A referendum is a form of direct democracy in which the entire electorate votes to accept or reject a policy proposal. Nearly all democracies in the international community provide for national referendums. Yet there is no provision in the U.S. Constitution for one. The Tenth Amendment implies that referendums are left up to the states. Because of this, states decide individually whether to allow referendums and how they are to proceed.
In the United States a legislative referendum is an election in which the state legislature passes a bill for consideration by a state’s voters for final adoption. Not all states have a legislative referendum provision for nonconstitutional issues, even though all states except Delaware allow or require constitutional amendments to be approved through referendums. Some states allow for voters to overrule legislation by referendum, so long as supporters gather a requisite number of signatures. This is known as the popular referendum. Twenty-four states (mostly in the American West) and myriad local governments provide for legislative and popular referendums. Referendums are similar to but conceptually distinct from initiatives. Although similar in that the people have the final say to support or oppose a policy and citizens groups may be required to gather signatures for both referendums and initiatives, referendums are a direct response to action by the legislature. Conversely, citizens, citizens groups, or other interest groups initiate the policy proposal to be placed on an election ballot.
The history and initiation of referendums in the United States is a product of the progressive reforms. In response to the political corruption of party machines in urban areas throughout the United States, the Progressives pushed numerous reforms to depoliticize politics.
Progressive reforms began with the creation of the federal civil service system with the Pendleton Act of 1883. They also included state-printed secret ballots, direct primary elections, nonpartisan elections, and initiatives, recalls, and referendums. The goal of these reforms was to wrest political control away from centralized and strong political parties and return democracy to the people. Although they had their intended effect of weakening political parties, they also contributed to a significant decline in voter participation over time. Even directly deciding policy through referendums is typically not sufficient to mobilize high voter turnout.
States vary in their use of referendum. For legislative, nonconstitutional referendums, California requires that the measure, with valid signatures equal in number to 5 percent of all votes cast in the previous gubernatorial contest, be presented to the secretary of state within ninety days after its enactment by the state legislature. The secretary of state then submits the referendum for placement on the ballot in the next general or special election, or the governor may request a special election. California’s procedure for legislative referendum is fairly typical of most other states. California used the legislative referendum process in 2000 to pass Proposition 22, which held that only heterosexual marriages were legally valid in the state. Citizens in the state of South Dakota relied on a popular referendum to overturn, or veto, a 2006 state law that would have banned abortion except to protect the life of the mother. Citizens were required to gather over 18,000 valid signatures (or 5 percent of votes cast in the previous gubernatorial race) to place this popular referendum on the November 2006 ballot. Texas state law requires that any amendment to the Texas Constitution be approved by two-thirds of both houses of the state legislature and then placed on an election ballot for final adoption by the voters. In November 2005 Texas amended its constitution in this manner by defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. All states may place advisory or non-binding referendums on an election ballot. These referendums have no binding policy effect but instead are consultative referendums initiated by the government, perhaps, to poll the electorate as to their general belief on an issue. It is ultimately up to the state legislature whether to embrace or ignore these results.
Although the goal of referendums and other forms of direct democracy is to allow people to decide policy, there may be unintended consequences for some of the people as a result of these popular initiatives. James Madison (1751-1836), fourth president of the United States, warned about the deleterious effects of factions, that majority will—if left unchecked—could actually punish the minority, creating a “tyranny of the majority.” For these and other reasons, the framers of the U.S. Constitution adopted a document that was exceedingly thin on direct democratic provisions but instead provided for representative democracy.
With the institution and proliferation of forms of direct democracy as a policy tool in the late twentieth century, scholars began to explore the consequences of direct democracy and whether or not referendums or initiatives actually harm minorities. Barbara Gamble found in her 1997 article “Putting Civil Rights to a Popular Vote,” for instance, that local and state ballot measures (referendum included) typically harm minorities, and she concluded that representative democracy protects minorities better than direct democracy does. Todd Donovan and Shaun Bowler showed in their 1998 article “Direct Democracy and Minority Rights: An Extension,” on the other hand, that direct democracy is not necessarily harmful to minorities. Instead, largely populated areas with well-educated citizens tend to adopt ballot measures that actually protect homosexuals. Donovan and Bowler concluded that both direct and representative democracies have comparable limitations in protecting specific minority groups.
