Referendums Research Paper

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The referendum allows citizens to vote on a public issue in an election at the local, subnational, or national level. The vote may be advisory or mandatory, statutory or constitutional. Most democracies have voted on a referendum, and the incidence of referendums increased in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The referendum agenda does not have a distinctive ideological slant (Butler and Ranney 1994). National and subnational referendums on matters like entry into international agreements, new constitutional arrangements, and changes in monetary systems have been frequent topics put to voters. Recently in the USA conservative issues have driven the process, but liberal concerns dominated in other decades (Magleby 1994).

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Several notable referendums from the last quarter of the twentieth century include the vote in the UK on entry into the European Economic community, the separatist votes in Quebec, the devolution votes in Scotland and Wales, the votes in several European countries on a common currency, and a growing interest in the process in the new democracies of Africa, South America, or Eastern Europe. The USA is one of the few democracies that never experimented with a national referendum, although the process has occasionally been proposed. One notable proposal for a national referendum in the USA was the failed Ludlow Amendment to the US Constitution, which would have required a national referendum before war could be declared (Magleby 1984). More recently, forms of national referendums have been proposed by former Representative Jack Kemp, among others (Kemp 1979).

Referendums can be proposed by the elected representatives and put before the voters in a special or regular election. When such referendums are optional they are called facultative (Bogdanor 1994). The popular referendum permits citizens to petition to place a law or constitutional change before the voters that has previously been enacted by the legislature.

Referendums are sometimes called plebiscites, a reflection of the early use of the process in the Greek city-states. More recently, critics of the process point to plebiscites called by Hitler and other totalitarian leaders as examples of how the process can be used for undemocratic ends. Referendums were found to be consistent with representative democracy in the USA by the Supreme Court (Pacific States Telephone and Telegraph Company s. Oregon 1912).

In their expansive review of referendums around the world, David Butler and Austin Ranney (1994) find that the subject matter of referendums falls into four main categories: constitutional issues especially after a revolution, territorial breakup, or when changes in the rules are needed; territorial issues; moral issues on matters that reflect deep divisions and which may best be resolved by a popular vote (e.g., alcoholic beverage regulation, divorce, or abortion); and finally a range of miscellaneous issues.

A more common form of citizen petitioning is the initiative process. Under the initiative, citizens may petition to place before the voters statutes (statutory initiative) or constitutional changes (constitutional initiative). As with the popular referendum, access to the ballot is based on the proponents obtaining a specified number of petition signatures. Some governments permit the direct initiative whereby petitioners go directly to the ballot, while some require the proposal to be considered by the legislature before it may go to the voters (the indirect initiative).

At the national level, the initiative process is more identified with Switzerland. Swiss cantons also use the initiative with as many as four elections per year where voters decide initiatives or referendums (Kobach 1994).

Imitating the Swiss, several American states adopted the initiative and popular referendum process— sometimes called direct legislation—shortly after the turn of the last century. As with other Progressive reforms like the direct election of US Senators and the direct primary, reformers hoped to expand the role of voters and limit the role of elected officials and intermediary institutions like political parties, legislatures, or elected executives. The United States experienced a second wave of reform during the 1970s and since; these reforms again expanded suffrage, pressed for more expansive use of direct primaries especially in presidential elections, and renewed interest in and use of initiatives and popular referendums.

In the United States, the initiative and popular referendum occur most frequently in western states (see Fig. 1). These states were in their formative political years during the peak of the movement, and this region was a stronghold for the Progressives (Price 1975). Only five states have adopted the process since the 1920s: Alaska (1956), Wyoming (1968), Illinois (1970), and Florida (1972). Since the mid-1970s, several states have considered adopting the process but only Mississippi has done so. Direct legislation is even more common at the local level in the United States, although precise counts of the numbers of jurisdictions with the process nor the extent of use do not exist.

Referendums Research Paper

As in Switzerland, the most common form of initiative and popular referendum in the USA requires voters to vote for or against specific statutes or constitutional amendments. As a result, ballot measures are lengthy and written in technical and legal language. Official summaries provided by state election officials are also written at a sophisticated level, making it difficult for voters to often obtain a simple neutral summary of the proposition (Magleby 1984). The length and complexity of the process in the USA makes the process less accessible to less educated voters, having a policy bias against the poor and racial minorities. Initiatives are preferred over popular referendums because petitions may be in circulation longer, and initiatives permit their sponsors to write the language of the measure rather than the legislature. An example of an initiative that was in effect a referendum is the 1964 vote on open housing in California (Wolfinger and Greenstein 1969).

