A referendum (pl.: referendums or less commonly referenda) is a direct vote by the electorate on a proposal, law, or political issue. This is in contrast to an issue being voted on by a representative. This may result in the adoption of a new policy or specific law, or the referendum may be only advisory. In some countries, it is synonymous with and also known as plebiscite, votation, popular consultation, ballot question, ballot measure, or proposition.

(Top to bottom):
Ballots for the 2016 Ivorian constitutional referendum; Flyer for a 1971 Seattle referendum; The 1946 referendum in Italy deciding on republic or monarchy.

Some definitions of 'plebiscite' suggest it is a type of vote to change the constitution or government of a country.[1] The word, 'referendum' is often a catchall, used for both legislative referrals and initiatives.



'Referendum' is the gerundive form of the Latin verb referre, literally "to carry back" (from the verb ferre, "to bear, bring, carry" plus the inseparable prefix re-, here meaning "back"[2]). As a gerundive is an adjective,[3] not a noun,[4] it cannot be used alone in Latin, and must be contained within a context attached to a noun such as Propositum quod referendum est populo, "A proposal which must be carried back to the people". The addition of the verb sum (3rd person singular, est) to a gerundive, denotes the idea of necessity or compulsion, that which "must" be done, rather than that which is "fit for" doing. Its use as a noun in English is not considered a strictly grammatical usage of a foreign word but is rather a newly coined English noun, which follows English grammatical usage, not Latin grammatical usage. This determines the form of the plural in English, which according to English grammar should be "referendums". The use of "referenda" as a plural form in English (treating it as a Latin word and attempting to apply to it the rules of Latin grammar) is unsupportable according to the rules of both Latin and English grammar. The use of "referenda" as a plural form is posited hypothetically as either a gerund or a gerundive by the Oxford English Dictionary, which rules out such usage in both cases as follows:[5]

Referendums is logically preferable as a plural form meaning 'ballots on one issue' (as a Latin gerund,[6] referendum has no plural). The Latin plural gerundive 'referenda', meaning 'things to be referred', necessarily connotes a plurality of issues.[7]

It is closely related to agenda, "those matters which must be driven forward", from ago, to impel or drive forwards; and memorandum, "that matter which must be remembered", from memoro, to call to mind, corrigenda, from rego, to rule, make straight, those things which must be made straight (corrected), etc.

The term 'plebiscite' has a generally similar meaning in modern usage and comes from the Latin plebiscita, which originally meant a decree of the Concilium Plebis (Plebeian Council), the popular assembly of the Roman Republic. Today, a referendum can also often be referred to as a plebiscite, but in some countries the two terms are used differently to refer to votes with differing types of legal consequences.[8]

In Australia, a 'referendum' is often said to be a vote to change the federal constitution and 'plebiscite' a vote which does not affect the federal constitution.[8] However, this is erroneous as not all federal referendums have been on constitutional matters (such as the 1916 Australian conscription referendum), and state votes that likewise do not affect either the federal or state constitution are frequently said to be referendums (such as the 2009 Western Australian daylight saving referendum). Historically, they are used by Australians interchangeably and a plebiscite was considered another name for a referendum.[9][10][11]

In Ireland, 'plebiscite' referred to the vote to adopt its constitution, but a subsequent vote to amend the constitution is called a 'referendum', as is a poll of the electorate on a non-constitutional bill.



The name and use of the 'referendum' is thought to have originated in the Swiss canton of Graubünden as early as the 16th century.[12][13]

After a reduction in the number of referendums in the Mid-twentieth century, the referendum as a political tool has been increasing in popularity since the 1970s. This increase has been attributed to dealignment of the public with political parties, as specific policy issues became more important to the public than party identifiers.[14]





The term "referendum" covers a variety of different meanings, and the terminology is different depending on the us that holds them. A referendum can be binding or advisory.[15] In some countries, different names are used for these two types of referendum. Referendums can be further classified by who initiates them.[16]

David Altman proposes four dimensions that referendums can be classified by:[17]

