Local chambers of commerce, for example, generally operate as direct democracies, wherein any local business can become a member, debate, and vote. Congress, on the other hand, is, by necessity, a representative democracy. With over 300 million Americans, it would be a bit unwieldy to allow each person two minutes of debate time on each amendment that is offered. It would also be tough to find a room large enough to handle us all. At least that scary scenario can make us feel a bit less immobilized by the current extent of gridlock.
By and large, our notion of representative democracy makes a lot of sense. By electing Members of Congress who we feel represent our views, we imbue them with the latitude to vote as they believe best represents the views of their constituents. Also, with so many issues before the Congress, many of which are extremely complex, it is very much a full-time job to remain sufficiently informed on most of the issues. Although Political Science professors would bask in the opportunity to participate in a national direct democracy, most people would have neither the time nor the inclination to do the job.
But it is no longer for lack of an alternative that we continue to operate with representative democracy. It could be argued that Congress should throw open its doors via push-button phones, the Internet, or other communication systems, to allow all citizens to directly cast their votes on issues which come before our national legislature. Although they are not without their own perils, mechanisms could be developed to make voting accessible to all (e.g., via computers at community technology centers and post offices, for those who do not otherwise have access). Protections could be taken against voter fraud through user authentication and verification software with unique individual security codes, and highly encrypted systems to ensure the confidentiality of voting records.
The drawbacks to a national direct democracy begin with the recognition that most major issues are not expressed in clear dialectics, and instead require negotiation, debate, compromise, and creative solutions. Even with a voting and communication system that is fully accessible to all, there would be no assurance of an informed electorate, and voting trends would be subject to manipulation.
On the other hand, the goal of direct voting on specific high-profile issues is laudable. Certain issues have engaged and enraged the national focus so profoundly that it would be hard to find citizens who are ill-informed on the topics. Some key issues which have commanded attention on the national psyche include the war in Iraq, Social Security reform, the pro-choice / pro-life debate, gun control, and certain environmental issues.
Ideas / Solutions
The solution would be limited use of direct democracy, by establishing a national referendum. Although it should be used very selectively, a national referendum could provide our electorate an opportunity to vote on certain issues that are of the utmost significance to our society, and on which most Americans are well informed.
A mechanism would need to be established to ensure that only the most vital, pressing, and wide-impacting issues would reach the national ballot. Too low a threshold could result in a California-type clutter situation where so many ballot measures reach the voters that much of the electorate admits to being baffled. In such situations, many voters resign themselves to voting only for candidates at or near the top of the ballot, if at all.
A national referendum should be limited to no more than three issues each cycle, with the vote occurring every two years in November on the same ballot that Americans cast for Members of Congress. The additional cost of the vote would be minimal, since the election is occurring anyway. It would be likely to increase voter turnout, as citizens would have more at stake, and it would provide millions of Americans an opportunity to re-connect with their government. The sentiment of re-enfranchisement could have myriad related benefits. Even if the outcome of a national referendum were treated as non-binding at first while the system is perfected, it would serve as a very strong statement of what the electorate expects its government to do, with transparent ramifications for failing to do so.
One issue in particular is perfectly tailored for a national referendum, and, in fact, action on the issue should be exclusively within the domain of a national referendum: pay raises for Members of Congress! Elimination of the conflict of interest that is posed by Members of Congress voting on their own salaries can, and should, be promptly eliminated, and direct voting would achieve this.