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.