Mandatory referendums


A mandatory referendum is a class of referendum required to be voted on if certain conditions are met or for certain government actions to be taken. They do not require any signatures from the public. In areas that use referendums a mandatory referendum is commonly used as a legally required step for ratification for constitutional changes, ratifying international treaties and joining international organizations, and certain types of public spending.[18]

Typical types of mandatory referendums include:

  • Constitutional changes: Some countries or local governments choose to enact any constitutional amendments with a mandatory referendum. These include Australia, Ireland, Switzerland, Denmark, and 49 of the 50 U.S. states (the only exception is Delaware).
  • Financial referendum: Many localities require a referendum in order for the government to issue certain bonds, raise taxes above a specified amount, or take on certain amounts of debt. In California for example, the state government may not borrow more than $300,000 without a public vote in a statewide bond proposition.[19]
  • International relations: Switzerland has mandatory referendums on enacting international treaties that have to do with collective security and joining a supranational community. This type of referendum has only occurred once in the country's history: a failed attempt in 1986 for Switzerland to join the United Nations.[20]
  • War referendum: A hypothetical type of referendum, first proposed by Immanuel Kant, is a referendum to approve a declaration of war in a war referendum. It has never been enacted by any country, but was debated in the United States in the 1930s as the Ludlow Amendment.

Optional referendum


An optional referendum is a class of referendums that is put to the vote as a result of a demand. This may come from the executive branch, legislative branch, or a request from the people (often after meeting a signature requirement).

Types of optional referendums include:

  • Authorities plebiscite: Also known as a legislative referral, are initiated by the legislature or government. These may be advisory questions to gauge public opinion or binding questions of law.
  • Popular initiative or Initiative referendum: A citizen-led process to propose and vote on new laws.
  • Popular referendum: A citizen-led process to oppose and strike down existing laws.
  • Recall referendum: A procedure to remove elected officials before the end of their term of office. Depending on the area and position, a recall may be for a specific individual, such as an individual legislator, or more general such as an entire legislature.



From a political-philosophical perspective, referendums are an expression of direct democracy, but today, most referendums need to be understood within the context of representative democracy. They tend to be used quite selectively, covering issues such as changes in voting systems, where currently elected officials may not have the legitimacy or inclination to implement such changes.

By country


Since the end of the 18th century, hundreds of national referendums have been organised in the world;[21] almost 600 national votes have been held in Switzerland since its inauguration as a modern state in 1848.[22] Italy ranks second with 78 national referendums: 72 popular referendums (51 of which were proposed by the Radical Party), 4 constitutional referendums, one institutional referendum and one advisory referendum.[23]

By issue


Civil rights referendum

A civil rights referendum or human rights referendum is any act of direct democracy which allows for a vote on the granting or amendment of current civil rights, liberties or associations as recognized by a government. Such referendums have frequently been proposed as a means by which the majority of the voting public in a polity, rather than the judicial or legislative chambers of government, could determine what the state should recognize or carry out, while such referendums have been strongly criticized by civil rights organizations and professional bodies as means by which the majority of the public could vote on the rights of a vulnerable minority according to contemporary prejudices.

Financial referendum

The financial referendum (also known as a budget referendum) is a form of the referendum and an instrument of direct democracy. It always relates to parts of the public budget of a government and allows citizens to vote directly on individual budget items.

Mining referendum

A mining referendum is a direct and universal vote in which an entire electorate is invited to vote on a mining proposal. Mining referendums have been held in Tambo Grande, Peru in 2002,[24] Esquel, Argentina in 2003,[24][25] and Cuenca, Ecuador in 2021.[26][27][28] In each of the three cases the local community rejected the establishment of new mines in their territory.[24][26]

Independence referendum

An independence referendum is a type of referendum in which the residents of a territory decide whether the territory should become an independent sovereign state. An independence referendum that results in a vote for independence does not always ultimately result in independence.
This is a list of referendums related to the European Union, or referendums related to the European Communities, which were predecessors of the European Union. Since 1972, a total of 48 referendums have been held by EU member states, candidate states, and their territories, with several additional referendums held in countries outside the EU. The referendums have been held most commonly on the subject of whether to become a member of European Union as part of the accession process, although the EU does not require any candidate country to hold a referendum to approve membership or as part of treaty ratification. Other EU-related referendums have been held on the adoption of the euro and on participation in other EU-related policies.

