Terms matter. And so do assessments. That’s true of direct democracy, as I was reminded again reading an important new paper by a leading international scholar on the subject.

I wish the paper’s author, David Altman, was better known, particularly in California. He’s a Uruguayan (which should be a direct democratic credential all his own, given the tiny South American country’s long history of referenda) who is a professor in Chile. He’s spent time in the U.S., and knows the initiative and referendum process in California well. But Californians, for all their open-mindedness about technology and culture, take a narrow view of the initiative process, and behave as though we’re the only people in the world who practice it. We aren’t.

Altman has spent considerable time thinking about the terms we use in describing direct democracy. And this paper – which is worth reading (you can find it here)  — makes a straightforward argument about how we define democracy, and direct democracy.

Direct democracy is a vague term and can be used to mean a lot of things. Altman prefers “direct popular decision-making” – which is better because it points to what’s most significant about initiative and referendum: the ability of people outside elected officials and government to make decisions about laws and constitutions.

Altman’s paper points out that direct popular decision-making is missing from existing measures of democracy. When scholars and others try to measure how democratic a polity is, they tend to focus on representatives and voters, and disregard other kinds of democratic practice, including initiative and referendum.

Altman writes:

“The question is: How can current democracies translate popular sovereignty into working institutions adapted to twenty-first century representative government?  I claim that there are some institutions that deserve a closer look: These institutions comprise the citizen initiated mechanisms of direct democracy (optional popular initiatives and referendums).

“I understand these citizen-initiated mechanisms of direct democracy as the real translation of direct citizen decision-making into contemporary democracy. Citizen-initiated mechanisms of direct democracy are not simply about a blind use of majority rule, and those understanding them as mere votes on a certain issue are ignoring possibly the most crucial part of the direct democratic game: the process itself, which is arguably more important than the outcome of the ballots themselves…

“While direct popular decision-making is not either a necessary or a sufficient condition for a regime to be defined as democratic, I claim that a regime in which citizens are allowed to decide directly at the ballots on matters of their concern even without the consent of a country’s main political offices is more democratic…”

It would be nice if Altman were included in the current conversations about initiative reform, given his global and local knowledge of the subject. So far, it hasn’t happened.