A democracy is a type of government that is run with the input of its citizens, either directly or indirectly. It contrasts with other types of government that are run by individuals or small groups of high-ranking people. Many governments have adopted democracy in varying forms and to varying degrees. Most of these governments are representative democracies, in which the citizens elect representatives to run the government on their behalf and vote on matters such as the passing of laws. The difference between representative democracies and participatory democracies is that in participatory democracies, all eligible citizens can vote on these matters themselves.
In a representative democracy, certain people is established as eligible voters based on their age or other qualifications. Eligible voters then elect representatives to serve as government officials, such as members of a chamber, senate or parliament. These officials typically are elected by voters in a certain area, such as a region of a country. An elected official represents the citizens of his or her area and tacitly agrees to serve their interests. Often, a representative must balance competing interests in his or her jurisdiction and will try to satisfy the greatest number of his or her constituents.
To help serve the needs of their constituency, representatives who serve in the national government typically maintain regional offices so that their voters can communicate with them. Individual voters often contact their representatives to encourage them to vote a certain way on a bill or to push through a specific piece of legislation. Some of these measures might be voted on directly by the citizens, in the form of propositions on the ballot. In addition, many representative democracies also permit referendums — pieces of legislation that are proposed directly by the people. If citizens can get enough signatures on a referendum to indicate a certain level of public interest, it could be placed on the ballot during an election.
In a participatory democracy, also called a direct democracy, every citizen plays an active role in the government. Many people believe that for this type of government to be successful, it must be in a localized region with a relatively small population. This is because large numbers of eligible citizens might clog the workings of the government, sparking endless debates and votes but never actually achieving anything. Citizens must also have an active interest in the success of their governments for participatory democracies to work as intended.
A nationwide participatory democracy might be difficult to manage, although many people are hopeful that modern technology will allow citizens to have greater participation in government. Many small towns within representative democracies use a form of direct democracy at their town meetings. Allowing each citizen on the town level a vote and a role in the government is believed to lead to a more active, caring and interconnected community.
The participatory democracy model also allows citizens to prioritize what is important to them, rather than relying on representatives to address issues for them and decide what is important. For example, the citizens in one area might place a higher priority on funding for schools and libraries, and the citizens of a neighboring area might place greater importance on building better roads. When an elected representative decides what is most important, there is a chance that he or she will make a decision that is contrary to the desires of the majority his or her constituents, possibly because of his or her own beliefs or for political reasons.