Design and procedure


Multiple-choice referendums


A referendum usually offers the electorate a straight choice between accepting or rejecting a proposal. However some referendums give voters multiple choices, and some use transferable voting. This has also been called a preferendum when the choices given allow the voters to weight their support for a policy.[29]

In Switzerland, for example, multiple choice referendums are common. Two multiple choice referendums were held in Sweden, in 1957 and in 1980, in which voters were offered three options. In 1977, a referendum held in Australia to determine a new national anthem was held, in which voters had four choices. In 1992, New Zealand held a five-option referendum on their electoral system. In 1982, Guam had a referendum that used six options, with an additional blank option for those wishing to (campaign and) vote for their own seventh option.

A multiple choice referendum poses the question of how the result is to be determined. They may be set up so that if no single option receives the support of an absolute majority (more than half) of the votes, resort can be made to the two-round system or instant-runoff voting, which is also called IRV and PV.

In 2018 the Irish Citizens' Assembly considered the conduct of future referendums in Ireland, with 76 of the members in favour of allowing more than two options, and 52% favouring preferential voting in such cases.[30] Other people regard a non-majoritarian methodology like the Modified Borda Count (MBC) as more inclusive and more accurate.

Swiss referendums offer a separate vote on each of the multiple options as well as an additional decision about which of the multiple options should be preferred. In the Swedish case, in both referendums the 'winning' option was chosen by the Single Member Plurality ("first past the post") system. In other words, the winning option was deemed to be that supported by a plurality, rather than an absolute majority, of voters. In the 1977 Australian referendum, the winner was chosen by the system of preferential instant-runoff voting (IRV). Polls in Newfoundland (1949) and Guam (1982), for example, were counted under a form of the two-round system, and an unusual form of TRS was used in the 1992 New Zealand poll.

Although California has not held multiple-choice referendums in the Swiss or Swedish sense (in which only one of several counter-propositions can be victorious, and the losing proposals are wholly null and void), it does have so many yes-or-no referendums at each election day that conflicts arise. The State's constitution provides a method for resolving conflicts when two or more inconsistent propositions are passed on the same day. This is a de facto form of approval voting—i.e. the proposition with the most "yes" votes prevails over the others to the extent of any conflict.

Other voting systems that could be used in multiple-choice referendum are Condorcet method and quadratic voting (including quadratic funding).

Electronic referendum

Electronic referendum (or E-referendum) is a referendum in which voting is aided by electronic means as programmed by the authority responsible for its use. E-referendum employs information and communication technology such as the Internet (I-voting) or digital telephones, rather than a classical ballot box or traditional methods system.[31] Traditionally, e-referendum is organised by governmental bodies but nowadays, there even exist private companies which can facilitate online referendums or other types of e-voting.[32]


Nedko Solakov's artistic and humouristic project "Référendum against référendums", for the Swiss Sculpture Exhibition Utopics in 2009

Quorums are typically introduced to prevent referendum results from being skewed by low turnout or decided by a motivated minority of voters.

Participation quorum


Referendums may require a turnout threshold (also called a participation quorum) in order for the referendum to be considered legally valid. In a participation quorum a majority of those voting must approve of the referendum, and a certain percentage of population must have voted in order for the results to be approved.

The usage of participation quorums in referendums is controversial, as higher requirements have been shown to reduced turnout and voter participation.[citation needed] With high participation quorums, the opposition of a referendum has an interest in abstaining from the vote instead of participating, in order to invalidate the referendum results through low turnout. This is a form of the no-show paradox. All others who are not voting for other reasons, including those with no opinion, are effectively also voting against the referendum.

