A referendum (in some countries synonymous with plebiscite — or a vote on a ballot question) is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is asked to either accept or reject a particular proposal. This may result in the adoption of a new constitution, a constitutional amendment, or a law. Besides initiative and recall election the referendum is one of the three pillars of direct democracy.
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 they refer to different types of votes, differing in their legal consequences. In the United States, the terms are synonymous but “plebiscite” is considered archaic.
In the United States, a referendum is also typically known as an initiative when originating in a petition of ordinary citizens, and as a referendum only if it consists of a proposal referred to voters by the legislature. A referendum can be considered a kind of election and is often referred to as such in the U.S. (an election literally means a choice). In other countries, the term election is often reserved for events in which elected representatives are chosen.
From a political philosophical perspective, referendums are an expression of direct democracy. However, in the modern world, most referendums need to be understood as an element of systems that are predominantly representative in character. As such, 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.
A referendum usually offers the electorate only two choices, either to accept or reject a proposal, but this need not necessarily be the case. In Switzerland, for example, multiple choice referendums are common; two multiple choice referendums held in Sweden, in 1957 and 1980, offered voters a choice of three options; in 1977 a referendum held in Australia to determine a new national anthem was held in which voters were presented with four choices; and in 1992, New Zealand held a five-option referendum on their electoral system.
A multiple choice referendum poses the question of how the result is to be determined if no single option receives the support of an absolute majority (more than half) of voters – a proviso for some; others regard a non-majoritarian methodology like the Borda count as more inclusive and more accurate. This question can be resolved by applying voting systems designed for single winner elections to a multiple-choice referendum.
Swiss referendums get around this problem by offering 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. The 1992 New Zealand poll was counted under the two-round system, as were polls in Newfoundland (1949) and Guam (1982), for example.
Although California does not have deliberate 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 the State’s Constitution provides a method for resolving inadvertent 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 which could be used in multi-option referendums are the Borda and Condorcet rules.
Although some advocates of direct democracy would have the referendum become the dominant institution of government, in practice and in principle, in almost all cases, the referendum exists solely as a complement to the system of representative democracy, in which most major decisions are made by an elected legislature. In most jurisdictions that practice them, referendums are relatively rare occurrences and are restricted to important issues.
Advocates of the referendum argue that certain decisions are best taken out of the hands of representatives and determined directly by the people. Some adopt a strict definition of democracy, saying elected parliaments are a necessary expedient to make governance possible in the large, modern nation-state, though direct democracy is nonetheless preferable and the referendum takes precedence over Parliamentary decisions.
Other advocates insist that the principle of popular sovereignty demands that certain foundational questions, such as the adoption or amendment of a constitution, the secession of a state or the altering of national boundaries, be determined with the directly expressed consent of the people.
Advocates of representative democracy say referendums are used by politicians to avoid making difficult or controversial decisions.