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A referendum (also known as a plebiscite or 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, a law, the recall of an elected official or simply a specific government policy. It is a form of direct democracy. The measure put to a vote is known in the U.S. as a ballot proposition or measure.
The word plebiscite comes from the Latin plebiscita, which originally meant a decree of the Concilium Plebis, the popular assembly of the Roman Republic. Referendums and referenda are both commonly used as plurals of referendum. However, the use of referenda is deprecated by the Oxford English Dictionary, which advises that:
|“||Referendums is logically preferable as a plural form meaning ballots on one issue (as a Latin gerund, referendum has no plural). The Latin plural gerundive referenda, meaning things to be referred, necessarily connotes a plurality of issues.||”|
In the United States a plebiscite is 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 plebiscite 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.
In a first classification by necessity, a referendum may be mandatory, that is, the law (usually the constitution) directs authorities to holding referendums on specific matters (such is the case in amending most constitutions, or impeaching heads of state as well as ratifying international treaties) and are usually binding. A referendum can also be facultative, that is it can be initiated at the will of a public authority (President of the Republic in France and Romania or the Government/Parliament in Greece or Spain) or at the will of the citizens (a petition). It can be binding or non-binding.
A foundational referendum or plebiscite may be drafted by a constituent assembly before being put to voters. In other circumstances a referendum is usually initiated either by a legislature or by citizens themselves by means of a petition. The process of initiating a referendum by petition is known as the popular or citizens initiative. In the United States the term referendum is often reserved for a direct vote initiated by a legislature while a vote originating in a petition of citizens is referred to as an "initiative", "ballot measure" or "proposition."
In countries in which a referendum must be initiated by parliament, it is sometimes mandatory to hold a binding referendum on certain proposals, such as constitutional amendments. In countries, such as the United Kingdom, in which referendums are neither mandatory nor binding there may, nonetheless, exist an unwritten convention that certain important constitutional changes will be put to a referendum and that the result will be respected.
By nature of their effects, referendums may be either binding or non-binding. A non-binding referendum is merely consultative or advisory. It is left to the government or legislature to interpret the results of a non-binding referendum and it may even choose to ignore them. This is particularly the case in states that follow Westminster conventions of parliamentary sovereignty. In New Zealand, for example, citizen-initiated referendum (CIR) questions are broad statements of intent, not detailed laws. Following a referendum vote, parliament itself has the sole power to draft, debate and pass enabling legislation if it so chooses, and thus far, New Zealand governments have chosen to ignore completely two of the three proposals that have succeeded in forcing a vote since the CIR device was created in 1993. The third, a series of proposals about criminal justice, prompted some minor reforms only; it too was largely ignored. Matt Qvortrup in his 'Supply-side Politihics' (Centre for Policy Studies 2007) argues that this led to a disuse of the New Zealand device. While three petitions were launched in 2007, there was only one in 2004 and 2005, and none in 2006 and 2008 thus far. Only one of these have yet achieved the necessary signature target to force a vote, the overwhelming result (87% opposed) of which was largely ignored by the government. However, according to the New Zealand Election Study , 77 percent of voters believe that the citizen initiated referendum make the politicians more accountable. Trust in politicians has grown by almost 20 percent since the introduction of the device, although that can be more plausibly attributed to the change in electoral system that occurred at the same time.
In most referendums it is sufficient for a measure to be approved by a simple majority of voters in order for it to be carried. However, a referendum may also require the support of a super-majority, such as two-thirds of votes cast. In Lithuania certain proposals must be endorsed by a three-quarters majority (among them, any proposal to amend article 148 of the Lithuanian Constitution, which states, "Lithuania is an independent and democratic republic").
In some countries, including Italy, there is also a requirement that there be a certain minimum turn-out of the electorate in order for the result of a referendum to be considered valid. This is intended to ensure that the result is representative of the will of the electorate and is analogous to the quorum required in a committee or legislature.
The franchise in a referendum is not necessarily the same as that for elections. For example, in Ireland, only citizens may vote in a constitutional referendum, whereas citizens of the United Kingdom are also entitled to vote in general elections.
Approval in a referendum is necessary in order to amend the Australian constitution. A bill must first be passed by both houses of Parliament or, in certain limited circumstances, by only one house of Parliament, and is then submitted to a referendum. If a majority of those voting, as well as separate majorities in each of a majority of states, (and where appropriate a majority of people in any affected state) vote in favour of the amendment, it is presented for Royal Assent, given in the Queen's name by the Governor-General. Due to the specific mention of referendums in the Australian constitution, non-constitutional referendums are usually termed plebiscites in Australia.