In the 2005 Italian fertility laws referendum, opposition to the proposed loosening of laws on research on embryos and on allowing in-vitro fertilization, campaigned for people to abstain from voting to drive down turnout. Although a majority of people voted yes for the changes in the law, the results were invalid because participation was low.[7]



Important referendums are frequently challenged in courts. In pre-referendum disputes, plaintiffs have often tried to prevent the referendum to take place. In one such challenge, in 2017, the Spanish Constitutional Court suspended the Catalonia's independence referendum.[33] In post-referendum disputes, they challenge the result. British courts dismissed post-referendum challenges of the Brexit referendum.[34]

International tribunals have traditionally not interfered with referendum disputes. In 2021, the European Court of Human Rights extended its jurisdiction to referendums in its judgment Toplak and Mrak v. Slovenia, initiated by two disabled voters over polling place access.[35]



Criticism of populist aspect

Pro-Russian protesters in Odesa, Ukraine, demanding a referendum, March 30, 2014
2015 Greek bailout referendum Demonstration for "NO" vote, Syntagma Square, Athens, Greece

In Political Governance states that voters in a referendum are more likely to be driven by transient whims than by careful deliberation, or that they are not sufficiently informed to make decisions on complicated or technical issues.[36] Also, voters might be swayed by propaganda, strong personalities, intimidation, and expensive advertising campaigns. James Madison argued that direct democracy is the "tyranny of the majority".

Some opposition to the referendum has arisen from its use by dictators such as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini who, it is argued,[37] used the plebiscite to disguise oppressive policies as populism. Dictators may also make use of referendums as well as show elections to further legitimize their authority such as António de Oliveira Salazar in 1933; Benito Mussolini in 1934; Adolf Hitler in 1934, 1936; Francisco Franco in 1947; Park Chung Hee in 1972; and Ferdinand Marcos in 1973. Hitler's use of plebiscites is argued[by whom?] as the reason why, since World War II, there has been no provision in Germany for the holding of referendums at the federal level.

In recent years, referendums have been used strategically by several European governments trying to pursue political and electoral goals.[38]

In 1995, John Bruton considered that

All governments are unpopular. Given the chance, people would vote against them in a referendum. Therefore avoid referendums. Therefore don't raise questions which require them, such as the big versus the little states.[39]

Closed questions and the separability problem


Some critics of the referendum attack the use of closed questions. A difficulty called the separability problem can plague a referendum on two or more issues. If one issue is in fact, or in perception, related to another on the ballot, the imposed simultaneous voting of first preference on each issue can result in an outcome which is displeasing to most.

Undue limitations on regular government power


Several commentators have noted that the use of citizens' initiatives to amend constitutions has so tied the government to a jumble of popular demands as to render the government unworkable. A 2009 article in The Economist argued that this had restricted the ability of the California state government to tax the people and pass the budget, and called for an entirely new Californian constitution.[40]

A similar problem also arises when elected governments accumulate excessive debts. That can severely reduce the effective margin for later governments.

Both these problems can be moderated by a combination of other measures as

  • strict rules for correct accounting on budget plans and effective public expenditure;
  • mandatory assessment by an independent public institution of all budgetary implications of all legislative proposals, before they can be approved;
  • mandatory prior assessment of the constitutional coherence of any proposal;
  • interdiction of extra-budget expenditure (tax payers anyway have to fund them, sooner or later).


  • The Federal Authorities of the Swiss Confederation, statistics (German). Statistik Schweiz - Stimmbeteiligung
  • Turcoane, Ovidiu (2015). "A proposed contextual evaluation of referendum quorum using fuzzy logics" (PDF). Journal of Applied Quantitative Methods. 10 (2): 83–93.

