Document Type


Publication Date



It is often assumed that direct democratic processes - referenda and initiatives - offer the people a chance to speak more clearly than is possible through representative processes. Courts, commentators, and political leaders have defended or described direct democratic outcomes as the voice of the "people themselves." Because plebiscites allow the people to speak directly, without the potential distortion inherent in representation, they seem ideally responsive to popular will. Indeed, even critics of direct democracy appear to grant as much. Critics are quick to point out, of course, that actual plebiscites often fall far short of the ideal. Uneven voter turnout, poorly drafted ballot issues, the influence of special interests, and similar factors are said to obscure popular input. Alternatively, it is frequently argued that values such as fairness, deliberation, and the protection of individual rights require that popular will be checked and balanced through representative processes, or limited through judicial review. What goes unchallenged, however, is the underlying assumption, which remains as pervasive as it is intuitively appealing: if you really want to know what the people want, take a vote. In this Commentary, Professor Clark challenges this assumption and argues that initiatives and referenda, regardless of how well and fairly they are conducted, cannot be trusted to reflect the voice of the people accurately or meaningfully. Professor Clark argues that direct democratic processes distort popular input by precluding the expression of priorities among issues. By presenting voters with one issue at a time, plebiscites offer no opportunity for voters to focus their political power on the issues of greatest concern to them. Referenda and initiatives, by giving people the chance to vote yea or nay as to this or that particular outcome, make people feel as though they have more input. In fact, however, such processes actually limit people's ability to make effective use of their political power to influence the overall array of outcomes. By contrast, representation, which feels like a limitation of input, actually facilitates the effective use of political power by permitting voters to express both single-issue preferences and inter-issue priorities. Electoral and legislative logrolling - often seen as distorting or obscuring popular voice - in fact facilitates meaningful popular input by allowing voters to allocate their political power to the issues about which they feel most strongly. Representation permits, indeed requires, that voters speak not only to the question of what they want, but also to the question of what they want most.