In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Direct Democracy in the United States

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • The Decision to Adopt Direct Democracy
  • Why States Use Direct Democracy
  • Access to the Ballot
  • Agenda Setting and Spillover Effects of Direct Democracy
  • Educative Effects of Direct Democracy

Political Science Direct Democracy in the United States
Stephen P. Nicholson, Kayla S. Canelo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0174


The distinguishing feature of direct democracy is that voters determine policy outcomes. The brainchild of progressive reformers, direct democracy, as Cronin 1989 (cited under General Overviews) explains, was intended to be a check on the power of business interests producing a government more responsive to the public will. As practiced in the United States, direct democracy is subnational, exclusively occurring at the state and local levels, although not uniformly. Because South Dakota first adopted direct democracy in 1898, roughly half the states have adopted it in one form or another. There are three types of direct democracy instruments: initiative, referendum, and recall. The initiative gives “the people,” typically operating through interest groups, the power to place new laws on the ballot for voter consideration if a certain number of signatures are collected. Initiatives may propose either a statute or a constitutional amendment. There are two types of initiatives: direct and indirect. As its name suggests, the direct initiative is presented directly to voters; the indirect initiative must be sent to the legislature, which decides whether to enact the law. The referendum has two primary types: popular and legislative. The legislative referendum allows state legislatures the power to place a new proposal on the ballot; the popular referendum gives “the people” the power to vote on existing laws if a certain number of signatures are collected. The legislative referendum is allowed in all fifty states; twenty-four states allow the popular referendum, and twenty-four allow the initiative. The recall, allowed in nineteen states, gives voters the power to determine whether they want to remove a public official from office before his or her term has expired.

General Overviews

The following section provides a starting point for the study of direct democracy, including general references, histories, and data sets. Cronin 1989 provides a foundation of the major questions that guide scholarship in this subfield. The other resources in this section are useful for understanding how direct democracy works and how it is used across the states. The Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California has several sources that connect scholars to current research in the field, including recent publications from IRI scholars and useful databases. The National Conference of State Legislatures also provides a rich data set that spans an extended period. Donovan, et al. 2015; Goebel 2002; Piott 2003; and Waters 2003 provide a useful history of direct democracy as well as state-by-state comparisons.

  • Cronin, Thomas E. Direct Democracy: The Politics of Initiative, Referendum, and Recall. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674330092

    This book provides a broad overview of the many questions that guide scholarship on direct democracy, including those on voter competence and the influence of money in elections, as well as whether direct democracy allows the tyranny of the majority to compromise the rights of the minority.

  • Donovan, Todd, Daniel A. Smith, Tracy Osborn, and Christopher Z. Mooney. “State and Local Direct Democracy.” In State and Local Politics: Institutions and Reform. 4th ed., 106–141. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2015.

    This chapter is a valuable starting point for understanding direct democracy. It also gives details on the various components of direct democracy as used in each state.

  • Goebel, Thomas. A Government by the People: Direct Democracy in America, 1890–1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

    This book provides a comprehensive history of the initiative, referendum, and recall in the United States.

  • Initiative and Referendum Institute.

    Made available by the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, the institute is a research organization that focuses on the initiative and referendum. Many sources are available on this website.

  • National Conference of State Legislatures.

    The NCSL offers a database with up-to-date information on ballot measures from all fifty states. The database is updated on election night; it contains information dating back to 1892.

  • Piott, Steven. Giving Voters a Voice: The Origins of the Initiative and Referendum in America. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003.

    Piott provides an overview of the origins of the initiative and referendum in the United States and offers state-by-state comparisons of direct democracy’s development.

  • Waters, M. Dane. Initiative and Referendum Almanac. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic, 2003.

    This book provides information on the history of direct democracy, detailed comparisons of each state, and general information on how each component works. Further, the almanac provides data taken from various polls and sources and includes a list of every initiative on the ballot dating back to 1904.

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