A referendum refers to the procedure of placing before the electorate a particular piece of legislation for approval or rejection. Following approval by a predetermined majority, the measure, unless otherwise stipulated, becomes law. Not utilized by all states, referenda were initially established as a means of preserving direct citizen influence over the legislative process. Emerging during the Progressive era of American politics, referenda provided the electorate a means for challenging activities on behalf of state legislatures. Although referenda, like initiatives, represent one of the ingredients of direct democracy along with recall elections, referenda are placed on the ballot for voter approval following acts of the legislature rather than prior to such actions. However, like initiatives and recalls, provisions relating to referenda are determined on a state-by-state basis as authorized by state constitutions.
The sources or types of referenda employed by states are generally considered to fall within four broad categories. The constitutional referendum calls for voters to approve an amendment to the state constitution that has been passed by the legislature in order for the measure to take effect. The constitutionally mandated, or general, referendum requires voter approval of particular legislative proposals deemed necessary by the state constitution. Legislative referenda, in contrast to the general referendum, involve legislatures purposefully placing measures on the ballot for voter approval. Finally, petition referenda involve voters petitioning the legislature to place measures that have been passed by the legislature on the ballot for electoral approval prior to becoming law.
Because referenda provide a means for addressing politically controversial issues, they are subject to considerable influence from external groups. The electorate lacks traditional voting cues relating to ideology or partisanship in referenda voting, leading to intense and highly competitive campaigns on behalf of special interest groups. Ultimately, the mobilization and financial capabilities of pressure groups determine the success of referenda. In general, exorbitant spending contributes to the defeat of referenda, while broad-based support is vital to the success of referenda. Nevertheless, referenda, like other elements of direct democracy, provide for direct legislative and policy-making authority on behalf of the electorate.
Elisabeth R. Gerber, The Populist Paradox: Interest Group Influence and the Promise of Direct Legislation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999); David B. Maleby, Direct Legislation: Voting on Ballot Predispositions in the United States (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984); and Joseph F. Zimmerman, The Referendum: The People Decide Public Policy (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001).
Christopher W. Larimer
Last Updated: 2006