Referenda are rare in Canada and only three have ever occurred at the federal level. The most recent was a referendum in 1992 on a package of proposed constitutional measures known as the Charlottetown Accord. Although the Constitution of Canada does not expressly require that amendments be approved by referendum, some argue that, in light of the precedent set by the Charlottetown Accord referendum, this may have become a constitutional convention.
A referendum can also occur at the provincial level. The 1980 and 1995 referendums on the secession of Québec are notable cases. In conjunction with the provincial election in 2007, the province of Ontario voted on a mixed-member proportional representation electoral system and British Columbia held two consecutive referendums on BC-STV in 2005 and 2009.
There have been three plebiscites and one "consultation" in Chilean history. In 1925, a plebiscite was held over a new constitution that would replace a semi-parliamentary system with a presidential one. The "Yes" vote won overwhelmingly, with 95% of the vote. In 1978, after the United Nations protested against Pinochet's régime, the country's military government held a national consultation, which asked if people supported Pinochet's rule. The "Yes" vote won with 74%, although the results have been questioned. Another constitutional plebiscite was held in 1980. The "Yes" won with 68.5%, prolonging Pinochet's term until 1989 and replacing the 1925 Constitution with a new one still used today. The results of this plebiscite have also been questioned by Pinochet's opponents. In a historical plebiscite held in 1988, 56% voted to end the military régime. The next year, yet another plebiscite was held for constitutional changes for the transition to a democratic government (the "Yes" vote won with 91%). There have been several referendums in individual municipalities in Chile since the return to civilian rule in 1990. A referendum, which took place on 2006 in Las Condes, over the construction of a mall was noteworthy for being the first instance in Chilean history where electronic voting machines were used.
October 7, 2007 the first referendum held in Costa Rica was to approve or reject a free trade agreement with Central America, Dominican Republic (Costa Rica already has FTAs with the latter) and the United States known as DR-CAFTA, it was approved by a minimum number of votes (49.030 votes). Results were 51.62% voted in favour and 48.38% against it. It is currently the only FTA in the world that has been approved on a referendum.
In Denmark, referendums are held every time new treaties of the European Union have to be approved. 1/6 of the parliamentary members can force a referendum in certain cases, 1/3 in all cases. Because Denmark has a multi party system, this has happened. However, it has been the norm to hold a referendum with every new EU treaty, even when a 5/6 majority can be found. Recently, the Danish government was highly criticized when it did not hold a referendum regarding the Lisbon treaty.
The current Constitution of Iraq was approved by referendum on 15 October 2005, two years after the United States-led invasion. The constitution was designed to shift crucial decisions about government, the judiciary and human rights to a future national assembly. It was later modified to provide for the establishment of a committee by the parliament to be elected in December 2005 to consider changes to the constitution in 2006.
The current Constitution of Ireland was adopted by plebiscite on 1 July 1937. In Ireland, every constitutional amendment must be approved by referendum; 30 such referendums have occurred so far (from the enactment of the current constitution to the end of 2009). Constitutional amendments are first adopted by both Houses of the Oireachtas (parliament), submitted to a referendum, and are signed into law by the President. The role of the president is merely ceremonial: she cannot refuse to sign into law an amendment that has been approved in a referendum. The constitution also provides for a referendum on an ordinary law, known as an 'ordinary referendum'. Such a referendum can take place only under special circumstances, and none have yet occurred. The closest referendum result was 1995's vote to legalise divorce - 50.3% voted "Yes" (to legalise divorce) and 49.7% voted "No."
The constitution of Italy provides for two kinds of binding referendum: A legislative referendum can be called in order to abrogate a law totally or partially, if requested by 500,000 electors or five regional councils. This kind of referendum is valid only if at least a majority of electors goes to the polling station. It is forbidden to call a referendum regarding financial laws or laws relating to pardons or the ratification of international treaties.
A constitutional referendum can be called in order to approve a constitutional law or amendment only when it has been approved by the Chambers (Chamber of Deputies and Senate of the Republic) with a majority of less than two thirds in both or either Chamber, and only at the request of one fifth of the members of either Chamber, or 500,000 electors or five regional councils. A constitutional referendum is valid no matter how many electors go to the polling station. Any citizen entitled to vote in an election to the Chamber of Deputies may participate in a referendum.
In principle, national referendums in the Netherlands are not possible by law. However, from 2002 until 2005, there was a Temporary Referendum Law in place, which allowed for non-binding referendums, known in Dutch as Volksraadpleging ("People's Consultation"), to be organised for laws already approved by the House of Representatives. No referendum was called based on this law. In order to hold the 2005 referendum on the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, a different law was temporarily put in place. That referendum was the first national referendum in the Netherlands in 200 years and it was the result of an initiative proposal by parliamentarians Farah Karimi (Greens), Niesco Dubbelboer (Labour) and Boris van der Ham (Democrats).