Referendums put on the ballot by state legislatures or changes to the state constitution occur frequently. Every state except Delaware requires that changes in the state constitution be approved by voters. Voters are much more likely to vote affirmatively on these legislative referendums than they are on initiatives. More than 60 percent of legislative referendums pass while the same percent of initiatives fail (Magleby 1994).

Since the mid-1970s, the initiative has experienced renewed usage (see Fig. 2). The growth in initiative usage includes an even more dramatic increase in the number of proposed initiatives in the petition circulation process that fail to reach the ballot. Why the increase? Initiative activists have learned that the process is a powerful agenda-setting device. A vote in a single state can push an issue onto the national agenda, as votes on tax reduction, elimination of affirmative action, a nuclear weapons freeze, and legislative term limitation has demonstrated. The news media give substantial attention to contentious initiatives, calling attention to the sponsors of the measures and, in some instances, advancing political careers. California gubernatorial candidates make frequent use of the process for self-promotion and governors in noninitiative states advocate the process to establish populist credentials. The large sums of money spent on initiatives have also called attention to the renewed use of the process. Not surprisingly, an initiative industry has developed that helps with petition circulation, legal appeals, campaign management, and media advertising. The process has become an integral part of the governance of several states, most notably California (Schrag 1998).

Referendums Research Paper

Absent from the initiative process are the normal checks and balances of the US political system. There is no bicameral check except for Nevada’s requirement that constitutional initiatives must pass in identical form in two consecutive elections. There is no gubernatorial veto, no hearing process, and no ability to amend or modify. The only institutional check on the initiative is the courts. Judicial review of initiatives occurs often before the election on matters having to do with signature collection, ballot title, and summary, and whether the initiative contains more than one subject. Postelection judicial review is more concerned with constitutionality, and federal courts have not been timid about overturning the people’s votes. State courts, like the California Supreme Court, faced a voter backlash in the 1980s because of the frequency with which that court had declared initiatives unconstitutional.

With the growth in democracy around the world, there has followed renewed interest in referendum devices as a mode of popular consultation. Indeed, some analysts point to a coming clash between direct and representative democracy in the USA, in part precipitated by technology (Broder 2000). States like Oregon have experimented with statewide referendums entirely with mail balloting and some see the Internet as a way to facilitate frequent referendum voting (Becker and Slaton 2000).

As the process has grown in importance, so has research on it. Much of the research focuses on voter decision making in the absence of party cues. Ideology and elite cues are important to voting in this context (Magleby 1984, Lupia 1994). Other research has focused on the role of consultants in the process, finding that these campaign professionals find the process more lucrative than candidate elections, and prefer it because it gives them greater creative license and means they can avoid the problems associated with candidate scandals and intrusive spouses (Magleby and Patterson 2000).

Another expanding research emphasis is the policy consequences of initiatives. Scores of books have been written on the impact of California’s Proposition 13 property tax reduction and similar measures in other states (Sears and Citrin 1985, O’Sullivan et al. 1995). Other books examine the policy and institutional implication of the process (Gerber et al. 2001).

One major methodological challenge to researchers is the lack of a centralized database on local initiatives. Administration of local elections is left to counties and rarely are records kept for more than a few years. Given the large number of counties and the frequency of referendums at the local level, the task of assembling this database has proven difficult.

Given the likely ease of electronic referendum voting, research on how voters behave in this environment will be important. Do electronic voting schemes limit some voters’ ability to participate? Would voting electronically further disenfranchise poor and less educated voters from a process that they already find difficult to navigate?


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  13. Pacific States Telephone and Telegraph Company vs. Oregon 233 US 118 (1912)
  14. Price C M 1975 The initiative: A comparative state analysis and reassessment of a western phenomenon. Western Political Quarterly 28: 243–62
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  17. Wolfinger R E, Greenstein F I 1969 The repeal of fair housing in California: An analysis of referendum voting. American Political Science Review 63: 755
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