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The Political Morality of Voting in Direct Democracy

By Michael Serota and Ethan J. Leib. Full text here.

The voting levers in candidate elections and in direct democracy elections are identical. The political obligations that bind the citizens that pull them are not. This Essay argues that voters in direct democracy elections, unlike their counterparts in candidate elections, serve as representatives of the people and are, accordingly, bound by the ethics of political representation. Upending the traditional dichotomy between representative and direct democracy, this Essay explains why citizens voting in direct democracy are representative legislators who must vote in the public interest and must not vote in their private interests.

We begin with a simple question but one that is not asked often enough: Do voters have obligations to their fellow citizens in how they vote? Answering this question requires a consideration of the voter’s role—and relationship to her fellow citizens—in a democratic polity. Although the philosophical literature on the ethics of voting does not differentiate between voting in candidate elections and direct democracy elections, we explain in this Essay how important and underappreciated differences between these two types of voting—and the roles and relationships they involve—can underwrite different obligations.