Representative Democracy

The term “representative democracy” refers to a type of government wherein the citizens vote for representatives to pass laws for them. A perfect example of representative democracy can be found right here in the United States. Here, American citizens vote for a President and members of Congress, as well as members of state and local governments, to hear the concerns of the citizens they represent, and do what they feel is best for them. To explore this concept, consider the following representative democracy definition.

Definition of Representative Democracy


  1. A type of government wherein the people are permitted to vote for those whom they feel will best represent their values and will pass the laws necessary to benefit all of society.


1350-1400       Middle English

Defining Right of Representative Democracy

The defining right of a representative democracy is the citizens’ ability to vote for representatives who will make decisions on their behalf. In the U.S., voters choose their local, state, and federal government representatives in November each year on election day.

By electing these government officials, the people hope the officials will listen to those who have elected them, and pass laws that benefit society as a whole. If, over the course of the next term, voters become dissatisfied with the jobs their elected officials have been doing, then the defining right of a representative democracy provides them with the option to elect someone new come next election day.

Contrasting Representative Democracy with Direct Democracy

When contrasting representative democracy with direct democracy, perhaps the most important distinction between the two is in the “representative” part of the first term. Simply put, in a representative democracy, individuals elect representatives to create and pass laws that are in line with the values they care about.

In a direct democracy, however, the individuals themselves vote on all of these issues, rather than electing a kind of middleman to do it for them. This would require that the people remain informed of the issues and proposed laws, then being available to vote on those issues each time they come up.

Something else to consider when contrasting representative democracy with direct democracy is that, in some countries (like the U.S.), a government can be both. For example, representative democracy exists when Americans vote for representatives in the local, state, and federal governments. However, direct democracy also exists when those citizens turn their ballots over and vote for the proposals listed at the state level. For the latter, the decisions voters make directly affect whether or not those proposals pass without the need to include a representative to vote on those issues for them.

Representative Democracy Example Involving the History of Rhode Island

An example of representative democracy can be found in the case of Luther v. Borden, which was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1849. In 1841, a state convention was established that adopted a new constitution and elected a new governor. This resulted in Rhode Island having two competing state governments: their original government and the one created by the convention.

The original government was opposed to the formation of the second government. As a result, the original government instituted “martial law,” meaning that an officer could legally arrest anyone whom he reasonably believed was associated with the second government. One official who was involved with the second government, Martin Luther, was one such individual.

In protest of his arrest, Luther argued that the original government wasn’t a representative democracy, and that the U.S. Constitution guaranteed “a republican form of government” in each of the states. When the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Chief Justice Taney agreed that the U.S. Constitution did guarantee “a republican form of government.” However, in Luther’s attempts to seek a resolution to the situation, the Court ruled that Luther had erred. In the Court’s decision, Chief Justice Taney wrote:

“The question whether or not a majority of those persons entitled to suffrage voted to adopt a constitution cannot be settled in a judicial proceeding.

The Constitution of the United States has treated the subject as political in its nature, and placed the power of recognizing a State government in the hands of Congress. Under the existing legislation of Congress, the exercise of this power by courts would be entirely inconsistent with that legislation.

The President of the United States is vested with certain power by an act of Congress, and in this case, he exercised that power by recognizing the charter government.”