The claim that referendums reflect the popular will of the majority or that they provide for direct democracy in the truest sense is open to question for several reasons. First, as with most other elections, only a small and self-selected percentage of the voting public participates in referendum elections. Constitutional amendments that must be approved of through referendum may be placed on the ballot during special elections, not associated with either statewide or nationally elected office. The skew in voter participation for these referendums is likely to be especially pronounced. Moreover many of these referendums may pertain to mundane matters, such as issuing bonds for economic development or pollution control, which are not of interest to many voters. Second, large states, like California and Texas, may have too many referendums on an election ballot, which may cause voters to roll off, or not finish the ballot, actually reducing the proportion of voters who participate. Indeed the 2006 midterm election ballot used in several California counties was over 120 pages long. Third, referendums may be worded in a confusing fashion, with a “yes” vote supporting change in one referendum and a “no” vote supporting change in another. Fourth, voters may make policy based on a whim, not careful research, leading to ineffective or countereffective policies. Finally, government accountability may be reduced if citizens—not their elected representatives—are responsible for making public policy.
Unlike the United States, referendums are more central to governance in many other democracies, with numerous states relying extensively on national referendums for policy making. Switzerland’s referendum process is central to policy making, whether for constitutional amendments, legislative enactments, or according to Lawrence LeDuc in his 2003 book The Politics of Direct Democracy: Referendums in a Global Perspective, “rejective” referendums. It does not have a nonbinding or advisory referendum provision. Although Sweden provides for both binding and nonbinding referendums, most of its late-twentieth-century referendums were advisory to the legislature. Other countries use the referendum process to approve constitutional amendments (France), vote on independence (Puerto Rico), recall politicians from office (Venezuela), determine public policy directly (Brazil), or decide European Union membership (United Kingdom).
SEE ALSO Accountability; California Civil Rights Initiative; Democracy, Representative and Participatory; Government; Initiative; Representation; Voting
Braunstein, Richard. 2004. Initiatives and Referendum: Governing through Direct Democracy in the United States. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing.
Donovan, Todd, and Shaun Bowler. 1998. Direct Democracy and Minority Rights: An Extension. American Journal of Political Science 42 (3): 1020-1024.
Gamble, Barbara. 1997. Putting Civil Rights to a Popular Vote. American Journal of Political Science 41 (1): 245-269.
LeDuc, Lawrence. 2003. The Politics of Direct Democracy: Referendums in a Global Perspective. Toronto: Broadview.
REFERENDUM. A referendum is a provision permitting voters to accept or reject a public policy measure or policy question at a formal election. Its particulars vary from state to state: it may be binding or advisory, constitutional or legislative, and have local or statewide application; it may deal with amendments to state constitutions and city charters, statutes, and ordinances, or the financing of schools and public works projects through taxation or bonded indebtedness. In some states, the process can be set in motion only by the state legislatures; in others, it can be activated by voter-generated petition.
Although some scholars trace the referendum's modern beginnings back to Switzerland or to colonial New England, others locate its specific origins in the Massachusetts state constitution of 1780, which limited its application to the ratification of either new constitutions or amendments to existing ones. During the 1840s, Texas became the first state to permit the submission of proposed statutes, but the movement did not gain much momentum until the Populists and other agrarian radicals advocated it during the last decade of the century. With the onset of the Progressive Era in the late 1890s, the referendum, in common with the initiative, recall, primary elections, direct election of U.S. senators, and woman's suffrage, became a vital component of "direct democracy" or "power to the people" movement that swept the nation. Initiative and referendum together constituted the "direct legislation" segment of that movement, inspired by the growing belief that city councils and state legislatures—once considered the most representative of all branches of government—had become virtual tools of corrupt corporate and partisan interests. They could no longer be relied upon to enact legislation on behalf of general welfare, nor could they be prevented from passing laws that blatantly betrayed the public's trust in favor of special interests. One part of the putative solution—initiative—was designed to allow the general public to force popular measures upon legislature. The second component—referendum—was crafted to permit voters to undo pernicious work by legislature, as well as to demonstrate widespread support for progressive measures. Spearheaded by South Dakota in 1898, some twenty states adopted the referendum over the next two decades.
Despite its widespread adoption, the referendum has generally failed to justify the optimistic predictions of its Progressive Era proponents. Referenda have been used by legislators to postpone or prevent the enactment of legislation; they have functioned as "buck-passing" safety valves for lawmakers caught between two powerful pressure groups or between the competing demands of special interests and the general welfare. The precipitous decline in political participation in general has all but obviated the "democratic" nature of referenda, frequently reducing them to contests between two cohorts of special interest groups. The increasing reliance upon television, the Internet, and other forms of mass communication have greatly increased the cost of referendum campaigns, to the obvious advantage of those with "deep pockets." This has also tended to turn complex policy questions into simplistic slogans or sound bytes. The escalating revolt against "big government" has greatly exacerbated what has always been the conventional wisdom regarding referenda: if you do not understand the issue or suspect that it will raise your taxes vote NO! After thoroughly analyzing the operation of the referendum in California over the past century, political historian John M. Allswang has pessimistically concluded that "somewhere along the way direct legislation moved well beyond its original intent, to the point where it has overwhelmed the governing processes it was designed to monitor, to become in effect a 'fourth branch' of state government."
