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What Is a Referendum?

By L. Burgoon
Updated May 21, 2024
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A referendum is a measure put to a direct vote before the electorate rather than through their elected representatives. Also known as a ballot question or plebiscite, referenda — the plural of referendum — ask voters to approve or reject a change to the law; the result typically is legally binding. Referenda appear on ballots either by citizen initiative, such as petitioning, or because a legislative body has decided to pose the question to the public. Referenda are used in various forms worldwide and may deal with local, regional, or national issues. A special election may be held to vote on a referendum question but it is more common that the ballot question is voted on during a regularly scheduled election.

Local laws dictate whether a referendum’s outcome is legally binding or merely a measure of public sentiment. Laws also dictate whether referenda outcomes may be appealed through legislative or judicial channels. There are varying requirements to pass referenda. Some governments require only a simple majority vote to accept or reject a ballot question, while other questions must garner a certain percentage of votes to pass.

A referendum has the ability to affect international matters, although binding international referenda do not yet exist. For example, the European Union in 2004 attempted to draft a single constitution for its member nations. While some EU members accepted the treaty to establish the constitution via a parliamentary vote, other nations put the matter to a public vote. Voters in both the Netherlands and France rejected the ballot question, and the European Constitution was therefore halted.

Referenda typically have a more local impact, however. In the U.S., for example, California is well known as a state that often puts ballot questions, referred to as propositions, directly to the voters. California voters have voted on ballot questions for issues ranging from limiting property taxes in 1978 to legalizing medical marijuana in 1996 to banning same-sex marriage in 2008.

Supporters of a referendum system generally claim that the process guarantees that will of the people is carried out, something that cannot always be guaranteed by a representative democracy system. Critics may respond to that claim by arguing that the electorate is not always qualified to make decisions on complicated public-policy matters. Some critics also suggest that referenda manipulate voters into considering one issue above all others and may be subject to campaigns based on propaganda rather than facts.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Discussion Comments
By anon947540 — On Apr 26, 2014

I want to begin a petition online. What is the best way of going about it? And, will it make a difference?

By Emilski — On Oct 04, 2011

@JimmyT - You are right that local referenda are one of the few times people may be able to make an impact, but at the same time, the last paragraph of the article is correct. Sometimes people aren't qualified to vote on the issues.

Interestingly enough, during the last election in my town, there was a referendum concerning both of the things you mentioned. It asked voters whether they were willing to have a property tax increase to support building a new addition to the local high school. One section of the high school had recently been found to have some major structural defects and had actually been condemned.

Everyone agreed that the town needed a new school at whatever cost, but then when the referendum was introduced to raise property taxes people got in an uproar even though that was the only logical way to pay for the addition. The referendum almost didn't pass, and the school district would have had no way to pay for the new school.

By JimmyT — On Oct 03, 2011

I think voting for local or even state referendums are one of the most important things a voter can do. At least at the local scale, one person's vote can really have an impact on something that will affect everyone.

This is usually when you will be able to directly vote on whether you agree with tax increases or funding for local schools among other things.

I did think it was interesting that the European Union tried to create a multinational constitution. Even if it would have passed the votes from all of the countries, I think it would have been hard for them to agree on something that everyone was happy with.

By kentuckycat — On Oct 03, 2011

I used to live in Illinois, and there were always a few referendums every voting period. I know that every 10 years or so, though, they have an automatic referendum mandated by the state Constitution that asks the voters if a Constitutional Committee needs to be formed to reassess whether the Illinois Constitution needs to be changed or amended.

The referendum has only passed a few times. The last one was in the 1970s I think.

By jmc88 — On Oct 02, 2011

I lived in California for a few years when I was younger, and I couldn't believe the number of referendums that showed up on the ballots. It was nothing like where I lived before that.

Most of the things were pretty mundane. I assume they ended up on the ballot because of public petitions, but at least in my opinion, they weren't important enough to need to be voted on by everyone in the state.

By anon166325 — On Apr 07, 2011

Binding Referendums will hopefully off set the corrupt influences of self interest lobby groups.

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