Referendums, Initiatives, and Voters’ Accountability

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Do democratic systems that include binding referendum and initiative processes violate a core principle of democracy, namely that legislators should be accountable? Some have argued that they do: these popular vote processes would grant the right to legislate to ordinary voters even though they cannot be held accountable—i.e., face possible consequences imposed by others for their actions and decisions. As a result, we should favor conventional representative systems over systems with popular vote processes. In this article, I analyze this ‘accountability objection’ to referendums and initiatives and the conception of voters as ‘legislators’ on which it relies and argue that it does not withstand scrutiny. I first demonstrate that there is no sound basis to characterize only voters in popular votes, and not voters in elections, as ‘legislators’. Therefore, the scope of the objection is broader than anticipated by its proponents: it cannot be consistently used to dismiss popular votes without also being fatal to elections. I then argue that voters’ lack of accountability is not fatal to either mass voting process. The institutional role of ordinary voters provides them with co-lawmaking powers; but these are not the kind of special powers that justify holding certain actors accountable in democratic systems. This does not exclude that voters have responsibilities. I close by highlighting that, compared to conventional representative systems, democratic systems including well-designed popular vote processes could offer voters more supportive conditions to meet such possible responsibilities.
Original languageEnglish
JournalRes Publica
Number of pages19
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 11 Dec 2023

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