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A referendum (plural: referendums or referenda) or plebiscite is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is asked to either accept or reject a particular proposal. This may be the adoption of a new constitution, a constitutional amendment, a law, the recall of an elected official or simply a specific government policy. Certain kinds of referendums held in some states of the United States are referred to as ballot measures or propositions. The referendum or plebiscite is a form of direct democracy.



The terms referendum and plebiscite are often used interchangeably but the term plebiscite is usually preferred in circumstance in which a decision is being made on fundamental issues of sovereignty, such as in determining national borders or adopting a new constitution. Plebiscite is also often the term used to describe a direct vote held by a dictator or an undemocratic regime, in circumstances in which a free and fair vote is impossible. Plebiscites held by undemocratic governments may request approval for a radical governmental decree, or of the general policies of the government. The term referendum is usually preferred to describe routine votes held in liberal democracies. Thus the direct vote that adopted the constitution of the modern Republic of Ireland is referred to as a 'plebiscite' while every subsequent such direct vote has been described as a 'referendum'.

Referendums and referenda are both commonly used as plurals of referendum. However the use of referenda is deprecated by the Oxford English Dictionary which advises that:

Referendums is logically preferable as a plural form meaning ballots on one issue (as a Latin gerund, referendum has no plural). The Latin plural gerundive referenda, meaning things to be referred, necessarily connotes a plurality of issues

Procedure and status

Referendums may be either binding or non-binding. A non-binding referendum is merely consultative or advisory. It is left to the government or legislature to interpret the results of a non-binding referendum and it may even choose to ignore them. Nonetheless, actual political circumstances in countries that hold non-binding referendums are such that the results of such a referendum are usually honoured. In contrast, a number of nations permit binding referendums in which the result is legally enforceable.

A foundational referendum or plebiscite may be drafted by a constituent assembly before being put to voters. In other circumstances a referendum is usually initiated either by a legislature or by citizens themselves by means of a petition. The process of initiating a referendum by petition is known as the popular or citizen's initiative. In the United States the term referendum is often reserved for a direct vote initiated by a legislature while a vote originating in a petition of citizens is referred to as an "initiative," "ballot measure" or "proposition."

In countries in which a referendum must be initiated by parliament it is sometimes mandatory to hold a binding referendum on certain proposals, such as constitutional amendments. In countries, such as the United Kingdom, in which referendums are neither mandatory nor binding there may, nonetheless, exist an unwritten convention that certain important constitutional changes will be put to a referendum and that the result will be respected.

In most referendums it is sufficient for a measure to be approved by a simple majority of voters in order for it to be carried. However a referendum may also require the support of a super-majority, such as two-thirds of votes cast. In Lithuania certain proposals must be endorsed by a three-quarters majority.

In some countries there is also a requirement that there be a certain minimum turn-out of the electorate in order for the result of a referendum to be considered valid. This is intended to ensure that the result is representative of the will of the electorate and is analogous to the quorum required in a committee or legislature. An alternative is to insist on a certain minimum absolute number of yes votes before a measure can be deemed to have been carried—or of no votes if it is to be deemed vetoed.

The franchise in a referendum is not necessarily the same as that for elections. For example, in the Republic of Ireland only citizens may vote in a referendum whereas British citizens resident in the state are entitled to vote in general elections.


Although some advocates of direct democracy would have the referendum become the dominant institution of government, in practice, in modern times, the referendum exists solely as a complement to the system of representative democracy, in which most major decisions are taken by an elected legislature. Furthermore, with the exception of Switzerland, in most jurisdictions that practice them referendums are relatively rare occurrences and are restricted to issues of major importance. Nonetheless the referendum is sometimes the subject of controversy.

Advocates of the referendum argue that certain decisions are best taken out of the hands of political elites and determined directly by the people. Some adopt a strict definition of democracy in which elected parliaments are merely a necessary expedient needed to make governance possible in the large, modern nation-state; direct democracy is nonetheless preferable and so a referendum must always take preference over a decision of parliament.

