Democracy is a form of government that comes from two Greek words: “demos” and “kratia.” “Demos” means “the people” while “kratia” means “power or authority.” Therefore, democracy is a system of power controlled by the people. Ancient Greece had a direct democracy where all citizens (only free men could be citizens) met to discuss policy and make decisions.
In the United States, the founding fathers decided to use indirect (also known as representative) democracy. That means that while not all citizens meet and make laws, they are given the right to choose who represents them. The downside to this type of democracy is that it creates a system controlled by a few people who don’t necessarily listen to what other citizens say. Most Western countries have a representative democracy. Switzerland has more tools of direct democracy, giving citizens more power. To ensure representation, everyone needs to participate in democratic processes. Here are four examples:
Voting, like running for office, is the special right of citizens of a nation. During elections, citizens vote for the leaders they want to represent them. Throughout the world, there are many different electoral systems with three main ones being the most common. The first is plurality or “winner takes all.” The candidate that receives the most votes is elected, even if it’s less than 50%. This is the system the United States uses to elect House representatives, as well as many state-level and local legislatures. In the majority electoral system, candidates need to win a majority or 50%-plus-one-vote. If none of the candidates succeed, a second election is held with a smaller number of candidates from the first election.
The third type of electoral system is proportional representation. It’s the most common system in the world. The percentage of total votes for a political party is translated into the number of seats. That means if a party wins 30% of the vote, they get 30% of the seats. Whatever the electoral system is, voting is an essential part of democracy. While not required, citizens have a responsibility to participate in policy-making by voting for candidates that best represent them.
Learn more about democracy and human rights.
Voting is a civic duty, but it’s not required. Other civic duties in a democracy are mandatory, such as paying taxes and jury duty. Taxes are used to pay for public resources like food stamps, public school systems, Medicare, libraries, roads, and more. They’re also used to fund the military. The amount that people should pay in taxes and what tax money should pay for is constantly debated. Compared to other wealthy democratic nations, the United States doesn’t provide as many public resources. When citizens pay their taxes, they have more “skin in the game,” so to speak, which can give them more influence over government policy. This can be problematic, however, as it can make democracy seem like a pay-to-play system.
Jury duty is another democratic process found in nations like Australia, the UK, and the United States. It’s an important piece of the right to a fair trial by peers, which is enshrined in the US Constitution. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also lists the right to a fair trial in Article 10, which states, “Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal…” The reasoning is that an impartial jury keeps a government’s power in check. Participating in the justice system is a foundational aspect of democracy.
Jury systems vary across the world. In the US, all citizens 18-years and older may qualify to serve. The Jury Selection and Service Act describes the jury selection process and qualifications a juror must meet. Federal jurors are paid $50 and reimbursed for “reasonable” parking fees and transportation costs. Like paying taxes, jury duty is mandatory, so if someone doesn’t get excused and fails to show up, there are penalties.
Petitioning and protesting
A person’s participation in government doesn’t end with their vote. Communicating with elected officials and petitioning them to dismiss or adopt certain policies is an important democratic process. That can include writing letters, making phone calls, and signing petitions. Influencing government policy can be complicated, so there are lobbying groups that advocate for various issues (like healthcare, wages, foreign policy) on citizens’ behalf.
The right to protest is also vital in a democratic system. In the United States, it’s protected by the 1st Amendment. Many international treaties like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights mention rights such as the right to peaceful assembly, freedom of expression, and the right to association. The right to protest is important when other forms of petitioning haven’t worked and is essential for social change.
Democracy: room to grow
Democracy is not without criticism. One of the main issues is that it’s risky to depend on citizens to elect leaders. If voters aren’t informed, they can end up electing leaders that are ineffective at best and destructive at worst. Elections can also become about who has the most money, which makes it easier for the wealthy to always end up in power. These criticisms don’t mean that democracy is built to fail. The flaws show just how important it is for all citizens to take responsibility and participate through democratic processes like informed voting. All government structures have problems, but democracy is unique in that it gives people more power to change things.