New Zealand has two types of referendum. Government referendums are predominantly either about constitutional issues or alcohol policy (although this has been phased out). There are referendums on other issues, however. Furthermore, constitutional issues, such as the establishment of the Supreme Court of New Zealand, need not be done through referendum. New Zealand also has provision for citizens-initiated referendums, although these are non-binding. The Prime Minister, John Key, has said he will work to raise the number of times referendums are used.
Under the Romanian Constitution of 1991, revised in 2003, there are three situations in which referendums can be held. Article 90 of the Constitution establishes a facultative and non-binding referendum, which the President can initiate on matters of principle. Article 95 establishes a mandatory and binding referendum for the impeachment of the President in case he is deemed guilty of disobeying the Constitution. Article 151 also establishes a mandatory and binding referendum on approving Constitutional amendments. This last provision has been used twice: in adopting the Romanian Constitution in 1991, and amending it in 2003.
The Constitution of the Republic of Serbia was adopted on a referendum held in 28-29 October 2006. The constitutional referendum passed with 3,521,724 voting a 53.04% majority. 3,645,517 or 54.91% voted on the referendum, which made it legitimate.
According to the Constitution of Singapore, a referendum can be held in a few circumstances, including situations when a constitutional amendment passed by the Parliament is rejected by the President, or when the nation's sovereignty needs to be decided (i.e. merger or incorporation into other countries). There has been only one referendum in Singapore to date, which is the 1962 national referendum, deciding on the merger of Singapore into Malaysia. Singapore eventually left Malaysia and declared independence, which had on been an option in the original refendum, on 9 August 1965.
The Constitution of Sweden provides for both binding and non-binding referendums. Since the introduction of parliamentary democracy, six referendums have been held: the first was about alcohol prohibition in 1922, and the most recent was about euro membership in 2003. All have been non-binding, consultative referendums. Two, in 1957 and 1980, were multiple-choice referendums.
In Switzerland, there are binding referendums at federal, cantonal and municipal level. They are a central feature of Swiss political life. It is not the government's choice whether or when a referendum is held, but it is a legal procedure regulated by the Swiss constitution. There are two types of referendums:
The possibility of facultative referendums forces the parliament to search for a compromise between the major interest groups. In many cases, the mere threat of a facultative referendum or of an initiative is enough to make the parliament adjust a law.
The referendums are said, by their adversaries, to slow politics down. On the other hand, empirical scientists, e.g. Bruno S. Frey among many, show that this and other instruments of citizens' participation, direct democracy, contribute to stability and happiness.
The votes on referendums are always held on a Sunday, typically three or four times a year, and in most cases, the votes concern several referendums at the same time, often at different political levels (federal, cantonal, municipal). Referendums are also often combined with elections. The percentage of voters is around 40% to 50%, unless there is an election. The decisions made in referendums tend to be conservative. Citizens' initiatives are usually not passed. The federal rule and referendums have been used in Switzerland since 1848.
Although Acts of Parliament may permit referendums to take place, the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty means any Act of Parliament giving effect to a referendum result could be reversed by a subsequent Act of Parliament. As a result, referendums in the United Kingdom cannot be constitutionally binding, although they will usually have a persuasive political effect.
Referendums are rare; the only referendum to be put to the entire UK electorate was the United Kingdom European Communities membership referendum, 1975, which was held two years after British accession to the European Economic Community to gauge support for continued membership. Referendums have been held in individual parts of the United Kingdom on issues relating to devolution in Scotland and Wales, an elected Mayor of London and a Greater London Authority for Greater London, a regional assembly for the North-East of England and the constitutional status and governance of Northern Ireland. Since 1973, the year of the first such plebiscite, there have been nine major referendums.
In 2004, Her Majesty's Government promised a UK-wide referendum on the new European Constitution, but this was postponed in 2005 following the defeats of the French and Dutch referendums. Due to the replacement of the European Constitution with the substantially similar Treaty of Lisbon, the government declared that the document was no longer a European Constitution, and so did not merit a referendum. Referendums have also been proposed, but not held, on the replacement of the pound sterling with the euro as the currency of the United Kingdom, and on changing the 'First Past the Post' system to an alternative electoral system, such as proportional representation. The present Scottish Government, a Scottish National Party administration, wishes to hold a referendum on Scottish Independence in 2010. Since it is only a minority government, it remains unclear whether a referendum will happen.
At the local level, the Government has put proposals for directly-elected mayors to several towns by referendum. The 1972 Local Government Act also contains a little-used provision that allows non-binding local referendums on any issue to be called by small groups of voters. Strathclyde Regional Council held a postal referendum in 1994 on whether control of water and sewerage services should be transferred to appointed boards: this was largely a political tactic, since this was the policy of the UK Government at the time. The UK Parliament enacted the legislation anyway, and it came into force on 1 April 1996.
