What is the relationship between referendum and initiative processes and democracy? The dominant understanding is that these popular vote processes are institutions associated with a model of direct democracy that stands in opposition to representative democracy. However, this pervasive approach is rarely justified and appears to limit the study of popular vote processes by focusing on implausible ideals, obscuring that many democratic institutions face similar challenges, and encouraging overgeneralising claims that neglect institutional variation in referendum and initiative processes. Previous criticisms of the association of popular vote processes with direct democracy have failed to clearly articulate an alternative. We trace the emergence of a democratic systems approach to popular vote processes and argue that it provides a better conceptual framework to empirically study and normatively discuss these processes.