Referendums and Plebiscites

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Referendums and Plebiscites

There is no modern political institution that is more democratic than the referendum. Popular elections of officeholders are commonly assumed to be the hallmark of a democracy, but this is a misconception. Although electing representatives is a process inherent in modern representative systems, it is not a process of direct self-government. Only the referendum exhibits democracy in its purest form. It is the Athenian assembly or the New England town meeting expanded in size to include the thousands or millions of citizens in a modern polity . It is the citizenry directly considering and voting on government policy.


Although referendums are nearly as old as democracy itself, the term is not. The alternative term "plebiscite" has a much older lineage. It is derived from the Latin plebiscita, describing votes of the Roman plebs in the fourth century b.c.e. The term was applied to popular consultations in France from 1793 onward. It was also used to describe votes resolving League of Nations boundary disputes and in Nazi Germany to describe popular votes legitimizing the regime 's policies.

The term "referendum" can be traced to seventeenth-century Switzerland, in which members of the Diet of the thirteen-canton (or thirteen-state) Swiss Confederacy (1513–1798) took policies back to their respective cantonal councils or populations ad referendum et instruendum ("for referring back and instructions"). In its modern form, the term was first used in the constitutional plebiscite attempting to legitimize the new regime of the Helvetic Republic (Switzerland), which was imposed by the French conquerors in 1798. The word first appeared in English in its contemporary sense in the 1880s. Although no agreed-upon line of distinction exists between the terms plebiscite and referendum, the former is more often associated with ad hoc popular votes to endorse a regime or a specific policy. Early twenty-first-century usage tends to favor the word referendum.

The popular initiative is a specific type of referendum. This instrument allows citizens the right to propose legislation or constitutional amendments that are put to a popular vote and must be implemented by the government if passed. The only countries that allow voters this right on national questions are Switzerland and Italy. The initiative also exists at the subnational level in twenty-three U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

referendum usage around the world

Switzerland has held more nationwide referendums since it introduced the institution in 1848 than all other countries combined, following the emergence of the modern nation-state . Between 1793 and 1978, there were 257 nationwide referendums in all nations combined, except Switzerland. In Switzerland during the 1866 to 1978 period, there were 296 referendums. The gap has widened further since 1978. Among democracies in the postwar period, Switzerland accounts for more than two-thirds of the total. In fact, no other state in the world even comes close in applying direct democracy to national political questions. In most years the Swiss voter is called on to decide six to twelve national questions, which are typically spread over twenty-four separate ballots. In addition, he or she will be asked to vote in numerous cantonal and communal referendums. Only in California and a few other western U.S. states do referendums play such an important role in daily political life.

Clearly, Switzerland has carried the practice of direct democracy to a level that no other nation has reached. The predominant explanation for the Swiss attachment to this institution is its longstanding experience with direct government in citizen assemblies prior to the emergence of the referendum. Swiss direct democracy is more than 700 years old, the first direct vote of citizens on policy being documented in 1294 in the canton of Schwyz. Popular legislative assemblies, or Landsgemeinden, were used in several of the mountain cantons from the thirteenth century onward. The resilience of the Landsgemeinden was a major reason that representative, parliamentary institutions never displaced direct democracy in Switzerland. However, population growth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries rendered the Landsgemeinden impractical in most cantons. Referendums and initiatives came into common usage as a way of preserving the tradition of direct legislation. Similarly, referendums in American states have their roots in New England town meetings and direct government on the Western frontier.

The scarcity of referendums elsewhere does not mean that they have never been tried. On the contrary, a majority of European countries and more than a third of United Nations (UN) member states have experimented with the device. The only countries that have been democracies from a date prior to 1900 and have never held a nationwide referendum are the United States and the Netherlands. However, most governments have been reluctant to institutionalize the referendum or take significant risks with it. They have dabbled in the use of "controlled" referendums—in which the government decides whether or not to hold the referendum, when it will take place, and how the question will be asked. Some controlled referendums backfire, as was the case in the French vote of 1969 concerning the reform of the Senate and local government. President Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970) miscalculated popular support and linked his political fate to the question; the voters rejected his position, and he was forced to resign. In Switzerland, all national referendums are uncontrolled. In fact, the parliament and government are expressly prohibited from calling optional referendums. Direct democracy in Switzerland is not a weapon employed by central authority. On some questions, it is a constitutional necessity, but in most cases it is introduced by a petition of citizens. The referendum plays a similar role in California and the other U.S. states in which the popular initiative is used frequently.

