Direct or Indirect Democracy on International Treaties?

Every four years I try to explain the system of electing the President in the United States. Contrary to popular opinion, the President of the United States is not elected by popular vote. The Electoral College elects the President and Vice-President. The College was established by the founding fathers as a compromise between the election of the President by Congress and an election by popular vote. Citizens are chosen to be potential members of the Electoral College by political parties. These citizens, unknown to the public, become members of the Electoral College based on the popular vote in each state and the District of Columbia, with the most populous states having the most electors. Most states require a majority of one for all the electors of one party to be chosen, meaning that a candidate can be elected by the Electoral College who has not received a majority of the popular vote. The popular election for President and Vice-President to choose the electors takes place in November; the Electoral College votes in December; the Congress counts the electoral votes in January and then officially declares the winners.

Why this indirect system and compromise? In the early history of the United States, before television and radio, it was difficult for people spread out across the country to know the candidates. The system of indirect democracy meant that the electors could go to Washington to better know the candidates and have a more informed choice. This system has remained in place in spite of technological changes.

This indirect system is seen elsewhere in the Constitution. In the United States, the President has the power to make treaties, but the treaties must be approved by the Senate - the higher of the two chambers in the bicameral system wherein sits two representatives from each of the 50 states. - by a 2/3 vote. During 200 years, the Senate has approved over 1,500 treaties and rejected only 21. The Treaty of Versailles was rejected twice. The Senate is the final voice on much foreign policy such as the confirmation of presidential nominations for ambassadors.

Why do I mention this now? The reason is because there is a referendum in Switzerland to have popular votes on international treaties. The referendum says that the people of Switzerland should directly vote on more international treaties rather than an indirect vote by way of the Parliament. The argument of those for the referendum is that international treaties directly affect the population which has come to be better informed about international matters. The argument of those opposed is that members of Parliament represent the people and are better informed about the issues as well as the number of times voting would take place.

Switzerland is a small country with a long tradition of direct democracy through referendums. And, its Constitution does allow for direct democracy on certain important treaties. However, not all issues should be directly voted by the population. That would bypass the Parliament which is, after all, chosen by the people. Indirect democracy is often a very reasonable compromise between popular votes and executive decisions, especially on complicated issues of most international treaties. Switzerland, whose Constitution closely resembles that of the U.S., has followed the U.S. in having the Parliament approve certain international treaties as well as indirectly electing the executive branch. The U.S. founding fathers debated whether the power of treaty making should reside within the executive or legislative branches. There was never a question of a popular vote. Certain traditions are wise and should be kept. The Swiss people should follow the American example and their own history in this instance and reject the referendum.


June 2012


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