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How Competent Should Voters be in Referendum Processes? The Role of Citizens in Hybrid Democratic Systems

Citizenship
Civil Society
Democracy
Elections
Referendums and Initiatives
Voting
Normative Theory
Alice el-Wakil
Universität Konstanz
Alice el-Wakil
Universität Konstanz

Abstract

One common objection to referendums, which have become part of the present and future of an increased number of democratic systems, is that citizens cannot be trusted with policy decisions. This argument claims that voters are unable to meet the additional democratic requirements set by initiative and referendum processes in terms of competence and knowledge. While promoters of popular vote processes have rhetorically argued that, if citizens are not competent enough to vote on issues, they shouldn’t elect representatives either, this objection hasn’t been answered in democratic theory. In this paper, I question it and specify the role of citizens in “hybrid” democratic systems including referendum processes. I claim that citizens have no additional duties when they cast their ballots in popular votes compared to elections. The two main existing arguments for justifying differentiated requirements at the ballot moment don’t hold: Decisions on policies cannot be argued to be harder to meet nor more important than decisions on candidates, and the fact that citizens act as legislators in popular votes doesn’t give them additional duties, because they are representing themselves. Offering a detailed account of the role of citizens in hybrid democratic systems popular vote processes, I suggest that additional democratic requirements can only be justified when lay citizens represent other citizens and formally impact the empowered space of political decision-making. This only happens in bottom-up popular vote processes, namely in facultative referendums and popular initiatives. In these cases, the subset of lay citizens who sign referendum or initiative petitions to authorize civil society groups to trigger popular vote processes should meet additional democratic requirements. I specify the nature of these requirements in terms of sufficient information and of ability to justify the decision to sign, and conclude by discussing what institutional designs best enable citizens to fulfill them.