The Encyclopedia of Democracy

Authors: Lipset
Summary: In about 1000 words, this entry defines referendum and initiative, discusses their development, and explores four types of referendums and their implications.
The entry defines referendum and initiative as tools for consulting citizens on particular issues. The referendum is a question put to a popular vote and the initiative is a referendum introduced by citizens, usually after obtaining signatures on a petition. These devices were used by the ancient Greeks, and many national and state constitutions today retain them, particularly the referendum. In the United States, for example, the Progressive era reforms of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries prompted many states to amend their constitutions by adding referendum provisions.
Approximately 1000 national-level referendums have occurred throughout recorded history, and about half of these took place in Switzerland. Governments generally hold referendums when they are confident of the answer, but occasionally referendums are used to avoid a party split. Referendums' procedural requirements vary from one political system to another, but they all share a common goal--citizen consultation.
National referendums fall into four substantive categories: constitutional, territorial, moral, and other policy issues. Referendums addressing constitutional reforms are the most significant ones, but those dealing with territorial changes are also important. Policy referendums are popular, particularly at the American state level, but their effect is not as far-reaching as those referendums addressing constitutional or territorial issues. The entry provides interesting examples of each of the four types.
Referendums are not radical instruments because the 'establishment' view, even if it receives less financial support, generally prevails. They are usually used to solve particular problems and garner popular acceptance. Referendums can be and have been abused by some dictatorial regimes, but on the whole they are an accepted and expected way of political life.