See also



  1. ^ "Definition of Plebiscite". Oxford Dictionaries. Archived from the original on July 12, 2012. Retrieved 2016-08-23.
  2. ^ Marchant & Charles, Cassell's Latin Dictionary, 1928, p. 469.
  3. ^ A gerundive is a verbal adjective (Kennedy's Shorter Latin Primer, 1962 edition, p. 91.)
  4. ^ A gerund is a verbal noun (Kennedy's Shorter Latin Primer, 1962 edition, p. 91.) but has no nominative case, for which an infinitive (referre) serves the purpose
  5. ^ Oxford English Dictionary Referendum
  6. ^ a gerund is a verbal noun (Kennedy's Shorter Latin Primer, 1962 edition, p. 91.) but has no nominative case, for which an infinitive (referre) serves the purpose. It has only accusative, genitive, dative and ablative cases (Kennedy's Shorter Latin Primer, 1962 edition, pp. 91-2.)
  7. ^ a b i.e. Proposita quae referenda sunt popolo, "Proposals which must be carried back to the people"
  8. ^ a b Green, Antony (12 August 2015). "Plebiscite or Referendum - What's the Difference". ABC. Archived from the original on 13 August 2015. Retrieved 23 August 2015.
  9. ^ "THE REFERENDUM". Evening News. No. 9452. New South Wales, Australia. 21 September 1897. p. 4. Retrieved 26 August 2020 – via National Library of Australia.
  10. ^ "Government by Plebiscite". The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser. Vol. LXV, no. 1960. New South Wales, Australia. 29 January 1898. p. 217. Retrieved 26 August 2020 – via National Library of Australia.
  11. ^ "The Plebiscite or Referendum". The Bendigo Independent. No. 12, 464. Victoria, Australia. 3 December 1910. p. 4. Retrieved 26 August 2020 – via National Library of Australia.
  12. ^ Barber, Benjamin R.. The Death of Communal Liberty: A History of Freedom in a Swiss Mountain Canton. Princeton University Press, 1974, p. 179.
  13. ^ Vincent, J.M.. State and Federal Government in Switzerland, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009, p. 122
  14. ^ Silagadze, Nanuli; Gherghina, Sergiu (January 2020). "Referendum Policies across Political Systems". The Political Quarterly. 91 (1): 182–191. doi:10.1111/1467-923x.12790. ISSN 0032-3179. S2CID 213618720.
  15. ^ de Vreese, Claes H. (2007). "Context, Elites, Media and Public Opinion in Referendums: When Campaigns Really Matter". The Dynamics of Referendum Campaigns: An International Perspective. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 2–3. ISBN 9780230591189.
  16. ^ Serdült, Uwe; Welp, Yanina (2012). "Direct Democracy Upside Down" (PDF). Taiwan Journal of Democracy. 8 (1): 69–92. doi:10.5167/uzh-98412. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2015-04-02. Retrieved 2015-03-24.
  17. ^ "Direct Democracy Worldwide". ResearchGate. Retrieved 2021-08-29.
  18. ^ "Design and Political issues of Referendums —". Archived from the original on 2020-05-02. Retrieved 2020-06-11.
  19. ^ "Statewide bond propositions (California)". Ballotpedia. Archived from the original on 2020-12-22. Retrieved 2020-06-11.
  20. ^ Goetschel, Laurent; Bernath, Magdalena; Schwarz, Daniel (2004). Swiss Foreign Policy: Foundations and Possibilities. Psychology Press. ISBN 978-0-415-34812-6.
  21. ^ (in French) Bruno S. Frey et Claudia Frey Marti, Le bonheur. L'approche économique, Presses polytechniques et universitaires romandes, 2013 (ISBN 978-2-88915-010-6).
  22. ^ Duc-Quang Nguyen (17 June 2015). "How direct democracy has grown over the decades". Berne, Switzerland: - a branch of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR. Archived from the original on 2016-08-06. Retrieved 2016-01-28.
  23. ^ "Dipartimento per gli Affari Interni e Territoriali". Archived from the original on 2017-10-26. Retrieved 2017-10-13.
  24. ^ a b c Wagner, Lucrecia (2019). "Propuestas de inversiones chinas en territorio mapuche: resistencias a la minería metalífera en Loncopué" [Proposal of chinese investments in mapuche territory: resistances to metallic mining in Loncopué]. Estudios Atacameños (in Spanish). 63. doi:10.22199/issn.0718-1043-2019-0028.
