Direct democracy is any system in which decisions are made by the population directly rather than through elected representatives. No nation on earth uses direct democracy in a pure form, but elements of direct democracy are used by local, regional and even a few national governments. The one nation that comes closest to being governed by direct democracy is Switzerland, which has a strong tradition of participatory democracy going back to the 19th century.

The New England Town Meeting

In a pure direct democracy, citizens would gather periodically to make all the necessary decisions affecting their own communities. In the United States, the tradition of holding an annual town meeting of this type goes back to colonial times and is still found in a number of small towns in the New England region. In a traditional New England town meeting, all eligible voters meet once a year to debate and vote on the town budget and other local issues. Although the town meeting is an example of direct democracy, New England town government also has elements of representative democracy. Voters at the town meeting elect representatives for local government positions such as town clerk.

Citizen Initiatives

Switzerland pioneered the use of the ballot initiative in the 1800s. A ballot initiative is a popular vote to create a new law or repeal a law passed by the elected legislature. In the United States, 24 states allowed citizen ballot initiatives to propose new laws as of 2013. 24 states also allowed citizens to repeal laws passed by the legislature, and all 50 states allowed citizens to vote on ballot proposals provided by the legislature. Every state except Delaware required a popular vote on any change to the state constitution. Some states, such as California, make extensive use of the ballot initiative, but have sought to limit the ability of citizens to get their initiatives on the ballot by requiring them to collect signatures from at least 5 percent of the electorate first.

National Plebiscites

A national plebiscite is a nationwide direct vote on a single issue. The plebiscite was created by the radical Jacobin party of revolutionary France but is still used by governments occasionally to decide important and controversial issues. For instance, if the inhabitants of a certain region want to break away and form an independent country, the government may allow a plebiscite to determine the issue. Unlike citizen ballot initiatives that may be written by members of the public, plebiscite proposals are often designed by the government to skew the issue in its own favor.

The Swiss System

The most comprehensive system of direct democracy in the world is found in Switzerland, which uses a combination of representative and direct democracy at the local, regional and federal levels. Because Switzerland is a multi-ethnic and multilingual country and always has been, the system is structured to prevent voters from one region from being able to decide issues for the whole country simply through weight of numbers. Issues that affect only one canton are voted on by the inhabitants of that canton, while national issues must win not only a majority of the overall popular vote but a majority of the cantons as well. Swiss citizens are known for their active participation in politics compared to the citizens of other nations.