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Critically discuss the pros and cons of using referendums to make decisions in a democracy.


The term democracy is perhaps the most challenging to define within the context of political science. Even though it has been used in a general sense to refer to 'rule by the people', the ways in which the concept has been understood and in turn implemented, has been many varied. One defining source suggests that democracy is "a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people an exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system". Similar definitions describe democracy as "a government in which the people have a voice in the exercise of power, typically through representatives "(Oxford, 1999) and in so doing minimise the importance of civil liberties and the power of the people outside of the regular election process.

            In light of the foregoing, one acknowledges that different ideas about what 'true democracy' is may lead to different forms of democracy.  A democracy may thus be Representative where political participation is limited to voting over an agreed period of time and elected officials then represent the interest of their constituents.  It may also be the Participatory type in which voting is limited to a specific time period, but allowance is also made for the population to participate actively in the affairs of the state at national and local levels in between these periods. Alternatively, a Direct Democracy may be in effect whereby the participation of citizens in the voting process and the control which they have over those chosen to represent them holds much weight.

            Of interest is the participatory or direct form of democracy particularly as it concerns the use of practices, which seek to involve popular discussion. One such noteworthy measure is a referendum. This is the "means whereby a bill or constitutional amendment which has been voted by the legislature is submitted to the electorate for its approval before going into effect".  It gives individuals of a nation the freedom and to vote on specific issues of concern to them and it is in this respect that the "power of the people" is strongest. In recognition of that fact "many democracies that would not accept regular use of referendums do use them for decisions of great gravity, where it is felt that all the people should be involved in the decision, if only by voting"(156; Shively, W. Phillips). 

            David Butler in commenting on referendum use around the world suggests that there are two types of referendums: "advisory or mandatory". Advisory referendums are comparable to opinion polls on a significant issue with the exception that the "verdict can be transmitted into law or policy"(1). Conversely, a referendum may be a part of a statutory process and as such a popular YES vote is needed to effect any change in the law or constitution.

            Referendums over the years have been used to decide issues of a constitutional nature, territorial issues, moral issues and other issues usually apolitical.  The effect of referendums therefore is far reaching, as they are able to provide legitimacy for a government; settle border issues; decide on laws governing alcohol, divorce and abortion; and even decide on whether to adopt Daylight Saving Time.

            Regardless of its use governments the world over have not underestimated the powerful effect of referendums. Such attention however, leaves its use open to much praise and considerable criticism.  Advocates of referendum use, point to the benefits of involving and ideally educating citizens in the political process above and beyond elections as well as the fact that as a forum for the expression of popular will, referendums presumably provide decisive answers to issues.  An additional positive factor in the use of referendums is it's stimulation of interest in politics, in contrast to the prevailing apathy and mistrust of the government, politicians and the political process; as persons would actually have a say in decision-making.

            Negative perceptions of referendums arise from the following misconceptions:

a) Referendums are habit forming

b) Referendums are normally decided by a close vote

c) Referendums are instruments for radical change

            The public likes referendums. Opponents of the practice say that referendums are inherently divisive, cleaving a society into two (2) camps: yes or no.  As a result the exercise in winning over votes often takes precedence over educating citizens about issues at hand.  Further, they say that the environments in which referendums are used are characterised by appeals to emotion, sloganeering and fear tactics.  Other objections concern the idea that modern issues are too complex to be effectively answered with yes or no, rather, there is a need for substantial debate and compromise.  Perhaps the strongest of contentions come from the idea that referendums undermine the power which people already give to their elected representatives.

            The job of a government is necessarily long term. It is right that once the people have given it a mandate it should be able to carry out legislation with long-term aims. Often good legislation is unpopular at first, but effective and popular in the long run. Such legislation would never survive a referendum. It is only fair that the government is given a chance to see if its legislation does indeed work. The people can then vote the government out of office if it fails. Likewise it is government’s job to lead and not to follow, especially on social legislation. Although the vast majority of UK citizens are now in favour of the legalisation of homosexuality, the opposite was true when it was legalised. This approach is justified because parliamentarians are representatives not delegates (as famously pointed out by Burke to the electors of Bristol in 1776) and can do what they think is best for the people even if that does not meet the people’s wishes.

It is possible to avoid freakish results by only allowing a referendum to be valid if a certain percentage of the population votes, say 30%.

            If there is no turnout threshold for a referendum to be valid then freakish results occur. If the threshold is too high then no referendum will ever be valid!

            People are currently bored with politics. The last thing they want is more votes. This will only lead to greater overall apathy and even lower turnout in general elections. California is a classic example of frequent referendums failing to ignite any noticeable interest among its people.

            There would clearly need to be an independent body to oversee referendums and set the question - this is easily possible. It could be done by the same authority as oversee general elections and in almost all democracies these authorities are acknowledged by all as fair and unbiased.

            Referendums are very artificial. The government can control the timing, which is a key factor in deciding who wins. The media, by playing an irresponsible role, can further distort the result. Furthermore, how should the all-important wording of the question decided upon? Referendums are also very expensive and a huge waste of money.

            Many countries have two or three party systems in which there is no spread of opinion between these parties. Consequently, large sectors of the public find their views unrepresented. Referendums will remedy this.