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The Deliberative Potential of Facultative Referendums

Procedure and Substance in Direct Democracy

Alice el-Wakil


Deliberative democracy theorists have long dismissed direct democratic mechanisms, suspecting them of fundamentally contradicting the deliberative ideal. One reason for this dismissal is that, as aggregative devices, all direct democratic institutions would implement a purely procedural view of democracy deemed undesirable. In this article, I contest this objection to all direct democratic procedures by showing that one of them, namely, the facultative referendum, corresponds to Joshua Cohen’s definition of substantive democracy. Moreover, because it introduces uncertainty in the democratic system and replaces hypothetical with actual acceptance of reasons, the facultative referendum gives political actors strong incentives to think in terms of acceptable justifications and can screen outcomes that fit the three principles of Cohen’s deliberative ideal. These findings should encourage deliberative democracy theorists to further develop tools to inform the design and assessment of the growing number of popular votes around the world and ultimately enhance their democratic quality.