Other advocates insist that the principle of popular sovereignty demands that certain foundational questions, such as the adoption or amendment of a constitution, the secession of a state or the altering of national boundaries, be determined with the directly expressed consent of the people.

Criticisms from representative democracy

Opponents of the referendum argue that representative democracy is superior to direct democracy. As often conceived by such opponents, representative democracy is a system in which elected officials are the exercisers of independent judgement rather than merely delegates bound to robotically carry out the wishes of voters. Some opponents therefore insist that the referendum is used by politicians as a way of abrogating responsibility in the taking of difficult or controversial decisions.

It is also argued that voters in a referendum may be driven by transient whims rather than careful deliberation, or that they may not be sufficiently well informed to take decisions on complicated or technical issues. Voters might furthermore be swayed by strong personalities, or the adverse influence of propaganda or expensive advertising campaigns. Some argue that tools such as the referendum may lead to the "tyranny of the majority" and to the erosion of the rights of individuals and minorities.

Some opposition to the referendum has arisen from its use by dictators such as Hitler and Mussolini who, it is argued, used the plebiscite to clothe oppressive policies in a veneer of legitimacy. Hitler's use of the plebiscite is one reason why, since World War II, there has been no provision in Germany for the holding of referendums at the federal level.

Many of the arguments used by those who oppose the referendum are summarised in the following comment made in an interview in 2003 by the British politician Chris Patten concerning the possibility of a referendum in the UK on the European Union Constitution:

I think referendums are awful.. they were the favourite form of plebiscitary democracy of Mussolini and Hitler. They undermine Westminster [parliament]. What they ensure, as we saw in the last election, is if you have a referendum on an issue politicians during an election campaign say oh we're not going to talk about that, we don't need to talk about that, that's all for the referendum. So during the last election campaign the euro was hardly debated. I think referendums are fundamentally anti-democratic in our system and I wouldn't have anything to do with them. On the whole, governments only concede them when governments are weak (BBC, 2004).

Other criticisms

A further perceived flaw of the referendum is that in some circumstances the democratic spirit of the referendum may be flouted by the repeated submission to the referendum of a proposal until it is eventually endorsed, perhaps due to a low turn-out or public fatigue with the issue. This is especially a problem where a proposal may be difficult to reverse, such as secession from a larger country or the abolition of a monarchy. The repeated holding of a referendum on a single issue has been pejoratively referred to as the phenomenon of the "never-end-um".

Finally some critics of the referendum attack the usual practice of only offering the electorate two options, of either accepting or rejecting a proposal, in a referendum.

Multiple-choice referendums

A referendum usually offers the electorate only two choices, either to accept or reject a proposal, but this need not necessarily be the case. For example two multiple choice referendums held in Sweden, in 1957 and 1980, offered voters a choice of three options, and in 1977 a referendum held in Australia to determine a new national anthem was held in which voters were presented with four choices.

A multiple choice referendum poses the problem of how the result is to be determined if no single option receives the support of an absolute majority (i.e., more than half) of voters. This can be resolved by apply voting systems designed for single winner elections to a multiple-choice referendum. In the Swedish case in both referendums the 'winning' option was chosen by the Single Member Plurality ('First-Past-the-Post') system. In other words the winning option was deemed to be that supported by a plurality, rather than an absolute majority, of voters. In the 1977 Australian referendum the winner was chosen by the system of Instant Run-off Voting (also known as the 'Alternative Vote').

Some groups, such as the Northern Ireland De Borda Institute , advocate the conduct of referendums using the Borda count form of preferential voting, and refer to such a vote as a Borda 'preferendum'. The De Borda Institute argues that the Borda count would produce results based on consensus rather than majoritarianism; it is therefore suggested for use in plebiscites held in areas of conflict such as Northern Ireland, the Balkans or Kashmir. Critics of the Borda count argue that it is particularly susceptible to tactical voting and to the tactical nomination of candidates, and that it may produce results that are opposed by a majority of voters.

