3-Minute Civics: We the people – representative vs. direct democracy
The Founding Fathers were familiar with direct democracy, which dates back to ancient Athens. (Justin Sullivan | Getty Images)
Under our system, the authority to govern comes directly from the people. The U.S. Constitution famously begins with the words, “We the People . . . ordain and establish this Constitution.” The first article of the New Hampshire Constitution similarly declares that “all government of right originates from the people.” But while both begin by recognizing the principle that power emanates from “the people,” federal and state governments differ in terms of how the people exercise that power.
At times we govern via “indirect democracy,” also known as “representative democracy,” most notably by electing people to Congress and the New Hampshire Legislature to make decisions on our behalf. New Hampshire’s 424-member Legislature is the third largest representative democracy in the world, behind the U.S. House of Representatives (435 members) and the United Kingdom’s House of Commons (650 members.)
At other times, such as when New Hampshire voters gather for our annual town meetings, we exercise “direct democracy.” For example, this year voters in Dalton approved an emergency zoning ordinance to prevent a new landfill near a state park in town. Residents in several towns voted to purchase body cameras for police officers. Many town voters agreed to purchase new fire equipment. Meanwhile, voters in Hudson declined to allocate money to expand the police station, and last year Danbury voters refused to make their police chief an appointed, rather than elected, position. These examples are just a smattering of important decisions that town voters face each year.
The Founding Fathers were familiar with direct democracy, which dates back to ancient Athens more than 2,500 years ago. Indeed, several of the Founders, particularly those from New England, had participated in direct democracy themselves through town meetings. Having seen direct democracy up close, many of the Founding Fathers feared that unconstrained majority rule would trample the rights of people in the minority if adopted on a broad scale. Instead, the Framers established a representative democracy – or indirect power – to control direct participation of the people in the government. In this form of government the people can change or influence the creation of laws indirectly by trying to convince their elected representative to vote one way or another or electing new representatives at the next election.
In the early 1900s, many voters became disenchanted with representative democracy. Political machines like Tammany Hall in New York and major corporations like railroads controlled the state and federal governments. Ordinary people felt their voice was not heard or considered by their elected representatives. Social activists and political reformers led by President Teddy Roosevelt initiated the Progressive Movement to expand the role of ordinary citizens in government. A number of changes transferred considerable power from elected representatives back to the people, including the process for electing United States senators. Prior to 1913, they were chosen by state legislatures. That year, voters adopted the 17th Amendment giving the people the right to directly elect their senators, a right we still hold today.
The presidential primary is another vestige of the expansion of direct democracy. Before the Progressive Era, voters had little or no say in who ran for president. The leaders of the political parties chose candidates. That changed in 1910 when Oregon held the first presidential primary. Several states followed suit, including New Hampshire, which has held the first primary election in the nation since 1920.
During the Progressive Era many states also adopted changes to their state constitutions that gave voters a direct voice in legislation. The most common examples of these changes are referendum and initiative laws. Under a referendum, a state legislature crafts a proposed law and then submits it directly to the voters for their approval or defeat. An initiative is a proposed law that starts directly with the voters and appears on a ballot only if its backers get the number of voter signatures required by state law. The people then decide whether that initiative should become binding law with a yea or nay vote.
In 2020, voter initiatives in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota legalized recreational marijuana. A California initiative restored the voting rights of convicted felons who are on parole. Meanwhile, Maine voters passed a referendum introduced by legislators approving a state law that eliminated the religious and philosophical exemptions for vaccination of students and health care workers.
New Hampshire did not jump wholesale on the bandwagon to expand direct democracy. Delegates to the state constitutional conventions in 1912 and 1920 rejected calls to amend the state constitution to include processes for direct voter participation through an initiative or referendum. In 1999, the New Hampshire Supreme Court pointed to this history when it ruled it unconstitutional for the Legislature to submit a proposal for school funding directly to the voters for approval.
With the exception of town meetings, New Hampshire remains fundamentally a representative democracy. Nonetheless, the people play a vital role in state government. New Hampshire voters choose their state representatives, senators, governor, and all other elected state and local officials every two years. These short terms make our state unusual. Vermont is the only other state in which the governor is elected every two years. In a majority of states, state senators serve four-year terms. And because of the size of the New Hampshire Legislature (400 representatives and 24 senators), each state representative represents 3,300 voters. On the other end of the spectrum, each member of the California State Assembly represents more than 450,000 voters. Thus, even though the New Hampshire Constitution does not allow for direct voter participation in the legislative process, New Hampshire voters have considerable influence over the laws and legislative policies at the state level.
(Three-Minute Civics is an occasional column that seeks to help the people of New Hampshire navigate the issues and debates taking place at every level of government.)
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