In such places, referendums are a central element in the political system and a definitive aspect of the political culture. These "governing" referendums play an integral role in the governing of the polity and occur relatively frequently. The overwhelming majority of referendums held elsewhere in the world have not been of this type. They have either been "state-defining" referendums or "deadlock-breaking" referendums. State-defining referendums are one-time projects designed to establish the legitimacy of territorial borders or to usher in a new political regime. They are not part and parcel of a country's political system. For example, the May 1980 referendum in Quebec on the question of independence from Canada fell into this category. This case was unusual in that the result was not a foregone conclusion. (The referendum failed, with 40.4% opting for secession.) Most state-defining referendums are relatively low-risk moves for the governments involved, and results yielding an affirmative vote of more than 90 percent are quite common. Deadlock-breaking referendums, the third category, usually serve as politically expedient escape routes for governments that are divided over controversial questions. In such instances, the government may be in danger of splitting on the issue. This was the case with Britain's June 1975 referendum on European Community (EC) membership. (Approximately 67.2% of voters opted to stay in the EC.)

Inevitably, the referendum device plays a slightly different role in every nation that makes use of it. Historical circumstances and national political cultures vary, as do modern governmental environments. Operating within diverse political structures and tethered by various constraints, referendums have different consequences in different countries. However, many commonalities and trends are evident. One of the most salient trends is the increased use of the device.

the rise of the referendum

Starting in the early years of the twentieth century, referendums steadily increased in frequency as more countries adopted the device. Then in the early 1970s worldwide interest in and use of the referendum surged dramatically. The enlarging of the EC gave rise to five referendums. In April 1972 France let its people voice their opinion on whether the newcomers (Ireland, Denmark, Norway, and Britain) should be accepted; 67.7 percent of French voters approved their admission. Each of the four countries intending to join put the membership issue to their citizens eventually, and in all but Norway the idea received popular endorsement. In Britain the June 1975 EC vote was preceded by a March 1973 vote in Northern Ireland on the question of withdrawal from the United Kingdom; and in March 1979 the question of devolution was put to voters in Scotland and Wales. (Approximately 51.6% of Scottish voters who went to the polls voted for devolution, but the referendum failed to satisfy the requirement that 40% of the entire electorate must assent. In Wales only 20.9 percent of those who voted favored devolution.) The referendum also began to play a critical role in facilitating the transition to democracy in previously authoritarian nations. In Greece citizens voted in December 1974 to close the curtain on the monarchy, with 69.2 percent voting in favor of its abolition. Two years later Spanish voters registered overwhelming support for their own political reform package, with 94.2 percent approving it.

In the 1980s and 1990s the surge of referendums continued unabated. A number of ballot issues during this period were particularly notable. The questions of whether divorce and abortion should be legalized were put to the predominantly Catholic voters of Ireland. Italy had placed the same questions on the ballot in May 1974 and May 1981, respectively. The Italians opted to allow both practices. (Approximately 59.1% voted in favor of allowing divorce, and 67.9% voted to legalize abortion.) Irish voters went the other way, rejecting abortion in September 1983 and then the legalization of divorce in June 1986. (Approximately 66.9% voted to ban abortion, and 63.5% rejected the legalization of divorce.)

In March 1986 Spanish voters endorsed their government's decision to remain in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), with 56.9 percent in favor. This referendum drew wide international attention and even attracted the direct involvement of other countries in the campaign. The most dramatic surge in referendums outside of Switzerland occurred in Italy, where fifteen ballot issues were decided between 1981 and 1991.

the 1980 quebec referendum

Quebec, the largest of Canada's ten provinces, has a distinctly French character. More than twice the size of Texas, it covers 1,542,056 square kilometers (595,391 square miles) and is rich with natural resources. Quebec is also home to many "sovereignists" who want their French-speaking province to be made fully independent from Canada as a sovereign nation to protect their cultural and linguistic heritage.

In May 1980 Canadians went to the polls to vote on a Quebec "sovereignty-partnership" referendum. It failed, however, gaining just 40.4 percent of the vote. The measure would have allowed Quebec to negotiate its secession from Canada. While Quebec would have become its own nation, it would have kept the same currency as the rest of Canada. A similar effort also failed in 1995.

From 1989 onward fledgling democracies in Eastern Europe looked to the referendum for the legitimization of political change. For example, in November 1989 Hungarian citizens voted overwhelmingly to disband the workers' militia, ban political activity in the workplace, and force the former Communist Party to disclose its financial assets. On a fourth question, they narrowly approved parliamentary election of the nation's first president, rejecting popular election of the office. Similarly, in a December 1991 referendum, more than three-quarters of Romanian voters approved the country's new, democratic constitution. In 1990 and 1991 numerous republics of the Soviet Union held referendums on the issue of independence, increasing the centrifugal pressure that ultimately led to the disintegration of the country.