Referendums by country


Main article: Referendums in Australia

Approval in a referendum is necessary in order to amend the Australian constitution. A bill must first be passed by both houses of Parliament or, in certain limited circumstances, by only one house of parliament, and is then submitted to a referendum. If a majority of those voting, as well as separate majorities in each of a majority of states, vote in favour of the amendment, it is presented for the Royal Assent, given in the Queen's name by the Governor-General. Out of the 43 referendums held since federation in 1901, only eight have been passed, making the Austalian referendum system one of the most restrictive in the industrialised world.


Main article: Referendums in Canada

Referendums are rare in Canada and only three have ever occurred at the federal level. The most recent was a referendum in 1992 on a package of proposed constitutional measures known as the Charlottetown Accord. Although the Constitution of Canada does not expressly require that amendments be approved by referendum some argue that, in light of the precedent set by the Charlottetown Accord referendum, this may have become an unwritten convention.

Republic of Ireland

Main article: Amendments of the Constitution of Ireland

The current Constitution of Ireland was adopted by plebiscite on 1 July, 1937. In the Republic of Ireland it is mandatory that every constitutional amendment be approved by referendum and since 1937 over twenty constitutional referendums have occurred. Constitutional amendments are first adopted by both Houses of the Oireachtas (parliament), then submitted to a referendum and finally signed into law by the President. However the role of the president is merely ceremonial and she cannot refuse to sign an amendment into law that has been legitimately approved in a referendum. The constitution also provides for a referendum on an ordinary law known as the 'ordinary referendum'. However such a referendum can only take place in rare circumstances and so none has yet occurred.


Main article: Referendums in Italy

The constitution of Italy provides for binding referendums. A referendum can be called in order to abrogate totally or partially a law, but only at the request of 500,000 electors or five regional councils. It is forbidden to call a referendum regarding financial laws or laws relating to pardons or the ratification of international treaties. Any citizen entitled to vote in an election to the Chamber of Deputies may participate in a referendum.


Main article: Referendums in Sweden

The Constitution of Sweden provides for both binding and non-binding referendums. Since the introduction of parliamentary democracy six referendums have been held in Sweden: the first was on prohibition in 1922 and the most recent on euro membership in 2003. All have been non-binding, consultative referendums. Two, in 1957 and 1980, were multiple choice referendums.

United Kingdom

Main article: Referendums in the United Kingdom

Owing to the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty a binding referendum cannot be held in the United Kingdom (UK). Referenda are rare and only once has a referendum proposal been put to the entire electorate of the UK; this was a referendum in 1975 on membership of the European Economic Community. However many referendums have been held in individual regions within the United Kingdom on issues relating to devolution and the status of Northern Ireland. There have also been referendums held at the local level on proposals for directly elected local mayors. As of 2004 the British government is currently committed to holding a UK-wide referendum on the new EU Constitution, as well as on any plan to adopt the euro as the UK's currency or to change from 'first past the post' to an alternative electoral system. In addition, under the 1972 Local Government Act, there is a little-known provision under which non-binding local referenda on any issue can be called by small groups of voters.

Other nations

  • France: In France a constitutional amendment must be approved by either a super-majority in parliament or by the people in a referendum. President Chirac has suggested that he will hold a referendum on the new EU Constitution before it is ratified.
  • Switzerland: In Switzerland binding referendums and citizen's initiatives are possible at both the federal and canton level. They may be held on both constitutional amendments and ordinary laws, occur frequently and are a central feature of Swiss political life.
  • United States: There is no provision for the holding of referendums at the federal level in the United States. However the constitutions of 24 states and many local and city governments provide for referendums and citizen's initiatives. The most famous US state initiative is probably California's Proposition 13 which severely limited property tax increases.


  • Interview with Chris Patten, EU Commissioner for External Affairs (2003). Retrieved 13 Oct. 2004 from

See also

Specific referendums

External links

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