  25. ^ Urdinez, María Victoria (2007). Mecanismos de participación y control ciudadano: 'El plebiscito en Esquel. IV Jornadas de Jóvenes Investigadores. Instituto de Investigaciones Gino Germani, Facultad de Ciencias Sociales, Universidad de Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires
  26. ^ a b "Votantes respaldan prohibición a la minería en ciudad ecuatoriana de Cuenca: alcalde". Reuters (in Spanish). 2021-02-08. Retrieved 2023-01-28.
  27. ^ Castro, Mayuri (October 27, 2020). "Court allows referendum on mining in the Ecuadoran Andes to go forward". Mongabay. Retrieved December 12, 2020.
  28. ^ "En Cuenca, el 80,9% apoya cese de actividad minera, según el CNE". Primicias (in Spanish). 8 February 2021. Archived from the original on 11 February 2021. Retrieved 17 February 2021.
  29. ^ Reybrouck, David Van (2023-03-16). "Democracy's Missing Link: The "preferendum" — a method for citizens to rate and rank policy ideas — would turn citizen concerns into government action". Noema. Archived from the original on 2023-11-06. Retrieved 2023-11-06.
  30. ^ "Manner in which referenda are held". Citizens' Assembly. Archived from the original on 23 March 2018. Retrieved 22 March 2018.
  31. ^ Musiał-Karg, Magdalena (2012). "Is Electronic Voting a Panacea for Low Election Turnout?: Examples of Estonian e-Elections and Swiss e-Referendums" (PDF). Polish Political Science. 41.
  32. ^ "Electronic Referendum Platform". Far Rainbow. Retrieved 2021-02-16.
  33. ^ "Spain Catalonia: Court blocks independence referendum". BBC News. 2017-09-08. Archived from the original on 2020-11-12. Retrieved 2021-11-21.
  34. ^ "High Court rejects challenge to have Brexit referendum result declared void". The Independent. 2018-12-10. Archived from the original on 2021-11-21. Retrieved 2021-11-21.
  35. ^ "ECHR ruling 'has Europe-wide implications' on disability". Archived from the original on 2021-11-09. Retrieved 2021-11-21.
  36. ^ Political Governance: Political theory. Gyan Publishing House. 2005. ISBN 9788182053175. Archived from the original on 2023-11-06. Retrieved 2023-03-19.
  37. ^ Qvortrup, Matt (2013). Direct Democracy: A Comparative Study of the Theory and Practice of Government by the People. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0-7190-8206-1.
  38. ^ Sottilotta, Cecilia Emma (2017). "The Strategic Use of Government-Sponsored Referendums in Contemporary Europe: Issues and Implications". Journal of Contemporary European Research. 13 (4): 1361–1376. doi:10.30950/jcer.v13i4.836. S2CID 158825358. Archived from the original on 2017-12-17. Retrieved 2017-12-16.
  39. ^ Bowcott, Owen; Davies, Caroline (2019-12-31). "Referendums are a bad idea, Irish leader told EU in 1995". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 2019-12-31. Retrieved 2019-12-31.
  40. ^ "California: The ungovernable state". The Economist. London. 16–22 May 2009. pp. 33–36. Archived from the original on 4 September 2009. Retrieved 8 September 2009.

Further reading

  • Smith, Julie (ed.). 2021. The Palgrave Handbook of European Referendums. Palgrave.
  • Qvortrup, Matt; O'Leary, Brendan; Wintrobe, Ronald (2018). "Explaining the Paradox of Plebiscites". Government and Opposition. 55 (2): 1–18. doi:10.1017/gov.2018.16. S2CID 149756080.
  • Topaloff, Liubomir (2017). "Elite Strategy or Populist Weapon?". Journal of Democracy. 28 (3): 127–140. doi:10.1353/jod.2017.0051. S2CID 157760485.
  • Qvortrup, Matt (2017). "Demystifying Direct Democracy". Journal of Democracy. 28 (3): 141–152. doi:10.1353/jod.2017.0052. S2CID 157819009.
  • Morel, L. (2011). 'Referenda'. In: B. Badie, D. Berg-Schlosser, & L. Morlino(eds), International Encyclopedia of Political Science.Thousand Oaks: SAGE: 2226–2230.