Shortly thereafter, in October 1992, direct democracy took center stage on the Canadian political scene. The last nationwide referendum in Canada (on conscription ) had been in 1942. In the 1992 vote, 54 percent of Canadians (and six of the ten provinces) rejected the Charlottetown Accord, a package of constitutional reforms designed primarily to quell demands in Quebec for greater provincial autonomy. Because a rejection by any one of the provinces would have been sufficient to defeat the accord, the six-province rejection ended the matter convincingly. Consequently, this referendum result created an important reference point for subsequent discussions of the country's future.

Although worldwide interest in and use of the referendum have increased monumentally, it is important to bear in mind that there are effectively two worlds of referendums. The first includes Switzerland, California, a few other U.S. states, and increasingly Italy, where direct democracy is a central element of daily political life. The second world is one in which referendums are used infrequently, on an ad hoc basis. Most of the rest of the world falls into this category. However, some countries, such as Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland, fall somewhere in between. They have held an unusually large number of referendums, but the device remains tangential to the basic governing of the polity.

No country is governed entirely by referendum. In every instance, the referendum supplements, rather than supplants, institutions of representative democracy. And the referendum device is not without its detractors.

the charlottetown accord

In 1992 officials of Canada's federal government met with provincial leaders and representatives of native peoples (known in Canada as First Nations) and hashed out a package of constitutional amendments to put before voters. This package was dubbed the Charlottetown Accord after Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, where the meeting had been held.

The accord was meant to more clearly define the boundaries between federal and provincial powers, helping to resolve some long-standing disputes regarding the nature of Canada's confederation and in particular the status of the province of Quebec within Canada. It would have greatly strengthened the relative autonomy of the provinces, granting them complete jurisdiction over forestry, mining, and other natural resources. It also contained far-reaching reforms concerning the Canadian Senate and the makeup of the Supreme Court. In addition, the measure would have strengthened self-government for the First Nations and guaranteed Quebec a certain proportion of seats in Parliament.

The leaders of Canada's ten provinces all supported the measure. Other political players, however, were dissatisfied with many of its provisions and felt the accord was too complex to be put to a simple yes-or-no vote. Pierre Trudeau, a former Canadian prime minister, campaigned against the Charlottetown Accord, arguing that it meant the end of Canada as a united country. His message got through and on October 26, 1992, Canadians went to the polls and defeated the measure.

the referendum debate

The most common criticism of the referendum is that popular decisionmaking is less informed than decision-making by elected representatives. Although this criticism may seem persuasive at first glance, it is difficult to prove or quantify. Generally, voters do understand the issues that are placed before them. There is little evidence that voters are easily duped into voting against their interests or against their preferred outcomes. And while elected representatives have more time to acquaint themselves with policy issues and the staff support to research them, it is unclear whether politicians in most countries truly possess a substantially deeper understanding of most issues than the typical "person on the street."

Moreover, referendums avoid a problem that, arguably, may taint voting by representatives: the trading of votes. Referendums and initiatives tend to atomize issues, breaking down policy areas into specific questions. This impedes the trading of votes by elected politicians that often results in the passage of multiple measures which would not pass if considered separately. Citizens tend to view referendums with tunnel vision, voting according to what they perceive to be in their own best interest on each question. It can be argued that this self-interested approach of the citizenry usually serves the national interest, because programs that are beneficial to specific interest groups or particular geographic areas but detrimental to the entire polity are usually rejected.

A second frequent criticism of referendums is that large quantities of money spent on referendum campaigns can influence voters. Although it is true that a cottage industry of petition circulators and political consultants has grown around the popular initiative in California, it is not at all clear that money can buy victory on ballot issues. This has been demonstrated time and again by the fact that the side with less money often wins.

Furthermore, although financial contributions to initiative and referendum campaigns have some influence on outcomes, it is also clear that financial contributions have a substantial impact on decision-making by elected representatives. The critical distinction regarding referendums is that the money operates in the open, especially when laws require full disclosure of contributors to referendum campaigns. In contrast, elected officeholders sometimes receive contributions in return for unstated commitments to support legislation in the future. Consequently, the effect of financial contributions in elected representative bodies is more difficult to pin down.

A final criticism of referendums is that they can be abused by tyrants. The most common example was the use of plebiscites by Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) to solidify his rule over Nazi Germany. It is true that populations in the midst of national crises can be intimidated into voting for dictatorial powers. This vulnerability exists with respect to both referendums and popular elections of officeholders. However, it is also true that such abuses do not typically occur in political systems which have an established tradition and history of referendum usage. Similarly, a country with a long history of electing representatives is less likely to see the election process manipulated by tyrants. The more firmly rooted democratic institutions become in a country's political culture, the less susceptible they are to abuse.

See also: Canada; Democracy; France; Switzerland; United Kingdom.


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Kris Kobach