Direct democracy may be key to a happier American democracy

 and in the Conversation: “Is American democracy still “by the people, for the people?” According to recent research, it may not be. Martin Gilens at Princeton University confirms that the wishes of the American working and middle class play essentially no role in our nation’s policy making. A BBC story rightly summarized this with the headline: US Is an Oligarchy, Not a Democracy.

However new research by Benjamin Radcliff and Gregory Shufeldt suggests a ray of hope.

Ballot initiatives, they argue, may better serve the interests of ordinary Americans than laws passed by elected officials….

Today, 24 states allow citizens to directly vote on policy matters.

This year, more than 42 initiatives already are approved for the ballot in 18 states.

Voters in California will decide diverse questions including banning plastic bags, voter approval of state expenses greater than US$2 billion dollars, improving school funding, and the future of bilingual education.

The people of Colorado will vote on replacing their current medical insurance programs with a single payer system, and in Massachusetts people may consider legalizing recreational marijuana….

However, many have pointed to problems with direct democracy in the form of ballot initiatives.

Maxwell Sterns at the University of Maryland, for example, writes that legislatures are better because initiatives are the tools of special interests and minorities. In the end, initiatives are voted upon by an unrepresentative subset of the population, Sterns concludes.

Others like Richard Ellis of Willamette University argue that the time-consuming process of gathering signatures introduces a bias toward moneyed interests. Some suggest this has damaged direct democracy in California, where professional petition writers andpaid signature gatherers dominate the process. Moneyed interests also enjoy a natural advantage in having the resources that ordinary people lack to mount media campaigns to support their narrow interests.

To curb this kind of problem, bans on paying people per signature are proposed in many states, but have not yet passed any legislature. However, because Californians like direct democracy in principle, they have recently amended the process to allow for a review and revision, and they require mandatory disclosures about the funding and origins of ballot initiatives.

Finally, some say initiatives can be confusing for voters, like the two recent Ohio propositions concerning marijuana, where one ballot proposition essentially canceled out the other. Similarly, Mississippi’s Initiative 42 required marking the ballot in two places for approval but only one for disapproval, resulting in numerous nullified “yes” votes.

Routes to happiness

Despite these flaws, our research shows that direct democracy might improve happiness in two ways.

One is through its psychological effect on voters, making them feel they have a direct impact on policy outcomes. This holds even if they may not like, and thus vote against, a particular proposition. The second is that it may indeed produce policies more consistent with human well being.

The psychological benefits are obvious. By allowing people literally to be the government, just as in ancient Athens, people develop higher levels of political efficacy. In short, they may feel they have some control over their lives. Direct democracy can give people political capital because it offers a means by which citizens may place issues on the ballot for popular vote, giving them an opportunity both to set the agenda and to vote on the outcome.

We think this is important today given America’s declining faith in government. Overall today only 19 percent believe the government is run for all citizens. The same percentage trusts government to mostly do what is right. The poor and working classes are even more alienated….(More)”