Skip to main content


Participation by citizens in their civil society and government is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition of democracy. Civic participation refers to the voluntary activities of citizens in forming and sustaining independent nongovernmental organizations that contribute to the well-being of the community. Political participation pertains to the activities of individuals and groups aimed at influencing the public policy decisions of their government. Through their political participation, citizens prompt their representatives in government to be accountable to the people. Unless there is some significant level of free and independent participation by citizens in the work of their civil society and government, there cannot be an authentic democracy.

The most common form of political participation by citizens is voting in elections for their representatives in government. By voting for or against particular candidates or political parties, citizens signify their approval or rejection of their representatives’ performances. Thus, participation in elections is one way citizens can make their government responsive and accountable to the people.

In some democracies, citizens use the initiative and referendum to participate with the legislature in making laws, under certain conditions specified by the constitution. The initiative is the right of citizens to propose a law or a constitutional amendment either directly for public vote, or via a vote of the legislature through the submission of a petition signed by a requisite number of eligible voters. Thus, the initiative is a means by which citizens can place items directly on the lawmaking agenda or force their representatives in government to consider the matter.

The referendum is the right of citizens to approve or reject a law that their legislature has enacted. If a requisite number of citizens sign and submit a petition to their government during a specified period before a law becomes operational, then it is placed before the voters in an election. If a majority votes against the proposition, then the law is rejected. In some democracies, amendments to the constitution cannot become operational unless they are approved by a majority of the citizens in a countrywide referendum.

The rights of initiative or referendum are included in the constitutions of some parliamentary democracies. For example, Article 68 of the constitution of Lithuania says, “Citizens of the Republic of Lithuania shall have the right of legislative initiative. A draft law may be submitted to the Seimas [parliament] by 50,000 citizens of the Republic of Lithuania who have the right to vote. The Seimas must consider this draft law.” The constitution of Estonia provides the right of referendum in Article 105, which says,

The Riigikogu [parliament] shall have the right to put draft laws or other national issues to a referendum. The decision of the people shall be determined by the majority of those who participate in the referendum. A law which has been adopted by referendum shall be immediately proclaimed by the President of the Republic.

The constitutions of many democracies, including that of the United States, do not include the rights of initiative and referendum. However, more than half of the 50 U.S. states have constitutions that provide either the referendum or initiative or both of these procedures.

In addition to voting for representatives in government and using the initiative and referendum, other kinds of political participation in a democracy include:

  • working in an election campaign to support a political candidate or political party
  • contacting a legislator in order to influence her or his decision about a public policy issue
  • writing a letter to a newspaper or writing a blog to influence public opinion about an issue
  • donating money to the election campaign of a candidate or a political party
  • organizing or joining a lawful public demonstration to support or oppose a public policy option or decision
  • supporting an interest group in order to promote particular public policies

Proponents of a participatory model of democracy advocate a high level of citizen participation in order to make sure that the government is responsive and accountable to the people it represents. They want citizens to be involved to the maximum extent in activities that might influence decisions in government in order to ensure that democracy is based on the will of the people. In particular, they favor constitutional provisions for citizens to participate directly in the legislative process, such as the initiative and referendum.

By contrast, some advocates of the liberal model of democracy, while supporting the political participation of citizens, are most concerned with establishing and maintaining constitutional protections for individuals’ personal rights to seek fulfillment on their own terms. This approach may encourage citizens to emphasize private pursuits instead of intense political participation. Some advocates of the liberal model emphasize the individual’s freedom to choose, without undue public pressure, the extent to which he or she will participate politically and civically. By contrast, advocates of the participatory model of democracy claim that intensive and continuous participation by citizens is the best means both to personal fulfillment and to the promotion of the common good.

An ongoing question about democracy concerns the extent, intensity, and immediacy of participation that is necessary to make democracy work for the benefit of the people. If democracy is not extensively participatory, can it really be a government of, by, and for the people? Or is a heavy reliance on the representatives of the people, who are judged periodically by citizens through public elections, sufficient to sustain an authentic constitutional democracy?

SEE ALSO Citizenship; Civil Society; Elections; Liberalism; Pluralism; Political Party; Popular Sovereignty; Republicanism; Rights