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What exactly is direct democracy?
Scholars around the world agree to disagree about that question. There is no common typology of instruments of direct democracy nor is there a consistent terminology. In the following, we present our typology of the Direct Democracy Navigator. It reflects different positions in the literature, however without the claiming or being able to overview the entire breadth of the literature.


Based on the aforementioned criteria, we build our typology of direct democracy. We follow the differentiation according to the capacity to launch a vote as the main criterion and identify three main types: (1) Initiatives are launched by the people in a bottom-up logic. (2) Referendums are launched top-down by political authorities and (3) the mandatory referendum is triggered by law (constitution). This threefold approach is usually common in the literature (exception for example Moeckli, 1994).

We aim to keep the typology as narrow and understandable as possible and necessary. Therefore, we refrain from integrating other criteria into the typology but acknowledge them as distinct variables in our dataset (legal codification, compulsoriness, quorum, timing; constitutional). These variables may apply to all types of instruments equally. In the case of bottom-up initiatives we also add the possibility of a counter-proposal by the representative institutions and the possibility of a withdrawal of the proposal as further variables to the dataset. Besides the structural questions of which actor or institution can determine a vote, we also pay attention to the terminology used, which is one of the major challenges of the study of direct democracy.

Altogether, we distinguish five types of instruments of direct democracy: Citizen Initiative, facultative referendum, referendum, veto-referendum and the mandatory referendum. The agenda initiative is an additional special case in the area of direct democracy, which is also included here for the sake of completeness. With this, we are in the numerical middle of other typologies. Altman’s typology knows twelve types (2011: 11), Merkel/Ritzi’s (2017: 16), Morel's seven (2018: 34) and Moeckli’s (2021) five. In more detail, our typology looks like this.

Further information

We follow a well-established practice that the term referendum is also used as a synonym for direct-democratic decisions per se (Butler/Ranney, 1994; Hug, 2009: 251). Finally, when speaking about the plural of referendum, we follow Matsusaka and speak of referendums as opposed to referenda. The rationale is that because referendum is not a latin noun it is a modern invention inspired by a latin word there is no reason to use latin rules to formits plural (Matsusaka, 2020: 65).

Another instrument sometimes connected to direct democracy is the recall (International IDEA, 2008; Altman, 2011; Serdült/Welp, 2012). Here, the people can directly decide whether a previously elected public official should resign from office. The two obvious similarities with direct democracy are the collection of signatures and (if sufficient) the public vote about the question at stake. The latter point is also the reason why Altman includes the recall in his system of direct democracy (Altman, 2011).

Yet, we leave the recall out of our typology of direct democracy because we think it refers to the sphere of representative democracy. It deals with the question of who should be in public office as representative of the public. Just as elections bring someone into office, a recall can bring this person out again. No surprise Altman speaks of a “recall election” (Altman, 2016: 1210). In contrast, direct democracy refers to the direct decision of the people about policy questions.

The texts of the legal designs provided on the Direct Democracy Navigator Homepage are translations by us, unless original versions in English are available. However, no final responsibility can be assumed for the accuracy of the translations.


We rely on data of direct democracy in 100+ countries on the national level . The selection of countries is based on the “Freedom in the World” assessment by Freedom House. Accordingly, countries have to be rated as free or partly free to be integrated into the Direct Democracy Navigator dataset. With the deadline of 1 November 2022 a total of 144 countries worldwide falls into these two categories. The selection is guided by the view that instruments of direct democracy require an environment that corresponds to a minimum level of democracy in order to function. In other words, referendums are just as problematic in non-democratic systems as elections.



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Our methodology and our data are free for download and usage.