A referendum (plural referendums, see below) is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is asked to vote on a particular proposal. This may result in the adoption of a new law. In some countries it is synonymous with a plebiscite or a vote on a ballot question.
- Etymology and plural form
- Earliest usage
- Referendums by country
- Multiple choice referendums
- Criticism of populist aspect
- Pattens criticism
- Closed questions and the separability problem
- Undue limitations on regular government power
Some definitions of 'plebiscite' suggest that it is a type of vote to change the constitution or government of a country. However, some other countries define it differently. For example, Australia defines 'referendum' as a vote to change the constitution, and 'plebiscite' as a vote that does not affect the constitution. In Ireland, the vote to adopt its constitution was called a "plebiscite", but a subsequent vote to amend the constitution is called a 'referendum', and so is a poll of the electorate on a non-constitutional bill.
Etymology and plural form
'Referendum' is the gerundive form of the Latin verb refero, literally "to carry back" (from the verb fero, "to bear, bring, carry" plus the inseparable preposition re-, here meaning "back".) As a gerundive is an adjective, not a noun, it cannot be used alone in Latin and must be contained within a context attached to a noun such as Propositum qui 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 thus not a strictly grammatical usage of a foreign word, but is rather a freshly coined English noun, which therefore 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 thus insupportable according to the rules of both Latin and English grammar alike. 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:
"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".
Compare also: Agenda "those matters which must be driven forward", from ago, to drive (cattle, etc.); Memorandum, "that matter which must be remembered", from memoro, to call to mind, etc.
The name and use of the 'referendum' is thought to have originated in the Swiss canton of Graubünden as early as the 16th century.
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. For example, Australia defines 'referendum' as a vote to change the constitution, and 'plebiscite' as a vote that does not affect the constitution. In contrast, Ireland has only ever held one plebiscite, which was the vote to adopt its constitution, and every other vote has been called a referendum. Plebiscite has also been used to denote a non-binding vote count such as the one held by Nazi Germany to 'approve' in retrospect the so-called Anschluss with Austria, the question being not 'Do you permit?' but rather 'Do you approve?' of that which has most definitely already occurred. This is in line with Eamon De Valera's oft stated belief that 'the people do not have the right to do wrong' which in this context means to reject his new Eire constitution.
The term referendum covers a variety of different meanings. A referendum can be binding or advisory. In some countries, different names are used for these two types of referendum.
Referendums can be further classified by who initiates them: mandatory referendums prescribed by law, voluntary referendums initiated by the legislature or government, and referendums initiated by citizens.
From a political-philosophical perspective, referendums are an expression of direct democracy. However, in the modern world, most referendums need to be understood within the context of representative democracy. Therefore, 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.
Referendums by country
Since the end of the 18th century, hundreds of national referendums have been organised in the world; almost 600 national votes were held in Switzerland since its inauguration as a modern state in 1848. Australia ranked second with dozens of referendums.
A referendum usually offers the electorate a choice of accepting or rejecting a proposal, but this is not necessarily the case. In Switzerland, for example, multiple choice referendums are common. Two multiple choice referendums held in Sweden, in 1957 and in 1980, offered voters three options; in 1977, a referendum held in Australia to determine a new national anthem was held in which voters had 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 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.
Another voting system that could be used in multiple-choice referendum is the Condorcet rule.
Criticism of populist aspect
Critics of the referendum argue 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. 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, 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 Benito Mussolini in 1934, Adolf Hitler in 1936, Ferdinand Marcos in 1973, Park Chung-hee in 1972 and Francisco Franco in 1947. Hitler's use of plebiscites is argued as the 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. The late and great Julian Critchley used to say that, not very surprisingly, they were the favourite form of plebiscitary democracy of Mussolini and Hitler. They undermine Westminster. What they ensure, as we saw in the last election, is that 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.
Closed questions and the separability problem
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.
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 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 Californian constitution have been made.