What is a Referendum? - Definition & Example

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  • 0:00 Definition
  • 0:46 Referendum Vs. Initiatives
  • 2:08 Types of Referendums
  • 2:57 Examples of Referendums
  • 3:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephen Benz

Stephen has taught history, journalism, sociology, and political science courses at multiple levels, including the middle school, high school and college levels.

Referendums are legal mechanisms for voters to repeal or accept a law passed by the state legislature. In this lesson, we'll compare referendums to initiatives, look at some types of referendums, and finally look at some examples of referendums.


States across the country are dealing with several hot-button issues that are drawing much public scrutiny. These questions include: Should cannabis, or marijuana, be legalized for recreational use? Should taxpayer funds be used for the building of a professional sport team's stadium?

Several of these questions are likely to be answered in either the judiciary courts or through a direct vote, processes, often called referendums or initiatives. A referendum is an election device in which a law can be either accepted or repealed based on the popular vote of people. In this process, voters can reject or accept a law or statute passed by a legislature by taking a popular vote on the issue.

Referendums vs. Initiatives

What if a law was passed and you didn't like it? In some states, one legal process available in this instance is the process of referendum. Referendums are a major component of direct democracy, a system in which laws are directly made by the people. Another major component of direct democracy is an initiative.

Referendums differ from initiatives in that they repeal already passed laws, whereas initiatives propose new laws for consideration. In either case, both initiatives and referendums cover the same question: should a law be accepted or rejected?

In the United States, referendums are not allowed at the national level. This is because the Framers of the Constitution regarded direct democracy as a dangerous form of government, too susceptible to the wills of the masses. Referendums are only allowed at the state and local level, and only in some states. Currently, 25 states allow popular referendums, with the states geographically being located in the West. There might not be that many states in the East that allow referendums, because of the distrust of the public's decision making in the original colonies. Likewise, western states embraced referendums as part of the progressive era's reforms to end government corruption.

Types of Referendums

There are two types of referendums. First, there are legislative referendums. These are referendums that by the state constitution must be approved by voters. Say a city government wants to take a bond out to pay for a major project. Although the city council may have already approved the bill, the city's constitution might require that the bond be approved by voters. Thus, this type of referendum is a procedural requirement.

The other type of referendum is called a popular referendum. These are referendums that are put on the ballot by voters themselves. For a referendum to be on the ballot, it must have a certain number of votes, as prescribed by the state or city's constitution. This type of referendum is only allowed in 25 states.

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