The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Science

Authors: Bogdanor
Summary: This entry, in approximately 1200 words, defines referendum, briefly explains its origin and history, distinguishes the referendum from the initiative and popular veto, and concludes by discussing the relationship between the referendum and initiative and representative institutions.
The referendum is "a device of direct democracy" which allows the electorate to express its collective opinion about some public issue in a particular way. A referendums is usually called a plebiscite when the issue involves a transfer of sovereignty or power.
Referendum's modern roots come from sixteenth-century Switzerland, when Swiss Assembly delegates were required to consult their constituents on important issues. During the late 1700s, the referendum was used for constitutional ratification in the United States. It was also used in France after the French Revolution. Currently, almost every democracy worldwide uses the referendum at either the national or sub-national level, but in most countries the device is used infrequently.
There are a couple different kinds of referendums, as well as two other instruments of direct democracy distinguishable from the referendum. The constitutional referendum requires that any constitutional amendment be referred to the electorate. Similarly, referendums may be required for some legislative measures and they may also be called at the government's discretion. The petition referendum, also called the popular veto, allows a referendum on a particular law when demanded by a specific number of registered electors. Finally, the initiative enables a specified percentage of voters to require a particular proposal be put to a popular vote.
The referendum allows the voter to share power with the legislature. The initiative, on the other hand, is intended to allow voters to jump in where the legislature has failed to act. In this way, the referendum and initiative do not replace representative institutions, but rather these devices bolster the institutions when they do not work effectively.