threshold for it being valid.

Let’s break that number down for a moment. There are roughly 12.8 million in the Netherlands who get to vote. 32.2% of that is 4,121,600 voters. 61.1% of those were against the treaty. That’s 2,518,298 people. Wait, you say, but I’d heard there were almost 17 million people in the Netherlands? That’s right, but not everybody gets to vote, most people did not vote, and some voted for the treaty. If you take all people in Netherlands into account, then – in fact – only 15% voted against the treaty.

Legally speaking, this referendum is valid. All adults with a Dutch passport got to vote, so we should suck it up and accept the result. Truth is, there’s a legal majority, but only 15% of all the people in the Netherlands were actively against this treaty. Or the EU. Or just the government. Or something. Some people actually did not vote on purpose, hoping the legality threshold would not be reached. Shouldn’t we require an absolute majority for decisions in a direct democracy?

We could, of course, but that would block a lot of decisions in areas that are not popular.

You can argue that people who want influence should just vote, but I for one have a job, a young child, and I’ve got a ton of stuff to do. Taking the time to actually look at the issue at hand and cast a sensible vote would keep me busy full-time. So, in a direct democracy I wouldn’t vote on a lot of issues. I didn’t really want to be bothered with the Ukraine Referendum either, but I felt obligated to do so. Nearly 60% of the Dutch people did not. And that’s a general problem: in a direct democracy, a lot of people are not going to vote.

People with a lot of dedication or a lot of time on their hands will vote. They will rule. Alongside whatever issues certain media can push to the forefront. Is that really what we want?

And that’s precluding people selling their votes to others, or similar forms of corruption that are bound to pop up.

Direct democracy problem 4: who gets more weight?

One of the problems with the Brexit vote was that young people – who will have to live and work with the Brexit for decades – got outvoted by the old people – who might not even be around when the UK actually leaves the EU. Is it fair that they get an equal vote?

Let’s put it another way. Say a man is ill. The surgeon suggests a dangerous treatment or euthanasia (yeah, it’s the Netherlands). As a direct democrat the man decides to have his family make the decision. He has a son and a wife. He votes for treatment. His wife and son both vote for euthanasia – the son wants his inheritance and the wife was having an affair. The man is shocked. Shouldn’t he have decided himself, since it was his life?

This example sounds insane, of course, but it is what a direct democracy leads to. Remember that a popular vote put Hitler in power in Germany and he proceeded to instigate the holocaust. I don’t think anybody will say that this was a good form of democracy. It is very important not to confuse democracy with rule of the majority. Democracy is about giving every person equal power. If a majority decides to undermine that equality, they are not being democratic. It sounds like a paradox, but it isn’t. It’s one of the pillars of freedom.

So, not all votes should be equal. But the weight is often impossible to determine. Should old people get a vote with more weight regarding pensions? Or young people because they’re paying for it? Should parents with children get more weight on everything that will affect their children? This is an almost impossible conundrum.

Direct democracy problem 5: what’s wrong with experts?

If we take another look at the ill-man example, one can wonder why the doctor shouldn’t decide. He knows best, doesn’t he? Direct Democracy is by definition a vote of mistrust against experts. Since almost nobody is an expert, a direct democracy will invariably lead to decisions being made by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Let that sink in for a moment.

Imagine you were going to go on an airplane trip. Before take-off, the stewards and stewardesses hand out papers where you can write down the name of the person who’s going to fly the plane. Or better yet, everybody gets a joystick and a set of controls, and the entire plane is flown by majority rule. Not a good idea?

In the post-truth world (f*ck, I hate that word), truth has become suspect. Self-serving people and companies have been actively muddying the waters of experts. The whole system of financing academic system based on produced works has made it even muddier. The result is that a lot of people don’t trust experts, or believe the wrong people are experts.

Running a country is more dangerous than flying a plane. If you make mistakes, far more people can get hurt, or even killed. Do you really want to give some loud-mouth with no expertise access to your country’s nukes?

…Well, okay, I guess the US did just that.

Direct democracy problem 6: how to deal with the outcome?

And that brings us back to the post-referendum wrap-up. What to do with the result? As, stated, 15% of the Dutch population voted against the EU treaty with the Ukraine. Don’t ratify it, then?

This is where it gets really interesting. The simple answer to the referendum in the Netherlands was to not ratify the treaty. Then the EU said ‘well, what if we change the treaty? What do you want changed?’ Have you ever tried to guess what somebody wants after asking them a single yes/no question about a complicated subject? Because that is exactly what happens after a referendum, only a million-fold.

Politics is about cutting deals¬† and negotiations. The ‘yes’ and ‘no’ votes are a final step in a longer process. You can’t do that in a direct democracy. Every step of the way has to be validated against what the people want.

Some people in the Netherlands (percentage unknown) are screaming bloody murder since the prime minister is about to ratify a modified version of the treaty they rejected. But is it the same treaty? Are they being had? Or is the prime minister doing exactly what a majority of the voters want (remember, only 15% actually voted against the treaty). Without another referendum it’s hard to know. And another referendum would quite possibly lead to another ‘no’, but still without a reason why people don’t want it.


Direct democracy isn’t a smart move, I think. The biggest problem is that you need an enormous number of those bloody referenda. First to determine what to put to the test, then to actually check what people want, then to check what alternatives they will find agreeable. For everything that happens in the country, forever. It sounds like hell to me.

In short, thinking up questions is a problem, most people are not going to vote, even if they get a fair vote – which is doubtful -, decisions are never made by experts, and the results are completely unclear.

Yeah, direct democracy. Good stuff.

Let’s not and stick to representative democracy, in spite of its flaws.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands