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A referendum (plural: referendums or less commonly referenda) is a direct vote by the electorate on a particular proposal or issue. This is in contrast to an issue being voted on by a representative. It can have nationwide or local forms. This may result in the adoption of a new policy or specific law. In some countries, it is synonymous with or commonly known by other names including a plebiscite, votation,popular consultation, ballot question, ballot measure, or proposition.


Some definitions of 'plebiscite' suggest it is a type of vote to change the constitution or government of a country. [1] The word, 'referendum' is often a catchall, used for both legislative referrals and initiatives.

Etymology and plural form

'Referendum' is the gerundive form of the Latin verb referre , literally "to carry back" (from the verb ferre , "to bear, bring, carry" plus the inseparable prefix re-, here meaning "back" [2] ). As a gerundive is an adjective, [3] not a noun, [4] it cannot be used alone in Latin, and must be contained within a context attached to a noun such as Propositum quod referendum est populo, "A proposal which must be carried back to the people". The addition of the verb sum (3rd person singular, est) to a gerundive, denotes the idea of necessity or compulsion, that which "must" be done, rather than that which is "fit for" doing. Its use as a noun in English is not considered a strictly grammatical usage of a foreign word but is rather a freshly coined English noun, which follows English grammatical usage, not Latin grammatical usage. This determines the form of the plural in English, which according to English grammar should be "referendums". The use of "referenda" as a plural form in English (treating it as a Latin word and attempting to apply to it the rules of Latin grammar) is unsupportable according to the rules of both Latin and English grammar. The use of "referenda" as a plural form is posited hypothetically as either a gerund or a gerundive by the Oxford English Dictionary , which rules out such usage in both cases as follows: [5]

Referendums is logically preferable as a plural form meaning 'ballots on one issue' (as a Latin gerund, [6] referendum has no plural). The Latin plural gerundive 'referenda', meaning 'things to be referred', necessarily connotes a plurality of issues. [7]

It is closely related to agenda, "those matters which must be driven forward", from ago , to impel or drive forwards; and memorandum, "that matter which must be remembered", from memoro , to call to mind, corrigenda, from rego , to rule, make straight, those things which must be made straight (corrected), etc.

In Australia, a 'referendum' is often said to be a vote to change the federal constitution and 'plebiscite' a vote which does not affect the federal constitution. [8] However, this is erroneous as not all federal referendums have been on constitutional matters (such as the 1916 Australian conscription referendum), and state votes that likewise do not affect either the federal or state constitution are frequently said to be referendums (such as the 2009 Western Australian daylight saving referendum). Historically, they are used by Australians interchangeably and a plebiscite was considered another name for a referendum. [9] [10] [11]

In Ireland, 'plebiscite' referred to the vote to adopt its constitution, but a subsequent vote to amend the constitution is called a 'referendum', as is a poll of the electorate on a non-constitutional bill.

Earliest use

The name and use of the 'referendum' is thought to have originated in the Swiss canton of Graubünden as early as the 16th century. [12] [13]

The term 'plebiscite' has a generally similar meaning in modern usage and comes from the Latin plebiscita, which originally meant a decree of the Concilium Plebis (Plebeian Council), the popular assembly of the Roman Republic. Today, a referendum can also often be referred to as a plebiscite, but in some countries the two terms are used differently to refer to votes with differing types of legal consequences. For example, Australia defines 'referendum' as a vote to change the constitution and 'plebiscite' as a vote that does not affect the constitution. [8] In contrast, Ireland has only ever held one plebiscite, which was the vote to adopt its constitution, and every other vote has been called a referendum. Plebiscite has also been used to denote a non-binding vote count such as the one held by Nazi Germany to 'approve' in retrospect the so-called Anschluss with Austria, the question being not 'Do you permit?' but rather 'Do you approve?' of that which has most definitely already occurred.

Types of referendums


The term "referendum" covers a variety of different meanings, and the terminology is different depending on the country that holds them. A referendum can be binding or advisory. [14] In some countries, different names are used for these two types of referendum. Referendums can be further classified by who initiates them. [15]

David Altman proposes four dimensions that referendums can be classified by: [16]

Mandatory referendums

A mandatory referendum is a class of referendum required to be voted on if certain conditions are met or for certain government actions to be taken. They do not require any signatures from the public. In areas that use referendums a mandatory referendum is commonly used as a legally required step for ratification for constitutional changes, ratifying international treaties and joining international organizations, and certain types of public spending. [17]

Typical types of mandatory referendums include:

Optional referendum

An optional referendum is a class of referendums that is put to the vote as a result of a demand. This may come from the executive branch, legislative branch, or a request from the people (often after meeting a signature requirement).

Types of optional referendums include:


From a political-philosophical perspective, referendums are an expression of direct democracy, but today, most referendums need to be understood within the context of representative democracy. They tend to be used quite selectively, covering issues such as changes in voting systems, where currently elected officials may not have the legitimacy or inclination to implement such changes.

Referendums by country

Since the end of the 18th century, hundreds of national referendums have been organised in the world; [20] almost 600 national votes have been held in Switzerland since its inauguration as a modern state in 1848. [21] Italy ranks second with 73 national referendums: 67 popular referendums (46 of which were proposed by the Radical Party), 4 constitutional referendums, one institutional referendum and one advisory referendum. [22]

Multiple-choice referendums

A referendum usually offers the electorate a straight choice between accepting or rejecting a proposal. However some referendums give voters multiple choices, and some use transferable voting.

In Switzerland, for example, multiple choice referendums are common. Two multiple choice referendums were held in Sweden, in 1957 and in 1980, in which voters were offered three options. In 1977, a referendum held in Australia to determine a new national anthem was held, in which voters had four choices. In 1992, New Zealand held a five-option referendum on their electoral system. In 1982, Guam had a referendum that used six options, with an additional blank option for those wishing to (campaign and) vote for their own seventh option.

A multiple choice referendum poses the question of how the result is to be determined. They may be set up so that if no single option receives the support of an absolute majority (more than half) of the votes, resort can be made to the two-round system or instant-runoff voting, which is also called IRV and PV.

In 2018 the Irish Citizens' Assembly considered the conduct of future referendums in Ireland, with 76 of the members in favour of allowing more than two options, and 52% favouring preferential voting in such cases. [23] Other people regard a non-majoritarian methodology like the Modified Borda Count (MBC) as more inclusive and more accurate.

Swiss referendums offer 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 (IRV). Polls in Newfoundland (1949) and Guam (1982), for example, were counted under a form of the two-round system, and an unusual form of TRS was used in the 1992 New Zealand poll.

Although California has not held 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 conflicts arise. The State's constitution provides a method for resolving 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.

Another voting system that could be used in multiple-choice referendum is the Condorcet method.

Referendum disputes

Important referendums are frequently challenged in courts. In pre-referendum disputes, plaintiffs have often tried to prevent the referendum to take place. In one such challenge, in 2017, the Spanish Constitutional Court suspended the Catalonia's independence referendum. [24] In post-referendum disputes, they challenge the result. British courts dismissed post-referendum challenges of the Brexit referendum. [25]

International tribunals have traditionally not interfered with referendum disputes. In 2021, the European Court of Human Rights extended its jurisdiction to referendums in its judgment Toplak and Mrak v. Slovenia , initiated by two disabled voters over polling place access. [26]


Criticism of populist aspect

Pro-Russian protesters in Odessa, Ukraine, demanding a referendum, March 30, 2014 Odessa Russian Sring 20140330 07.JPG
Pro-Russian protesters in Odessa, Ukraine, demanding a referendum, March 30, 2014
2015 Greek bailout referendum Demonstration for "NO" vote Syntagma square Athens, Greece 20150703 Greek Referendum Demonstration for NO syntagma square Athens Greece.jpg
2015 Greek bailout referendum Demonstration for "NO" vote Syntagma square Athens, Greece

