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What is a Referendum?

Reed Hepler, Stephen Benz
  • Author
    Reed Hepler

    Reed Hepler received an M.L.I.S. from IUPUI, with emphases in Digital Curation and Archives Management. He received a Bachelor’s in History from USU, with minors in Religious Studies and Anthropology. He also earned a Certificate in Museum Studies. He has worked in museums, libraries, archives, and historical sites for the past four years.

  • Instructor
    Stephen Benz

    Stephen has a JD and a BA in sociology and political science.

Learn the referendum definition. Compare and contrast an initiative vs referendum and a plebiscite vs referendum. See a referendum example. Updated: 10/26/2021

What is a Referendum?

A referendum is a ballot that is voted on by the general population of a city, county, or state. "Referendum" is a Latin word that was first used in its current sense in the 18th century when it was included in the newly-created Swiss Constitution. It means that a political question is passed on to the people to decide rather than a legislative body. Referendums are not allowed at the federal level in the U.S. government, but state and local governments can use them. They are usually put on the general ballot during most elections. Referendums are one of several forms of exercising ''direct democracy.'' This is the governmental practice of operating according to the will of the people. Mostly, referendums and other forms of direct democracy are used to decide issues rather than to elect politicians. However, referendums are meant to repeal or affirm laws created by legislatures. Still, some governments that only use majority vote use referendums to elect and recall officeholders. In any case, referendums are considered effective for overruling legislative decisions that are unpopular.

Theoretical examples of referendums include:

  • a vote to repeal a state law banning medicinal marijuana
  • a vote to repeal a state law legalizing same-sex marriage
  • a vote to build a stadium using public money

The process of using a referendum is:

  1. A state or local legislature comes to a policy decision, or a sufficient number of citizens propose a policy. Many times, proposals (or initiatives) are created by citizen interest groups, such as civil rights groups.
  2. Policy decisions are offered to the people on a ballot (usually as part of a general election).
  3. The popular vote is tallied, and the opinion of the majority is followed.

Initiative vs. Referendum

Let's compare and contrast an initiative vs referendum and a plebiscite vs referendum.

  • An initiative is a proposal for a referendum, a law created by voters. It is often compared to a petition. A certain minimum number of individuals in an area sign a proposal, or ''indirect initiative,'' for the creation of new legislation or the amendment of the local constitution. Alternatively, initiatives may be submitted directly to local legislatures. If the legislature denies the proposal, then it is turned into a referendum and submitted to the popular vote.
  • A plebiscite is a popular vote on an issue. In contrast to an initiative or referendum, plebiscites are used to confirm or deny one point of view rather than to select one of the multiple points of view on an issue. They are often used to legitimize the rule of totalitarian regimes. For instance, the Plebiscite of 1804 was used by the government of Napoleon I to legitimize his status as emperor after the French Revolution.

Definition

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.

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  • 0:00 Definition
  • 0:46 Referendum Vs. Initiatives
  • 2:08 Types of Referendums
  • 2:57 Examples of Referendums
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This poster was in support of a plebiscite in Northern Germany in 1921. The text at the bottom reads: Germany is the Motherland of us all

Black and brown poster. The German text reads "Germany is the Motherland of us all." Plebiscites are related to popular referendums.

History of the Referendum

Referendums cannot occur on the federal level. The first significant referendum was ratified by the popular vote in Massachusetts in 1778. This referendum modified the state constitution. However, it did not become standard practice to use referendums to modify state laws until 1818 when Connecticut included provisions for referendums.

Referendums were instituted in the states to prevent interest groups, political parties, and factions from taking too much control over state and local laws. Referendums are primarily used to correct injustices carried out by governments that are more concerned with their own survival than the will of the people. Eastern states in particular are critical of referendums and do not allow them, because they were part of the original 13 colonies, and the founders distrusted direct democracy. Many referendums are on financial decisions, but public issues are also discussed using referendums. Today, only eight states use all types of referendums:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Michigan
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • North Dakota
  • Oregon

Populist Movement Referendums

The populist movement championed the rights of the working class and the common man. It advocated for farmers and workers and sought a direct link between constituents and their representatives in all levels of government. The People's Party included in its platform a proposal that all senators would be directly elected by the public. In fact, some populists advocated for the abolishment of the Electoral College altogether.

Progressive Era Referendums

The Progressive Era was the start of public individuals using referendums to prevent the domination of politics by the majority. The Progressive Party, for instance, championed populist principles and the creation of more direct communication and influence between the public and their government representatives. They hoped that direct democracy would make government administration more efficient. Even though the party was not successful in electing a presidential candidate, its policies shaped national government for decades to come.

Types of Referendums

There are many different types of referendums, including popular referendums and legislative referendums. The circumstances facing governments and their constituents determine which type of referendum is used.

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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Video Transcript

Definition

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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Frequently Asked Questions

How does a referendum work?

Referendums are made in one of two ways:

1. Concerned citizens present a petition to the government, usually regarding a new law that has created. The legislature vetoes the measure, and it is passed on to the public to vote upon. If the public negates the decision of the legislature, the proposal is made into law.

2. The legislature creates bills on certain issues (usually financial, but occasionally involving another sector of life), and the people vote on the referendum, approving or declining it.

Does a referendum change law?

Referendums are used to change actions by state and local legislatures that are seen as harmful or unconstitutional. They can also create new laws if they have been directly proposed to a legislature, vetoed by the legislature, and then approved by the voice of the people.

What is a referendum and how do they involve American citizens?

Referendums are ballot measures that are voted on by the voice of the people. Every American citizen who has the right to vote can impact the outcome of a referendum.

What is another word for referendum?

Other words that are used for referendum include ballot measure and indirect initiative. However, the latter term is not exactly the same thing as a referendum.

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