, a constitutional amendment
, a law
, the recall
of an elected official or simply a specific government policy. It is a form of direct democracy
. The word plebiscite comes from the Latin plebiscita, which originally meant a decree of the Concilium Plebis
, the popular assembly of the Roman Republic
1860 Parma, Tuscany, Modena and Romagna vote in referendums to join the Kingdom of Sardinia.
1905 Norway holds a referendum in favor of monarchy over republic.
1920 King Constantine I is restored as King of the Hellenes after the death of his son Alexander I of Greece and a plebiscite.
1936 In Germany, Adolf Hitler receives 99% of the votes in a referendum to ratify Germany's illegal reoccupation of the Rhineland, receiving 44.5 million votes out of 45.5 million registered voters.
1946 Birth of the Italian Republic: In a referendum, Italians vote to turn Italy from a monarchy into a Republic. After the referendum the king of Italy Umberto II di Savoia is exiled.
1961 In France a referendum supports Charles de Gaulle's policies in Algeria.
1962 Newly independent Algeria, by referendum, adopts a Constitution.
1975 India annexes Sikkim after the mountain state holds a referendum in which the popular vote is in favour of merging with India.
1976 The 1976 Constitution of Cuba is adopted by the national referendum.
1980 Andalusia approves its statute of autonomy through a referendum.
, a constitutional amendment
, a law
, the recall
of an elected official or simply a specific government policy. It is a form of direct democracy
. The word plebiscite comes from the Latin plebiscita, which originally meant a decree of the Concilium Plebis
, the popular assembly of the Roman Republic
. 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:
In the United States, a plebiscite is typically known as an initiative
when originating in a petition of ordinary citizens, and as a referendum only if it consists of a proposal referred to voters by the legislature. A plebiscite can be considered a kind of election
and is often referred to as such in the U.S. (an election literally means a choice). In other countries, the term election is often reserved for events in which elected representatives are chosen.
Procedure and statusIn a first classification by necessity, a referendum may be mandatory, that is, the law (usually the constitution) directs authorities to holding referendums on specific matters (such is the case in amending most constitutions, or impeaching heads of state as well as ratifying international treaties) and are usually binding. A referendum can also be facultative, that is it can be initiated at the will of a public authority (President of the Republic in France and Romania or the Government/Parliament in Greece or Spain) or at the will of the citizens (a petition). It can be binding/ non-binding.
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 citizens 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.
By nature of their effects, 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. This is particularly the case in states that follow Westminster conventions of parliamentary sovereignty. In New Zealand, for example, citizen-initiated referendum (CIR) questions are broad statements of intent, not detailed laws. Following a referendum vote, parliament itself has the sole power to draft, debate and pass enabling legislation if it so chooses, and thus far, New Zealand governments have chosen to ignore completely two of the three proposals that have succeeded in forcing a vote since the CIR device was created in 1993. The third, a series of proposals about criminal justice, prompted some minor reforms only; it too was largely ignored. Matt Qvortrup in his Supply-side Politics (Centre for Policy Studies 2007) argues that this led to a disuse of the New Zealand device. While three petitions were launched in 2007, there was only one in 2004 and 2005, and none in 2006 and 2008 thus far. Only one of these have yet achieved the necessary signature target to force a vote, the overwhelming result (87% opposed) of which was largely ignored by the government. However, according to the New Zealand Election Study, 77 percent of voters believe that the citizen initiated referendum make the politicians more accountable. Trust in politicians has grown by almost 20 percent since the introduction of the device, although that can be more plausibly attributed to the change in electoral system that occurred at the same time.
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 (among them, any proposal to amend article 148 of the Lithuanian Constitution, which states, "Lithuania is an independent and democratic republic").
In some countries, including Italy, 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.
in a referendum is not necessarily the same as that for election
s. For example, in Ireland
, only citizens may vote in a constitutional referendum, whereas citizens of the United Kingdom
are also entitled to vote in general election
AustraliaApproval 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, (and where appropriate a majority of people in any affected state) vote in favour of the amendment, it is presented for Royal Assent
, given in the Queen's name by the Governor-General
. Due to the specific mention of referendums in the Australian constitution, non-constitutional referendums are usually termed plebiscites in Australia.
BrazilThree nationwide referendums were held so far in Brazilian history.
In 1961, the country had just adopted the parliamentary government system, but in a referendum held in 1963, the Brazilian population was consulted about which government system should be withheld in the country and it was decided to have Brazil return to a Presidential system.
In 1993, another referendum to decide Brazil's government system was held. Voters could choose between keep the presidential republic system, adopt a parliamentary republic system, or adopt a parliamentary monarchy system. The majority of voters opined to maintain the current presidential government system.
In 2005 a referendum was held to consult the population about their opinion on the possibility to forbid the sale and civilian possession of firearms and ammunition nationwide. Most of voters declared themselves contrary to the ban and the laws regarding commerce and ownership of weapons in the country remained unaltered.
CanadaReferendums 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, many argue that, in light of the precedent set by the Charlottetown Accord referendum, this may have become a constitutional convention
A referendum can also occur at the provincial level. The 1980
referendums on the secession of Québec
are notable cases. In conjunction with the provincial election
in 2007, the province of Ontario
voted on a mixed-member proportional representation electoral system and British Columbia
held two consecutive referendums on BC-STV
in 2005 and 2009. In 2011 British Columbia
held yet another referendum against a newly imposed HST tax. The results ended up making British Columbia the first province to overturn the harmonization of provincial and federal taxes.
ChileThere have been four plebiscites and one "consultation" in Chilean history. In 1925, a plebiscite was held over a new constitution that would replace a semi-parliamentary system with a presidential one. The "Yes" vote won overwhelmingly, with 95% of the vote.
In 1978, after the United Nations
protested against Pinochet's régime, the country's military government held a national consultation, which asked if people supported Pinochet's rule. The "Yes" vote won with 74%, although the results have been questioned.
Another constitutional plebiscite
was held in 1980. The "Yes" won with 68.5%, prolonging Pinochet's term until 1989 and replacing the 1925 Constitution with a new one still used today. The results of this plebiscite have also been questioned by Pinochet's opponents, because of the lack of voters registration.
In a historical plebiscite held in 1988, 56% voted to end the military régime. The next year, yet another plebiscite was held for constitutional changes for the transition to a democratic government (the "Yes" vote won with 91%).
There have been several referendums in individual municipalities in Chile since the return to civilian rule in 1990. A referendum, which took place on 2006 in Las Condes
, over the construction of a mall was noteworthy for being the first instance in Chilean history where electronic voting machines were used.
Costa RicaOctober 7, 2007 the first referendum held in Costa Rica was to approve or reject the free trade agreement with Central America
, Dominican Republic
(Costa Rica already has FTAs with the latter) and the United States
known as the Dominican Republic – Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA).
It was very narrowly approved (49.030 votes). Results were 51.62% voted in favour and 48.38% against it. It is currently the only free trade agreement in the world that has been approved on a referendum.
From 2008 to 2010 conservative groups, linked to religious institutions, managed to collect 150,000 signatures to call a referendum to decline unions between same-sex couples. The Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) had scheduled the consultation on December 5, 2010.
However, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court rejected the referendum stating that "The rights of minorities that arise from anti-majoritarian claims can not be subjected to a referendum process which the majority imposes". This consideration supports the main argument of those who rejected the consultation considered a violation of human rights, among these gay groups and humanitarian actors.
The Board further considered that "people who have sex with same sex are a group at disadvantage and discrimination, which requires the support of public authorities for the recognition of their constitutional rights or other legislation". Decisions of the Constitutional Court are final so the ruling stopped the referendum and opened to the Congress the opportunity to continue discussing the bill on the recognition of homosexual unions.
DenmarkIn Denmark, referendums are held every time new treaties of the European Union
have to be approved. One sixth of the parliamentary members can force a referendum in certain cases, one third in all cases. Because Denmark has a multiparty system, this has happened. However, it has been the norm to hold a referendum with every new EU treaty, even when more than five sixths can be found. Recently, the Danish government was highly criticized when it did not hold a referendum regarding the controversial Lisbon treaty.
The Constitution of Denmark
can be changed only after a referendum.
The present location of the border with Germany
was determined by a referendum in 1920 after the German capitulation
. See Schleswig
EgyptOn 19 March 2011 a constitutional referendum was held in Egypt
, following the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. The reforms made it easier for candidates to run for president, limited the number of presidential terms to two four-year periods, and ensured judicial monitoring of elections.
Hong KongDue to discontent towards the proposal of political reform made by the Hong Kong government, the Civic Party
and the League of Social Democrats
joined together to carry out "Five Constituencies Referendum" in early 2010, by having one Legislative Councillors (from either one of the parties) in each constituency resigned, forcing the government to carry out a by-election, thus giving a chance for all voters to show their will towards universal suffrage and the abolishment of functional constituencies .Quite often, it is refereed as "De facto referendum".
The Basic Law of Hong Kong does not provide for official referenda, but the pan-democrats hope that by returning the resignees to the Legislative Council, on their manifesto of real political reform in Hong Kong and the abolition of functional constituencies
, the election can be seen as a de-facto referendum and an endorsement of these issues.
The original five pan-democrat Legislative Councillors were re-elected, the turnout was much lower than the expectation of the two parties, due to the suppression of pro-Beijing Camp.
IraqThe current Constitution of Iraq
was approved by referendum on 15 October 2005, two years after the United States
-led invasion. The constitution was designed to shift crucial decisions about government, the judiciary and human rights to a future national assembly. It was later modified to provide for the establishment of a committee by the parliament to be elected in December 2005 to consider changes to the constitution in 2006.
IrelandThe current Constitution of Ireland
was adopted by plebiscite on 1 July 1937. In Ireland
, every constitutional amendment must be approved by referendum; 30 such referendums have occurred so far (from the enactment of the current constitution to the end of 2009). Constitutional amendments are first adopted by both Houses of the Oireachtas
(parliament), submitted to a referendum, and are signed into law by the President
. The role of the president is merely ceremonial: she cannot refuse to sign into law an amendment that has been approved in a referendum. The constitution also provides for a referendum on an ordinary law, known as an 'ordinary referendum
'. Such a referendum can take place only under special circumstances, and none have yet occurred. The closest referendum result was 1995's vote to legalise divorce - 50.3% voted "Yes" (to legalise divorce) and 49.7% voted "No." Only Ireland held a referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon
IcelandThe constitution of Iceland
provides two articles on referendums:
- According to the 11th article, if 3/4 of the parliamentAlthingThe Alþingi, anglicised variously as Althing or Althingi, is the national parliament of Iceland. The Althingi is the oldest parliamentary institution in the world still extant...
votes to dismiss the presidentPresident of IcelandThe President of Iceland is Iceland's elected head of state. The president is elected to a four-year term by universal adult suffrage and has limited powers. The president is not the head of government; the Prime Minister of Iceland is the head of government. There have been five presidents since...
then that decision must be put to a binding referendum.
- According to the 26th article, should the president veto a bill from the parliament then it must be put to a binding referendum.
A total of 7 referendums have been held in Iceland
, two of which were held after the nation declared independence and became a republic in 1944.
- Prohibition referendumIcelandic prohibition referendum, 1908The Icelandic prohibition referendum of 1908 was the first referendum to be held in Iceland. 60.1% of voters favoured prohibition while 39.9% were against it....
- Community service referendum (1916)
- Sovereignty referendumIcelandic sovereignty referendum, 1918The Icelandic sovereignty referendum of 1918 changed the status of Iceland within the Kingdom of Denmark from home rule to a sovereign country. The proposal was approved with 92.6% support....
- Prohibitation referendumIcelandic prohibition referendum, 1933The Icelandic prohibition referendum of 1933 was a review of the 1908 referendum. Prohibition was abolished with 57.7% support....
- Constitutional referendum (1944)
- Loan guarantees referendum (2010)
- Loan guarantees referendumIcelandic loan guarantees referendum, 2011A referendum on the loan guarantees repayment by Iceland to the governments of the United Kingdom and the Netherlands for their loan guarantees to the Depositors' and Investors' Guarantee Fund of Iceland over the failure of the Icesave bank was held in Iceland on 9 April 2011...
ItalyThe constitution of Italy
provides for two kinds of binding referendums.
A legislative referendum can be called in order to abrogate a law totally or partially, if requested by 500,000 electors or five regional councils. This kind of referendum is valid only if at least a majority of electors goes to the polling station. It is forbidden to call a referendum regarding financial laws or laws relating to pardons or the ratification of international treaties.
A constitutional referendum can be called in order to approve a constitutional law or amendment only when it has been approved by the Houses (Chamber of Deputies
and Senate of the Republic
) with a majority of less than two thirds in both or either House, and only at the request of one fifth of the members of either House, or 500,000 electors or five Regional Councils
. A constitutional referendum is valid no matter how many electors go to the polling station. Any citizen entitled to vote in an election to the Chamber of Deputies may participate in a referendum.
MaltaThere are three types of referendums in Malta; these are Constitutional, Consultative and Abrogative Referendums. Constitutional Referendums are binding and is set out in the Constitution and in practice it would only take place to increase the life time of the incumbent legislature. This type of Referendum in Malta in effect has never taken place. The second provision is for Consultative Referendums. These can either take place prior to the assent of a bill in the House of Representatives
or following the parliamentary procedure in a form of a conditional clause in the said bill. In the former case it would not legally bind Parliament to approve the said legislation irrelevant of the result of the said referendum, however the latter case, it would be conventionally binding on the President to promulgate the bill into law. Throughout the History of Malta there has been five referendums on a national level. There has been however one regional referendum for Gozo in 1973 and further local Referendums within Local Council jurisdictions. The Final form of Referendums; i.e. Abrogative Referendums is provided for in the Referenda Act even though it has never been utilized and if invoked and successful can abrogate pieces of legislation barring some exceptions notably financial and constitutional law.
MoroccoThere have been several referendums in Morocco. Most of which were related to the Moroccan constitution. Since he became king of Morocco, King Mohammed VI has led a lot of reforms that made Morocco an exception from all the other Arab countries. On February 20, 2011, Thousands took to the streets of Rabat, Casablanca, Tangier and Marrakesh in peaceful protests demanding a new constitution, a change in government and an end to corruption. During a march on Hassan II Avenue in the capital, Rabat, demonstrators demanded a new constitution to bring more democracy to the country. They shouted slogans calling for economic opportunity, education reform, better health services, and help in coping with the rising cost of living.
On March 9, King Mohammed VI made a speech that was described as a "historical" speech in which he announced several reforms including a new constitution to the country.
In a televised speech on Friday, 17 June, King Mohammed VI announced a series of constitutional reforms, to be put to a national referendum on 1 July. The proposed reforms would give the prime minister and the parliament more executive authority, and would make Berber an official language in Morocco, together with Arabic. The proposal would empower the prime minister with the authority to appoint government officials and to dissolve the parliament - the powers previously held by the king. However, the king would remain the military commander-in-chief and would retain his position as the chair of the Council of Ministers and the Supreme Security Council, the primary bodies responsible for the security policy. A new constitutional provision would also confirm the king's role as the highest religious authority in the country.
Although most people were celebrating among the protesters after the King's speech, the leaders of the 20 February Movement rejected the proposals as insufficient and called for continuing protests on 19 June 2011. On 29 June 2011, the protesters called for a boycott of the referendum.
The referendum was held on June 1, and almost all Moroccans said yes to it with a "98% yes" "2% No" turnout.
NetherlandsIn principle, national referendums in the Netherlands are not possible by law. However, from 2002 until 2005, there was a Temporary Referendum Law in place, which allowed for non-binding referendums, known in Dutch as Volksraadpleging ("People's Consultation"), to be organised for laws already approved by the House of Representatives. No referendum was called based on this law.
In order to hold the 2005 referendum on the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe
, a different law was temporarily put in place. That referendum was the first national referendum in the Netherlands in 200 years and it was the result of an initiative proposal by parliamentarians Farah Karimi
(Greens), Niesco Dubbelboer (Labour) and Boris van der Ham (Democrats
New ZealandNew Zealand
has two types of referendum. Government referendums are predominantly about alcohol
policy (although none has been held recently) or constitutional
issues. However, there are referendums on other issues. Furthermore, constitutional issues, such as the establishment of the Supreme Court of New Zealand
, may be done without a referendum. New Zealand also has provision for citizens-initiated referendums, although these are non-binding. The Prime Minister, John Key
, has said he will work to raise the number of times referendums are used.
NorwayThe Norwegian Constitution does not mention refendums at all, and as such, referendums are not a part of Norwegian political practice. However, six advisory referendums have been held in Norway, most notably, the referendums on Norwegian EU membership, and the referendum for dissolving the union with Sweden. It is worth noting that these referendums, and potential future referendums, although legitimate as part of Norwegian constitutional convention
, will not have any legal binding: They will merely be advisory, and the final decision will be taken by the Norwegian parliament, who may choose (albeit unlikely) to disregard the will of the Norwegian people as expressed through the referendum.
, a Referendum is a determined proposition presented by the Government, Citizens or Political Organizations that is submitted to the popular pronouncement through a national election. Until now, there were already three Referendums:
abortion, in 1998, when the "No" won;
regionalization, in 1998, when the "No" won;
abortion, in 2007, where the "Yes" won. This referendum was asked because the first referendum on this issue had a low turnout.
RomaniaUnder the Romanian Constitution of 1991, revised in 2003, there are three situations in which referendums can be held. Article 90 of the Constitution establishes a facultative and non-binding referendum, which the President can initiate on matters of principle. Article 95 establishes a mandatory and binding referendum for the impeachment of the President in case he is deemed guilty of disobeying the Constitution. Article 151 also establishes a mandatory and binding referendum on approving Constitutional amendments. This last provision has been used twice: in adopting the Romanian Constitution in 1991, and amending it in 2003.
SerbiaThe Constitution of the Republic of Serbia
was adopted on a referendum held in 28–29 October 2006. The constitutional referendum passed with 3,521,724 voting a 53.04% majority. 3,645,517 or 54.91% voted on the referendum, which made it legitimate.
SingaporeAccording to the Constitution of Singapore
, a referendum can be held in a few circumstances, including situations when a constitutional amendment passed by the Parliament is rejected by the President, or when the nation's sovereignty needs to be decided (i.e. merger or incorporation into other countries). There has been only one referendum in Singapore to date, which is the 1962 national referendum
, deciding on the merger of Singapore into Malaysia. Singapore was eventually forced to secede from Malaysia and declared independence, which had not even been an option in the referendum, on 9 August 1965. Hence, Singapore became the only country to become independent against its own will.
SwedenThe Constitution of Sweden
provides for both binding and non-binding referendums. Since the introduction of parliamentary democracy, six referendums have been held: the first was about alcohol prohibition
in 1922, and the most recent was about euro
membership in 2003. All have been non-binding, consultative referendums. Two, in 1957 and 1980, were multiple-choice referendums.
Swiss voters can demand a binding referendum at federal, cantonal and municipal level. They are a central feature of Swiss political life. It is not the government's choice whether or when a referendum is held, but it is a legal procedure regulated by the Swiss constitution. There are two types of referendums:
- Facultative referendum: Any federal law, certain other federal resolutions, and international treaties that are ongoing in nature, or any change to Swiss law may be subject to referendum if at least 50,000 people or eight cantons have petitioned to do so within 100 days. Within cantons and municipalities, the required number of people is smaller, and there may be additional causes for a facultative referendum, e.g., expenditures that exceed a certain amount of money. The facultative referendum is the most common type of referendum, and it is mostly carried out by political parties or by interest groups.
- Obligatory referendum: There must be a referendum on any amendments to the constitution and on any joining of a multinational community or organization for collective security. In many municipalities, expenditures that exceed a certain amount of money also are subject to the obligatory referendum. Constitutional amendments are proposed by the parliament or by the cantons or by citizens' initiatives. Citizen's initiatives at the federal level need to collect 100,000 valid signatures within 18 months, and must not contradict international laws or treaties. Often, parliament elaborates a counter-proposal to an initiative, leading to a multiple-choice referendum. Very few such initiatives pass the vote, but more often, the parliamentary counter proposal is approved.
The possibility of facultative referendums forces the parliament to search for a compromise between the major interest groups. In many cases, the mere threat of a facultative referendum or of an initiative is enough to make the parliament adjust a law.
The referendums are said, by their adversaries, to slow politics down. On the other hand, empirical scientists, e.g. Bruno S. Frey among many, show that this and other instruments of citizens' participation, direct democracy, contribute to stability and happiness.
The votes on referendums are always held on a Sunday, typically three or four times a year, and in most cases, the votes concern several referendums at the same time, often at different political levels (federal, cantonal, municipal). Referendums are also often combined with elections. The percentage of voters is around 40% to 50%, unless there is an election. The decisions made in referendums tend to be conservative. Citizens' initiatives are usually not passed. The federal rule and referendums have been used in Switzerland since 1848.
United KingdomAlthough Acts of Parliament may permit referendums to take place, the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty
means any Act of Parliament giving effect to a referendum result could be reversed by a subsequent Act of Parliament. As a result, referendums in the United Kingdom
cannot be constitutionally binding, although they will usually have a persuasive political effect.
Referendums are rare; only two have been put to the entire UK electorate. The first was the United Kingdom European Communities membership referendum, 1975, which was held two years after British accession to the European Economic Community
to gauge support for continued membership. The second was the United Kingdom Alternative Vote referendum, 2011. This was to vote on changing the 'First Past the Post
' system to an alternative electoral system
, the Alternative Vote.
Referendums have been held in individual parts of the United Kingdom on issues relating to devolution
, an elected Mayor of London
and a Greater London Authority
for Greater London
, a regional assembly for the North-East
and the constitutional status and governance of Northern Ireland
. Since 1973, the year of the first such plebiscite, there have been nine major referendums.
In 2004, Her Majesty's Government promised a UK-wide referendum on the new European Constitution
, but this was postponed in 2005 following the defeats of the French and Dutch referendums. Due to the replacement of the European Constitution with the Treaty of Lisbon
, there was no obligation for a referendum. Referendums have also been proposed, but not held, on the replacement of the pound sterling
with the euro
as the currency
of the United Kingdom. The present Scottish Government, a Scottish National Party
administration, wishes to hold a referendum on Scottish Independence
between late 2013 and 2016. As it is now a majority government
, the referendum can pass through the Scottish Parliament
unhindered. The Westminster government has also indicated that it will facilitate such a referendum.
At the local level, the Government has put proposals for directly-elected mayors to several towns by referendum. The 1972 Local Government Act also contains a little-used provision that allows non-binding local referendums on any issue to be called by small groups of voters. Strathclyde Regional Council held a postal referendum in 1994 on whether control of water and sewerage services should be transferred to appointed boards: this was largely a political tactic, since this was the policy of the UK Government at the time. The UK Parliament enacted the legislation anyway, and it came into force on 1 April 1996.
United StatesIn the United States, the term "referendum" typically refers to a popular vote originated by petition to overturn legislation already passed at the state or local levels (mainly in the western United States). In industrial cities and regions, it refers to internal, union
organization in terms of electing delegates or approving a collective bargaining
agreement. By contrast, "initiative
s" and "legislative referrals" consist of newly drafted legislation submitted directly to a popular vote as an alternative to adoption by a legislature. Collectively, referendums and initiatives in the United States
are commonly referred to as ballot measures, initiatives, or propositions.
There is no provision for the holding of referendums at the federal level in the United States; indeed, there is no national electorate of any kind. The United States constitution does not provide for referendums at the federal level. A constitutional amendment would be required to allow it. However, the constitutions of 24 states (principally in the West) and many local and city governments provide for referendums and citizen's initiatives.
However, a Constitutional Convention can be called by two-thirds of the legislatures of the States, and that Convention to propose one or more amendments to the Constitution. These amendments are then sent to the states to be approved by three-fourths of the legislatures or conventions. This route has never been taken, and there is discussion in political science circles about just how such a convention would be convened, and what kind of changes it would bring about.
UruguayThe Uruguayan constitution allows citizens to challenge laws approved by Parliament by use of a referendum or to propose changes to the Constitution by the use of a plebiscite. This right has been used a few times in the past 15 years: to confirm an amnesty to members of the military who violated human rights during the military regime (1973–1985), to stop privatization of public utilities companies, to defend pensioners' incomes, and to protect water resources.
- Brazil: In October 2005, 122 million voters decided to continue to allow the sale of firearmFirearmA firearm is a weapon that launches one, or many, projectile at high velocity through confined burning of a propellant. This subsonic burning process is technically known as deflagration, as opposed to supersonic combustion known as a detonation. In older firearms, the propellant was typically...
s in Brazil. This referendum was offered by the government as part of a violence minimization initiative known as project disarmament.
- Croatia held an independence referendumCroatian independence referendum, 1991An independence referendum was held in Croatia on 19 May 1991. The result was 95.7% in favour, with a turnout of 83.6%.-Background:The Croatian parliament made the decision to hold the referendum on 2 May.-Results:-Aftermath:...
in May, 1991, with a turnout of 80%, of which 93% of the voters opted for independence.
- East Timor, formerly governedIndonesian occupation of East TimorIndonesia occupied East Timor from December 1975 to October 1999. After centuries of Portuguese colonial rule in East Timor, a 1974 coup in Portugal led to decolonization among its former colonies, creating instability in East Timor and leaving its future uncertain...
by IndonesiaIndonesiaIndonesia , officially the Republic of Indonesia , is a country in Southeast Asia and Oceania. Indonesia is an archipelago comprising approximately 13,000 islands. It has 33 provinces with over 238 million people, and is the world's fourth most populous country. Indonesia is a republic, with an...
, had a referendum on 30 August 1999, in which voters chose either to become a Special Autonomous Region within Indonesia, or for independence. Around 79% of voters opted for independence.
- Eritrea: In April 1993 nearly 1 million voters (a quarter of the population), cast ballots to become "sovereign and independent" of Ethiopia. This vote was the result of thirty years of war by Eritreans during their War of IndependenceEritrean War of IndependenceThe Eritrean War of Independence was a conflict fought between the Ethiopian government and Eritrean separatists, both before and during the Ethiopian Civil War. The war started when Eritrea’s autonomy within Ethiopia, where troops were already stationed, was unilaterally revoked...
. The result was a vote for independence by 99.8% of the voters.
- France: The practice of referendums for tough decisions appeared with Charles De GaulleCharles de GaulleCharles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle was a French general and statesman who led the Free French Forces during World War II. He later founded the French Fifth Republic in 1958 and served as its first President from 1959 to 1969....
's Fifth RepublicFifth RepublicThere have been several Fifth Republics in the course of history, including:* French Fifth Republic * Fifth Republic of the Philippines * Fifth Republic of South Korea...
, in order to overcome the Parliament. A referendum can be called by the President for constitutional changesFrench Matignon Accords referendum, 1988A referendum on the Matignon Accords was held in France on 6 November 1988. The accords were approved by 80% of voters, although turnout was just 36.9%.-Results:...
, treaty ratification, laws concerning the administration or the territory. The political risks involved made the practice rare. Most constitutional revisions went through the super-majority of the Parliament in Congress. Therefore, a procedure of popular initiative, backed by a handful of MPs, is being put in place.
- Iran: In 1979 and after the Islamic Revolution had toppled the Iranian monarchyIranian monarchyIranian monarchy may refer to:*pre-Islamic Iran**2700 BC – 519 BC Elamite Empire**715 BC – 549 BC Median Empire**558 BC – 330 BC Achaemenid dynasty**247 BC – 224 AD Arsacid dynasty **224 AD – 651 AD Sassanian dynasty*Islamic Iran...
, a referendumIranian Islamic Republic referendum, March 1979A referendum on creating an Islamic Republic was held in Iran on 30 and 31 March 1979. It was approved by 99.3% of voters.-Results:...
was held to choose the future governing system of the country. The question was a simple yes or no to the Islamic RepublicIslamic republicIslamic republic is the name given to several states in the Muslim world including the Islamic Republics of Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, and Mauritania. Pakistan adopted the title under the constitution of 1956. Mauritania adopted it on 28 November 1958. Iran adopted it after the 1979 Iranian...
, a system which combines direct representation with religious authority. The Islamic RepublicIslamic republicIslamic republic is the name given to several states in the Muslim world including the Islamic Republics of Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, and Mauritania. Pakistan adopted the title under the constitution of 1956. Mauritania adopted it on 28 November 1958. Iran adopted it after the 1979 Iranian...
was established after more than 98% of the population voted yes.
- 'Kashmir (a state within the territory of India) The Security Council of United Nations on the complaint of Government of India concerning the dispute over the State of Jammu and Kashmir passed resolution 47(1948), “that both India and Pakistan desire that the question of the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India or Pakistan should be decided through the democratic method of a free and impartial plebiscite”. It recommended to the Governments of India and Pakistan to restore peace and order in Jammu and Kashmir and provide full freedom to all subjects of the state, to vote on the question of accession.
- Puerto Rico: Three Puerto Rican status referendums (in 1967, 1993, and 1998) have taken place in Puerto RicoPuerto RicoPuerto Rico , officially the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico , is an unincorporated territory of the United States, located in the northeastern Caribbean, east of the Dominican Republic and west of both the United States Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands.Puerto Rico comprises an...
to determine whether the insular area should become an independent nationPuerto Rican independence movementThe Puerto Rican independence movement refers to initiatives throughout the history of Puerto Rico aimed at obtaining independence for the Island, first from Spain, and then from the United States...
(comprising a republicRepublicA republic is a form of government in which the people, or some significant portion of them, have supreme control over the government and where offices of state are elected or chosen by elected people. In modern times, a common simplified definition of a republic is a government where the head of...
and an associated republic), apply for statehoodU.S. stateA U.S. state is any one of the 50 federated states of the United States of America that share sovereignty with the federal government. Because of this shared sovereignty, an American is a citizen both of the federal entity and of his or her state of domicile. Four states use the official title of...
, or maintain commonwealthCommonwealth (United States insular area)In the terminology of the United States insular areas, a Commonwealth is a type of organized but unincorporated dependent territory.The definition of "Commonwealth" according to current U.S. State Department policy reads: "The term 'Commonwealth' does not describe or provide for any specific...
(Estado Libre Asociado) status. Remaining a commonwealth has been the result of all three referendums. There was also a 2005 referendum (Resolution 64) to determine whether the Legislative Assembly of Puerto RicoLegislative Assembly of Puerto RicoThe Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico is the territorial legislature of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The structure and responsibilities of the Legislative Assembly are defined in Article III of the Constitution of Puerto Rico....
should be restructured (among other changes to become unicameralUnicameralismIn government, unicameralism is the practice of having one legislative or parliamentary chamber. Thus, a unicameral parliament or unicameral legislature is a legislature which consists of one chamber or house...
- Pakistan:General Pervez Musharraf held a referendum on 30 April 2002 to legitimize his presidency and assure its continuance after the approaching restoration of democracy. He thus extended his term to five years after the October 2002 elections. The voter turnout was 80 percent by most estimates, amidst claims of irregularities. A few weeks later, Musharraf went on TV and apologized to the nation for "irregularities" in the referendum.
- Singapore: On 1 September 1962, a referendumSingapore national referendum, 1962The Singapore national referendum of 1962, or also commonly referred to as the Merger Referendum of Singapore was the first and only referendum to date held in Singapore on September 1, 1962. It called for people to vote on the terms of merger with Malaysia...
was held to put the terms of the merger with MalayaFederation of MalayaThe Federation of Malaya is the name given to a federation of 11 states that existed from 31 January 1948 until 16 September 1963. The Federation became independent on 31 August 1957...
to a direct vote by the citizens of SingaporeSingaporeSingapore , officially the Republic of Singapore, is a Southeast Asian city-state off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, north of the equator. An island country made up of 63 islands, it is separated from Malaysia by the Straits of Johor to its north and from Indonesia's Riau Islands by the...
. (The decision to merge with Malaya had already been made.) There were three choices: 1) To merge with Malaya, having autonomyAutonomyAutonomy is a concept found in moral, political and bioethical philosophy. Within these contexts, it is the capacity of a rational individual to make an informed, un-coerced decision...
in labour and education; 2) To merge with Malaya, having same status as the other states in Malaya; 3) To merge with Malaya, having terms similar to those of the BorneoBorneoBorneo is the third largest island in the world and is located north of Java Island, Indonesia, at the geographic centre of Maritime Southeast Asia....
territories. Option #1 won with 71%. Two years after the mergerSingapore in MalaysiaOn 16 September 1963, which was also Lee Kuan Yew's 40th birthday, Singapore merged with the Federation of Malaya alongside Sabah and Sarawak to form Malaysia...
, Malaysia expelled Singapore.
- Slovenia: There was an independence referendum on 23 December 1990. The turnout was a massive 88.5% of all voters of which 95% that took part voted for the independence. It was the first such referendum in one of the then Yugoslavian republics and as such marked a turning point in the history of many nations. The results were announced on 26 December and on 25 June 1991 Slovenian parliament passed an independence law proclaiming Slovenia a sovereign country. This was followed by a ten day war in which Slovenian forces drove the Yugoslavian peoples army out of the country.
- Spain: In 1976 a referendum was held to determine if citizens wanted to change the political system (dictatorship) or not to change it, after the death of Francisco FrancoFrancisco FrancoFrancisco Franco y Bahamonde was a Spanish general, dictator and head of state of Spain from October 1936 , and de facto regent of the nominally restored Kingdom of Spain from 1947 until his death in November, 1975...
. Spaniards chose (94%) to change ("Referéndum para la reforma política", literally «Referendum for political reformation»). Also, in 1986 another referendum approved Spain's membership of NATO.
- RussiaRussiaRussia or , officially known as both Russia and the Russian Federation , is a country in northern Eurasia. It is a federal semi-presidential republic, comprising 83 federal subjects...
n Constitution of 1993Constitution of RussiaThe current Constitution of the Russian Federation was adopted by national referendum on 12 December 1993. Russia's constitution came into force on 25 December 1993, at the moment of its official publication...
was adopted by controversial referendumRussian constitutional referendum, 1993A referendum was held in Russia on 12 December, 1993. It was initiated by President Boris Yeltsin after the fall of the Supreme Soviet. This was in a direct violation of the corresponding law № 241-1 «On the referendums of the Russian SFSR»...
- Venezuela: The 1999 constitution, created by the Chávez government, and approved by referendum, brought in the concept of requiring referendums for constitutional changes, as well as providing for recall referendums of elected officials (which require petitions of a minimum percentage of voters to be submitted). In the Venezuelan recall referendum of 2004 voters determined whether or not Hugo ChávezHugo ChávezHugo Rafael Chávez Frías is the 56th and current President of Venezuela, having held that position since 1999. He was formerly the leader of the Fifth Republic Movement political party from its foundation in 1997 until 2007, when he became the leader of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela...
, the current President of Venezuela, should be recalled from office. The result of the referendum was to not recall Chávez.
- Thailand: On 4 September 2008, amidst hundreds of thousands of protesters demanding the government resign, Thailand's premier Samak Sundaravej's government approved the idea of a referendum to ask the Thai electorate if it wanted to keep the government or not. The plebiscite was not held because it was certain to legitimize unfairly the government's standing and policies.
Multiple-choice referendumsA referendum usually offers the electorate only two choices, either to accept or reject a proposal, but this need not necessarily be the case. In Switzerland
, for example, multiple choice referendums are common; 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
(more than half) of voters. This can be resolved by applying voting system
s designed for single winner elections to a multiple-choice referendum.
Swiss referendums get around this problem by offering a separate vote on each of the multiple options as well as an additional decision about which of the multiple options should be preferred. 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 preferential instant-runoff voting
does not have deliberate multiple-choice referendums in the Swiss or Swedish sense (in which only one of several counter-propositions can be victorious, and the losing proposals are wholly null and void), it does have so many yes-or-no referendums at each Election Day that the State's Constitution provides a method for resolving inadvertent conflicts when two or more inconsistent propositions are passed on the same day. This is a de facto form of Approval Voting
- i.e., the proposition with the most "yes" votes prevails over the others to the extent of any conflict.
