Despite controversy over recent referendums and initiatives, populists and social movements continue to call for the use of these popular vote processes. Most political and academic debates about whether these calls should be answered have adopted a dominant framework that focuses on whether we should favour ‘direct’ or ‘representative’ democracy. However, this framework obscures more urgent questions about whether, when, and how popular vote processes should be implemented in democratic systems. How do popular vote processes interact with representative institutions? And how could these interactions be democratized? The contributions in this special issue address these and related questions by replacing the framework of ‘direct democracy’ with systemic approaches. The normative contributions illustrate how these approaches enable the development of counternarratives about the value of popular vote processes and clarify the nature of the underlying ideals they should realize. The empirical contributions examine recent cases with a variety of methodological tools, demonstrating that systemic approaches attentive to context can generate new insights about the use of popular vote processes. This introduction puts these contributions into conversation to illustrate how a shift in approach establishes a basis for (re-)evaluating existing practices and guiding reforms so that referendums and initiatives foster democracy.