Critics[ who? ] of the referendum argue that voters in a referendum are more likely to be driven by transient whims than by careful deliberation, or that they are not sufficiently informed to make decisions on complicated or technical issues. Also, voters might be swayed by propaganda, strong personalities, intimidation, 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, [27] used the plebiscite to disguise oppressive policies as populism. Dictators may also make use of referendums as well as show elections to further legitimize their authority such as António de Oliveira Salazar in 1933, Benito Mussolini in 1934, Adolf Hitler in 1936, Francisco Franco in 1947, Park Chung-hee in 1972, and Ferdinand Marcos in 1973. Hitler's use of plebiscites is argued[ by whom? ] as the reason why, since World War II, there has been no provision in Germany for the holding of referendums at the federal level.

In recent years, referendums have been used strategically by several European governments trying to pursue political and electoral goals. [28]

In 1995, John Bruton considered that

All governments are unpopular. Given the chance, people would vote against them in a referendum. Therefore avoid referendums. Therefore don’t raise questions which require them, such as the big versus the little states. [29]

Closed questions and the separability problem

Some critics of the referendum attack the use of closed questions. A difficulty called the separability problem can plague a referendum on two or more issues. 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 which is displeasing to most.

Undue limitations on regular government power

Several commentators have noted that the use of citizens' initiatives to amend constitutions has so tied the government to a jumble of popular demands as to render the government unworkable. A 2009 article in The Economist argued that this had restricted the ability of the California state government to tax the people and pass the budget, and called for an entirely new Californian constitution. [30]

A similar problem also arises when elected governments accumulate excessive debts. That can severely reduce the effective margin for later governments.

Both these problems can be moderated by a combination of other measures as


See also

Related Research Articles

Politics of Switzerland Political system of Switzerland

Switzerland is a semi-direct democratic federal republic. Since 2011 the leading parties are from the right wing. The federal legislative power is vested in the two chambers of the Federal Assembly, the National Council and the Council of States. The Federal Council holds the executive power and is composed of seven power-sharing Federal Councillors elected by the Federal Assembly. The judicial branch is headed by the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland, whose judges are elected by the Federal Assembly.

Direct democracy Form of democracy where people decide on policy without proxy representatives

Direct democracy or pure democracy is a form of democracy in which the electorate decides on policy initiatives without legislative representatives as proxies. This differs from the majority of currently established democracies, which are representative democracies. The theory and practice of direct democracy and participation as its common characteristic was the core of work of many theorists, philosophers, politicians, and social critics, among whom the most important are Jean Jacques Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, and G.D.H. Cole.

Initiative Means by which a petition signed by a certain minimum number of registered voters can force a public vote

In political science, an initiative is a means by which a petition signed by a certain number of registered voters can force a government to choose either to enact a law or hold a public vote in the legislature in what is called indirect initiative, or under direct initiative, where the proposition is put to a plebiscite or referendum, in what is called a Popular initiated Referendum or citizen-initiated referendum.

Semi-direct democracy is a type of democracy that combines the mechanisms of direct democracy and representative government. In semi-direct democracy, representatives administer daily governance, but citizens keep the sovereignty, being able to control their governments and laws through different forms of popular action: binding referendum, popular initiative, revocation of mandate, and public consultations. The first two forms—referendums and initiatives—are examples of direct legislation.

Commonwealth is a term used by two unincorporated territories of the United States in their full official names, which are the Northern Mariana Islands, whose full name is Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico, which is named Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in English and Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico in Spanish, translating to "Free Associated State of Puerto Rico." The term was also used by the Philippines during most of its period under U.S. sovereignty, when it was officially called the Commonwealth of the Philippines.

California ballot proposition Statewide referendum item in California

In California, a ballot proposition is a referendum or an initiative measure that is submitted to the electorate for a direct decision or direct vote. If passed, it can alter one or more of the articles of the Constitution of California, one or more of the 29 California Codes, or another law in the California Statutes by clarifying current or adding statute(s) or removing current statute(s).

