Referenda - The case for and against

Essay by sileas452College, Undergraduate December 2004

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John Stuart Mill defines 'pure' democracy as "...the government of the whole people by the whole people, exclusively represented" (ref. 1). Whether or not this is true of democratic political systems established today is debatable. However, it cannot be denied that there are certain forms of decision making practised in modern democratic states which suggest that the idea of government can be brought closer to the electorate. These are labelled 'Direct' forms of democracy, or Direct Democracy. Referenda has come to be classified under this heading and is now an integral part of the decision making process in most democracies. It is most commonly used in Switzerland where the subject matter of the referenda is not simply limited to issues of major significance but also includes the more fundamental aspects of political decision making, unlike most other democratic states.

Despite referenda being widely used throughout democratic countries, its usage is still the topic of many debates.

Arguments arise over the legitimacy and place it has in political systems where politicians are elected to represent the electorate, rather than the electorate representing themselves. This relates to the original questioning of democracy by philosophers and politicians such as Plato and John Stuart Mill.

The public have a right to make decisions affecting them, yet there is debate over whether or not the electorate are capable of handling decision-making power competently and without abusing it. Thus the question stands: Is referenda complimentary to democracy or is it a violation of it?

A referendum can address all issues concerning the law and government of a country. It is based on the popular will of the people, so, as modern democracy is based on the popular vote, that is, the will of the majority, the idea of referenda...