Common mistakes in democratic organizations

Direct democracy is an extremely inspiring system. We can finally govern ourselves! Isn’t that great? Unfortunately, perhaps because of the enormity of freedom that referendums give us, each new group is reinventing direct democracy.

If you do not study the latest achievements of direct democracy before forming a group, you will always make some mistakes. These mistakes make it impossible for new groups to grow. The first one was once committed by myself:


THRESHOLDS It seemed reasonable to me that the group’s decision should be valid only when at least 30% of people take part in the vote. Fortunately, in our Association More Democracy there was Jordan Cibura, who knew the Swiss system well. Jordan explained to me why thresholds are unacceptable – although I had to ask him for an explanation 3 times because my ideas did not agree with reality. Here are the problems that are associated with the thresholds:
– there will be cases that the ability to decide will be taken away from citizens and handed over to politicians – this will happen when the turnout is lower than 30%,
– if there are any thresholds, the rule that 1 person = 1 vote is broken. If there are thresholds for turnout, the vote of a person for has a slightly lower strength than a vote AGAINST.
– the turnout threshold causes a decision-making blockade. In the event of an external threat, this could cause enormous damage because the lack of a decision can be more harmful than a decision made with a small number of votes.

Turnout thresholds allow you to manipulate the results of votes. It is enough that the referendum is not publicized enough to significantly reduce the chance of a positive result. If there are turnout thresholds, those who abstained are counted in the same way as those who voted against. The opposite case is also known – in one of the Swiss referendums, Napoleon decided that all those who did not vote were in favour. The assumption made by Napoleon is as unfounded as the claim that those who did not vote are AGAINST.


Some strange way, intuition tells us that voting for something is always more harmful than voting against something. We tend to think that doing something is always worse than skipping it. Perhaps this is due to the Omission
effect”the tendency to judge harmful actions as worse and more immoral than equally harmful inaction and inaction”
Whatever the reason is , most new groups determine that decisions will be made either by consensus or by super-majority (eg. 80% of the votes must be in favour).
A well-known example of the harmfulness of such an approach is California. There is a provision saying that in order to raise taxes you need 3/4 of the votes of citizens in favor. The effect of this law is that citizens cannot tax themselves to buy the infrastructure they need. For this reason, California is drowning in debt because most of the needs have to be met anyway.

– If a super-majority is needed to change, some decisions cannot be made. There is a blockage and complete impotence. This discourages a lot of people.
– With a simple majority, 51% support is enough for the decision to be made.
Gathering 51% of volunteers is much easier than gathering 99%.
With a simple majority, 49% of people may feel excluded. But with consensus – 99% is sometimes excluded.

Either the majority rules or the minority rules. There are no other possibilities. With consensus, a minority rules. Consensus is also a way by which a minority controls the entire group. It is enough that the dictator firmly disagrees with the opinion of those who threaten him the most. After some time, many enemies will leave the group.
Super-majority and consensus are also at odds with the “1 person = 1 vote” principle. If one person is able to stop the decision, that person’s voice is stronger than all the other people in the group.


In an open discussion preceding an open vote – the person who wants to influence the group speaks first. Thanks to this, some people with a different opinion will not speak at all.
If the second person speaks in a similar tone as the first, other people from the opposition will be even more discouraged from expressing their opinion.
If a person with a different opinion, however, dares to speak, he will be immediately attacked by the first people. Getting support for a dissenting opinion is very difficult at this point because those who were initially indecisive are now on the side of those who spoke first.
This problem can be compensated to some extent by drawing a random order of speaking and not allowing a discussion until everyone has spoken in the first round. However, it will still be possible to intimidate in the second round with very emotional statements.
Asch’s experiment showed that peer pressure significantly influences decisions. Under peer pressure, people are able to deny what they see. Only 25% of people are able to resist. (
The openness of voting means that:

– 75% of people sometimes succumb to peer pressure.
– It is possible to intimidate and control whether the person being intimidated voted “as it should”
– knowing who voted how can cause resentment and disagreement

When setting rules – conformity should be eliminated through anonymous voting. This makes decisions much smarter and beneficial to the majority. We should have anonymous votes for the same reasons we should have anonymity on the internet – for our safety, so that no one can blackmail, control or intimidate us.


“Everyone is equal before the law” – everyone agrees with this principle. Unfortunately, this rule does not apply if each situation and each person is approached individually. The rules (constitution) should be established in advance and apply equally to both person A and person B.If
they do not work – then it should be improved.



Voting at the same meeting where the discussion takes place has the following disadvantages:
– Only those present can cast their vote.
– The discussion usually prolongs, so the votes take place very late. This eliminates many people.
– Emotion influences the decision.
– The subject of voting changes during the discussion.
– There is no time to think about the subject of voting.
– The presenter has a predominant influence on the course of the discussion.
For these reasons, discussion and voting should be separated in time. For example, one day there is a discussion and regulations are formulated that will be voted on. On the second day, you can calmly think about how to vote. On the third day, a referendum is held, which lasts 24 hours.


I do not know what intentions had people who proposed the above solutions but I know what are the effects of their actions. All these “mistakes” allow the minority to control the majority. If you want to have a truly democratic group – do not agree to any of the above solutions. Set up a group in which:
– the discussion will be separate from the vote
– the votes
will be secret- 1 person will have 1 vote, and hence, decisions will be made by a simple majority of votes
– decisions will not be made ad-hoc and separately for each person and situation. Instead, everyone will be equally bound by
the constitution – there will be no turnout thresholds.