Allswang, John M. The Initiative and Referendum in California, 1898–1998. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999.
Munro, William B., ed. The Initiative, Referendum, and Recall. New York: Appleton, 1912.
The right reserved to the people to approve or reject an act of the legislature, or the right of the people to approve or reject legislation that has been referred to them by the legislature.
The referendum power is created by state constitutions and is conferred on the citizens of a state or a local subdivision of the state. Referendum provides the people with a means of expressing their opinion on proposed legislation before it becomes operative as a law. The power of referendum does not permit the people to invalidate a law that is already operative but suspends or annuls a law that has not yet gone into effect. In this sense, referendum is similar to a governor's veto power. Also, by referendum the people may reinstate an act that the legislature has expressly repealed.
The referendum, along with the initiative, are the two forms of direct legislation adopted by many states during the direct democracy movement of the early twentieth century. Referendum allows the people to state their opinion on laws that have been enacted by the legislature, and the initiative allows the people to propose their own laws. Thus, in the states that have adopted the initiative and referendum, the people essentially form another branch of the legislature, having the ability both to enact laws and to overturn laws passed by the elected legislature but not yet in effect. An initiative or a referendum passed by the people has the same force and effect as any act of the legislature. A referendum may be challenged on constitutional grounds, on grounds that proper procedures were not followed in the referendum process and election, or on grounds that the referendum or initiative was outside the scope of authority granted by the state constitution. Also, in some states the governor may veto an initiative or referendum.
The general initiative and referendum were first adopted in the United States in South Dakota in 1898, and many states soon followed. The movement toward direct legislation did not grow from a desire of the people to exercise the legislative function directly. Rather, many people distrusted their legislative bodies, believing that large corporations and powerful groups of individuals were corrupting legislation. The power of referendum made most legislation subject to the will of the people.
The referendum power is derived solely from a state's constitution and applies to that state's laws; people do not have the right to challenge federal legislation by referendum. The right of referendum and the procedure to be followed in exercising the referendum right are set forth in the state's constitution and statutes. The referendum process is essentially the same in every state. First, there must be a petition for referendum that states, among other things, the title and nature of the legislative act the petition seeks to have submitted for referendum. The petition is then circulated for signatures. Generally, anyone eligible to vote may sign a petition for referendum, even if he or she is not registered to vote. When the required number of signatures is collected, the petition is filed. If the petition is certified as sufficient, the referendum measure is placed on the election ballot for approval or rejection by the people. If the required number of votes, usually a majority of the votes cast, are in favor of the referendum, it passes. Usually, the people vote on a referendum measure during the general election, but special referendum elections also may be held.
In some states there is no limit on the referendum power, and any law may be challenged by referendum. In many states, however, the constitution creates exceptions to the referendum power for certain types of legislation. Commonly, constitutional provisions regarding referendums create an exception for laws necessary for the support of the state government and state or public institutions, because a referendum on any such measure might cause a branch of the government to cease to function. This exception applies mainly to tax and appropriation measures. Also, most states create an exception to the referendum power for laws necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, or safety, thereby allowing the legislature to exercise the police power unimpaired. Finally, measures declared by the legislature to be emergency measures are usually not subject to referendum.
Coury, Christopher A. 1994. "Direct Democracy through Initiative and Referendum." Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy 8.
Warner, Daniel M. 1995. "Direct Democracy: The Right of the People to Make Fools of Themselves; The Use and Abuse of Initiative and Referendum, a Local Government Perspective." Seattle Law Review 19 (fall).
ref·er·en·dum / ˌrefəˈrendəm/ • n. (pl. -dums or -da / -də/ ) a general vote by the electorate on a single political question that has been referred to them for a direct decision. ∎ the process of referring a political question to the electorate for this purpose.
Among the political reforms introduced during the Progressive era was the referendum, by which acts of the legislature are referred to the people for their approval or rejection at an election. Referenda may be initiated by the legislature itself or by petition of the people. The referendum is a check on such abuses as corrupt legislation or blatantly partisan gerrymandering of legislative districts (see gerrymander) but it also provides a way for politicians to avoid responsibility for controversial measures.
Reformers have frequently advocated a national referendum procedure. However, legislation authorizing a national referendum would probably be unconstitutional, and an amendment authorizing it would almost certainly fail to receive congressional approval.
Dennis J. Mahoney