The United States as a Democratic Ideal? International Lessons in Referendum Democracy
57 Pages Posted: 31 Jan 2007 Last revised: 22 Mar 2012
Reports of how the United States works to spread democracy around the globe bombard the American public almost daily. Ironically, as principles of democratic governance expand worldwide, the United States, once the vanguard for citizen participation in government, has fallen behind. Although the U.S. system of government has evolved - average citizens now vote directly for their national representatives - the United States still stands as one of only three major industrialized countries in the world that has failed to allow its citizens to vote in a national referendum.
Referendum democracy varies from representative democracy by allowing the public a direct vote on a particular issue. The use of referendums has grown dramatically worldwide, especially in Europe with the development of the European Union. Countries that previously never held referendums are allowing their citizens a direct voice in ratifying the EU treaties and the proposed EU Constitution. Furthermore, the proposed EU Constitution itself contains an innovative European Citizens' Initiative provision. This first attempt at a "supranational" level referendum would permit citizens to participate in setting the legislative agenda for the EU through an advisory referendum process.
Although a constitutional amendment would be required to implement a binding referendum process in the United States, Congress could create an advisory process similar to the European Citizens' Initiative by enacting a statute or amending its internal rules. Furthermore, the Petition Clause of the First Amendment provides historical precedent for establishing such a process to allow U.S. citizens to play a more active role in setting the agenda for federal legislation.
The word "democracy" means "rule of the people," and most democracies legitimize their existence by providing citizens with some opportunity to vote directly on issues. An advisory referendum process in the United States could give the American people a greater role in their government and strengthen the country's reputation as a democratic ideal for the world.
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