In the politics of the United States, the process of initiatives and referendums allow citizens of many U.S. states to place new legislation, or to place legislation that has recently been passed by a legislature on a ballot for a popular vote. Initiatives and referendums, along with recall elections and popular primary elections, are signature reforms of the Progressive Era; they are written into several state constitutions, particularly in the West. It is a form of direct democracy.

Referendums in Australia Referendums to approve changes to the Constitution of Australia or its states or territories

Referendums have been held in Australia to approve parliament-proposed changes to the Constitution of Australia or to the constitutions of states and territories.

1999 Australian republic referendum Referendum on making Australia a republic

The Australian republic referendum held on 6 November 1999 was a two-question referendum to amend the Constitution of Australia. The first question asked whether Australia should become a republic with a President appointed by Parliament following a bi-partisan appointment model which had been approved by a half-elected, half-appointed Constitutional Convention held in Canberra in February 1998. The second question, generally deemed to be far less important politically, asked whether Australia should alter the Constitution to insert a preamble. For some years opinion polls had suggested that a majority of the electorate favoured a republic. Nonetheless, the republic referendum was defeated, partly due to division among republicans on the method proposed for selection of the president and dissident republicans subsequently supporting the no campaign.

A process model is, in the context of the republic debate in Australia, a model for the process by which the questions surrounding whether and how Australia should become a republic may be answered. A number of process models have been processed. Proposed process models are a subject of debate within the Republicanism movement. Such debate usually surrounds whether the people should be asked to choose between the current system and a general republican system of government, one specific republican system of government, or multiple alternative republican systems of government.

Referendums in New Zealand

Referendums are held only occasionally by the Government of New Zealand. Referendums may be government-initiated or held in accordance with the Electoral Act 1993 or the Citizens Initiated Referenda Act 1993. Nineteen referendums have been held so far. Fourteen were government-led, and five were indicative citizen initiatives.

Popular referendum

A popular referendum is a type of a referendum that provides a means by which a petition signed by a certain minimum number of registered voters can force a public vote (plebiscite) on an existing statute, constitutional amendment, charter amendment or ordinance, or, in its minimal form, to simply oblige the executive or legislative bodies to consider the subject by submitting it to the order of the day. It is a form of direct democracy.

A legislative referral is a referendum in which a legislature puts proposed legislation up for popular vote. This may either be voluntarily or, as is the case in many countries for a constitutional amendment, as a mandatory part of the procedure for passing a law. These referrals, depending on the location, can either amend a constitution or enact a change in statute. It is a form of direct democracy. In some places it is known as an authorities referendum,authorities plebiscite, government initiated referendum, or top-down referendum It may originate from the legislative branch, executive branch, or a combination of the two.

1911 California Proposition 7 Amendment to the Constitution of California adding the initiative and optional referendum

Proposition 7 of 1911 was an amendment of the Constitution of California that introduced, for the first time, the initiative and the optional referendum. Prior to 1911 the only form of direct democracy in California was the compulsory referendum.

The history of direct democracy amongst non-Native Americans in the United States dates from the 1630s in the New England Colonies. Many New England towns still carry on that tradition in the form of open town meetings.

1898–1900 Australian constitutional referendums Referendums held in Australia

A series of referendums on the proposed constitution of Australia were held between 2 June 1898 and 31 July 1900 in the six colonies that were to become the states of the Commonwealth of Australia. The first four referendums were held in New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria in June 1898. Although all four saw a majority vote in favour, the majority in New South Wales was insufficient. Knowledge of the result in New South Wales led to low voter turnout in South Australia.

Three main alternatives are generally presented to Puerto Rican voters during a Puerto Rico political status plebiscite: full independence, maintenance or enhancement of the current commonwealth status, and full statehood into the American Union. The exact expectations for each of these status formulas are a matter of debate by a given position's adherents and detractors. Puerto Ricans have proposed positions that modify the three alternatives above, such as (a) indemnified independence with phased-out US subsidy, (b) expanded political but not fiscal autonomy, and (c) statehood with a gradual phasing out of federal tax exemption.

A referendum is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is asked to either accept or reject a particular proposal. This article summarises referendum laws and practice in various countries.