In the United States, the term "referendum" typically refers to a popular vote originated in the legislative branch of the government to overturn legislation already passed at the state or local levels (mainly in the western United States). In industrial cities and regions, it refers to internal, union organization in terms of electing delegates or approving a collective bargaining agreement. By contrast, "initiatives" and "legislative referrals" consist of newly drafted legislation submitted directly to a popular vote as an alternative to adoption by a legislature. Collectively, referendums and initiatives in the United States are commonly referred to as ballot measures, initiatives, or propositions.
There is no provision for the holding of referendums at the federal level in the United States; indeed, there is no national electorate of any kind. The United States constitution does not provide for referendums at the federal level. A constitutional amendment would be required to allow it. However, the constitutions of 24 states (principally in the West) and many local and city governments provide for referendums and citizen's initiatives. The most famous U.S. state initiatives are probably California's Proposition 13, which severely limited property taxes, and the Massachusetts equivalent from 1980, Proposition 2½, which severely limited income tax increases. They are especially popular in modifying state constitutions.
The Uruguayan constitution allows citizens to challenge laws approved by Parliament by use of a referendum or to propose changes to the Constitution by the use of a plebiscite. This right has been used a few times in the past 15 years: to confirm an amnesty to members of the military who violated human rights during the military regime (1973-1985), to stop privatization of public utilities companies, to defend pensioners' incomes, and to protect water resources.
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; and in 1977 a referendum held in Australia to determine a new national anthem was held in which voters were presented with four choices.
A multiple choice referendum poses the problem of how the result is to be determined if no single option receives the support of an absolute majority (i.e., more than half) of voters. This 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.
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 - ie, the proposition with the most "yes" votes prevails over the others to the extent of any conflict.
Eleanor Roosevelt et al. wrote after the Nazi- Holocaust, WWII a Human Rights Declaration, passed into Law 10.12.1948, where Direct Democracy (Referendum) is part of. See: Article 21: "1. Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives."
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. An often cited exception is the Swiss canton of Glarus, in which meetings are held on the village lawn to decide on matters of public concern. 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.
Critics of the referendum argue that voters in a referendum are more likely driven by transient whims than careful deliberation, or that they are not sufficiently informed to make decisions on complicated or technical issues. Also, voters might be swayed by strong personalities, propaganda 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, used the plebiscite to disguise oppressive policies as populism. Hitler's use of the plebiscite is argued as reason why, since World War II, there has been no provision in Germany for the holding of referendums at the federal level.
British politician Chris Patten summarized many of the arguments used by those who oppose the referendum in an interview in 2003 when discussing the possibility of a referendum in the United Kingdom on the European Union Constitution:
|“||I think referendums are awful. They were the favourite form of plebiscitary democracy of Mussolini and Hitler. They undermine Westminster [parliament]. What they ensure, as we saw in the last election, is if you have a referendum on an issue politicians, during an election campaign, say oh we're not going to talk about that, we don't need to talk about that, that's all for the referendum. So during the last election campaign the Euro was hardly debated. I think referendums are fundamentally anti-democratic in our system and I wouldn't have anything to do with them. On the whole, governments only concede them when governments are weak. (BBC, 2004)||”|
A further perceived flaw of the referendum is that, in some circumstances, the democratic spirit of the referendum may be flouted by the repeated submission to the referendum of a proposal until it is eventually endorsed, perhaps due to a low turn-out or public fatigue with the issue. This is especially a problem where a proposal may be difficult to reverse, such as secession from a larger country or the abolition of a monarchy. The repeated holding of a referendum on a single issue has been pejoratively referred to as a "never-end-um".
Many critics of the EU point to the Treaty of Nice's ratification procedure in Ireland, where the government submitted the Treaty to a referendum twice, getting the required "Yes" vote on the second attempt. However such critics fail to mention the neutrality clause added at the second referendum, which helped allay fears which led the electorate to vote "No" the first time.
Some critics of the referendum attack the use of closed questions. A difficulty which can plague a referendum of two issues or more is called the separability problem. 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 that is displeasing to most.
Several commentators have noted that the use of citizens' initiatives to amend constitutions has so tied the government to a mishmash of popular demands as to render the government unworkable. The Economist has made this point about the US State of California, which has passed so many referendums restricting the ability of the state government to tax the people and pass the budget that the state has become effectively ungovernable. Calls for an entirely new California constitution have been made.
In Steven Spielberg's 2002 film Minority Report, a referendum is held on 22 April 2054 on whether people should be arrested and judged for a murder they will commit in the future reported by people with pre-cognitive powers.
|National referendums on the
|France||No (55% of 69%)|
|Luxembourg||Yes (57% of 88%)|
|Netherlands||No (62% of 63%)|
|Spain||Yes (77% of 42%)|
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