CriticismsAlthough some advocates of direct democracy would have the referendum become the dominant institution of government, in practice and in principle, in almost all cases, the referendum exists solely as a complement to the system of representative democracy
, in which most major decisions are made by an elected legislature. An often cited exception is the Swiss canton of Glarus
, in which meetings are held on the village lawn to decide on matters of public concern. In most jurisdictions that practice them, referendums are relatively rare occurrences and are restricted to important issues.
Advocates of the referendum argue that certain decisions are best taken out of the hands of representatives and determined directly by the people. Some adopt a strict definition of democracy, saying elected parliaments are a necessary expedient to make governance possible in the large, modern nation-state, though direct democracy is nonetheless preferable and the referendum takes precedence over Parliamentary decisions.
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.
Advocates of representative democracy say referendums are used by politicians to avoid making difficult or controversial decisions.
Criticism of populist aspectCritics of the referendum argue that voters in a referendum are more likely driven by transient whims than careful deliberation, or that they are not sufficiently informed to make decisions on complicated or technical issues. Also, voters might be swayed by strong personalities, propaganda
and expensive advertising campaigns. James Madison
argued that direct democracy is the "tyranny of the majority."
Some opposition to the referendum has arisen from its use by dictators such as Adolf Hitler
and Benito Mussolini
who, it is argued, used the plebiscite to disguise oppressive policies as populism
. Hitler's use of plebiscites is argued as reason why, since World War II
, there has been no provision in Germany
for the holding of referendums at the federal level.
Patten's criticismBritish politician Chris Patten
summarized many of the arguments used by those who oppose the referendum in an interview in 2003 when discussing the possibility of a referendum in the United Kingdom
on the European Union Constitution
Never-end-umA 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 a "never-end-um".
Many critics of the EU point to the Treaty of Nice
's ratification procedure in Ireland
, where the government submitted the Treaty to a referendum twice, getting the required "Yes" vote on the second attempt. This controversy was repeated during the ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon.
Closed questions and the separability problemSome critics of the referendum attack the use of closed questions. A difficulty which can plague a referendum of two issues or more is called the separability problem
. If one issue is in fact, or in perception, related to another on the ballot, the imposed simultaneous voting of first preference on each issue can result in an outcome that is displeasing to most.
Undue limitations on regular government powerSeveral commentators have noted that the use of citizens' initiatives
to amend constitutions has so tied the government to a mishmash of popular demands as to render the government unworkable. The Economist
has made this point about the US State of California
, which has passed so many referendums restricting the ability of the state government to tax the people and pass the budget that the state has become effectively ungovernable. Calls for an entirely new California constitution have been made.
Popular cultureIn Steven Spielberg
's 2002 film Minority Report
, based on a short story written by Philip K Dick, a referendum is held on 22 April 2054 on whether people should be arrested and judged for a murder they will commit in the future reported by people with pre-cognitive powers.
- Emerson, P J. Defining Democracy puts both two-option and multi-option referendums into their historical context and suggests which are the more accurate measures of "the will of the people". The de Borda Institute is at http://www.deborda.org
- Emerson Peter, Designing an All-Inclusive Democracy (Springer-Verlag, 2007), describes the Modified Borda Count (MBC), as well as the Quota Borda System (QBS) and the matrix vote.
- The Federal Authorities of the Swiss Confederation, statistics (German). http://www.bfs.admin.ch/bfs/portal/de/index/themen/17/03/blank/key/stimmbeteiligung.html
- History of direct democracy in the United StatesHistory of direct democracy in the United StatesThe history of direct democracy amongst non-Native Americans in the United States dates from the 1630s in the New England Colonies. Some New England town meetings still carry on that tradition.-Progressive Era:...
- List of politics-related topics
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- Cypriot Annan Plan referendum, 2004
- Edinburgh congestion charge (2005)
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- Norwegian continued prohibition referendum, 1926Norwegian Continued Prohibition referendum, 1926A consultative and facultative referendum on whether Norway should continue prohibition was held on October 18, 1926. A partial prohibition had been effective since 1917, and a 1919 referendum lay a ban on spirits and dessert wine....
- Norwegian European Communities membership referendum, 1972
- Norwegian European Union membership referendum, 1994
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(1967, 1993, 1998)
- Republic of China referendums
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- Alberta liquor plebiscite, 1957
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- Northwest Territories division plebiscite, 1982
- Nunavut capital plebiscite, 1995
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- Quebec referendum, 1980
- Quebec referendum, 1995
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- United Kingdom European Constitution referendum (proposed)
- United Kingdom Alternative Vote referendum, 2011
- Northern England devolution referendums, 2004
- Northern Ireland Belfast Agreement referendum, 1998
- Northern Ireland sovereignty referendum, 1973
- Scottish devolution referendum, 1979
- Scottish devolution referendum, 1997
- Welsh devolution referendum, 1979
- Welsh devolution referendum, 1997
- Welsh devolution referendum, 2011
- Edinburgh congestion charge
- Greater London Authority referendum, 1998
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- Norwegian European Communities membership referendum, 1972
- Norwegian European Union membership referendum, 1994
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- Danish European Communities membership referendum, 1972