Citizens initiative referendum (France)

The Référendum d'initiative Citoyenne is the name given to the proposal for a constitutional amendment in France to permit consultation of the citizenry by referendum concerning the proposition or abrogation of laws, the revocation of politicians' mandates, and constitutional amendment.


  1. "Definition of Plebiscite". Retrieved 2016-08-23.
  2. Marchant & Charles, Cassell's Latin Dictionary, 1928, p. 469.
  3. A gerundive is a verbal adjective (Kennedy's Shorter Latin Primer, 1962 edition, p. 91.)
  4. A gerund is a verbal noun (Kennedy's Shorter Latin Primer, 1962 edition, p. 91.) but has no nominative case, for which an infinitive (referre) serves the purpose
  5. Oxford English Dictionary Referendum
  6. a gerund is a verbal noun (Kennedy's Shorter Latin Primer, 1962 edition, p. 91.) but has no nominative case, for which an infinitive (referre) serves the purpose. It has only accusative, genitive, dative and ablative cases (Kennedy's Shorter Latin Primer, 1962 edition, pp. 91-2.)
  7. i.e. Proposita quae referenda sunt popolo, "Proposals which must be carried back to the people"
  8. 1 2 Green, Antony (12 August 2015). "Plebiscite or Referendum - What's the Difference". ABC. Retrieved 23 August 2015.
  9. "THE REFERENDUM". Evening News (9452). New South Wales, Australia. 21 September 1897. p. 4. Retrieved 26 August 2020 via National Library of Australia.
  10. "Government by Plebiscite". The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser . LXV (1960). New South Wales, Australia. 29 January 1898. p. 217. Retrieved 26 August 2020 via National Library of Australia.
  11. "THE PLEBISCITE OR REFERENDUM". The Bendigo Independent (12, 464). Victoria, Australia. 3 December 1910. p. 4. Retrieved 26 August 2020 via National Library of Australia.
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  13. Vincent, J.M.. State and Federal Government in Switzerland, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009, p. 122
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  16. "Direct Democracy Worldwide". ResearchGate. Retrieved 2021-08-29.
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  18. "Statewide bond propositions (California)". Ballotpedia. Retrieved 2020-06-11.
  19. Goetschel, Laurent; Bernath, Magdalena; Schwarz, Daniel (2004). Swiss Foreign Policy: Foundations and Possibilities. Psychology Press. ISBN   978-0-415-34812-6.
  20. (in French) Bruno S. Frey et Claudia Frey Marti, Le bonheur. L'approche économique, Presses polytechniques et universitaires romandes, 2013 ( ISBN   978-2-88915-010-6).
  21. Duc-Quang Nguyen (17 June 2015). "How direct democracy has grown over the decades". Berne, Switzerland: - a branch of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR. Retrieved 2016-01-28.
  22. "Dipartimento per gli Affari Interni e Territoriali".
  23. "Manner in which referenda are held". Citizens' Assembly. Retrieved 22 March 2018.
  24. "Spain Catalonia: Court blocks independence referendum". BBC News. 2017-09-08. Retrieved 2021-11-21.
  25. "High Court rejects challenge to have Brexit referendum result declared void". The Independent. 2018-12-10. Retrieved 2021-11-21.
  26. "ECHR ruling 'has Europe-wide implications' on disability". Retrieved 2021-11-21.
  27. Qvortrup, Matt (2013). Direct Democracy: A Comparative Study of the Theory and Practice of Government by the People. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN   978-0-7190-8206-1.
  28. Sottilotta, Cecilia Emma (2017). "The Strategic Use of Government-Sponsored Referendums in Contemporary Europe: Issues and Implications". Journal of Contemporary European Research. 13 (4): 1361–1376.
  29. Bowcott, Owen; Davies, Caroline (2019-12-31). "Referendums are a bad idea, Irish leader told EU in 1995". The Guardian.
  30. "California: The ungovernable state". The Economist . London. 16–22 May 2009. pp. 33–36.

Further reading