plebiscite (plĕb´Ĭsīt) [Lat.,=popular decree], vote of the people on a question submitted to them, as in a referendum. The term, however, has acquired the more specific meaning of a popular vote concerning changes of sovereignty, as compared to a regularized system of popular voting upon laws and constitutional amendments. This more modern use of the plebiscite arose out of the French Revolution and the French Republic's policy of holding popular votes on the question of French annexation of a territory it had occupied. Many, although not all, of these plebiscites and those held in the following century were manipulated by the occupying power to legitimate an outcome already achieved through military or diplomatic means. The use of the plebiscite reached a high point following World War I, when it was employed extensively in Central and Eastern Europe to determine the boundaries of newly created nation states. Since then, it has been used in settling the status of disputed or border territories, e.g., Saarland (1935) and, most recently, in the process of the decolonization of Africa and Asia, e.g., West New Guinea (1969; see Papua) and Namibia (1989).
See S. Wambaugh, Plebiscites since the World War (1933); L. T. Farley, Plebiscites and Sovereignty (1986).