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Referendums: A Tool for Unity or Division?

Introduction 

Elisa’s school has proposed implementing Meatless Mondays in the cafeteria. Elisa recently did a research project on the negative impacts that meat production has on the environment, so she supports the proposed change. In two weeks, every student in the school will be given a ballot with one simple question: “Do you want the cafeteria to serve meat-free meals every Monday? Check Yes or No”. Knowing that she has limited time, Elisa gets to work on a campaign to educate the student body on why they should support this idea. 

Explanation

The students at Elisa’s school are participating in a process known as a referendum, where people vote directly about a particular issue.

Referendum

A referendum is a direct process through which people can vote on a particular issue. Referendums can either be requested by the public or initiated by the government. The people can ask for a referendum through petitions. The petition needs to receive a certain number of signatures for the government to initiate the referendum. The government can also choose to hold a referendum on an issue. Usually, the people can respond with a simple “yes” or “no” to the question at hand. The side that receives the majority of votes prevails. 

The History

A referendum is a tool of direct democracy. Instead of representative democracies, where decisions are made through elected leaders, in direct democracies, the people have the power to vote on issues through referendums. The history of direct democracy goes back to the Athenian democracy in the 5th century BCE, where citizens participated in assemblies, councils, and courts. 

The first known referendum took place in Switzerland in the 13th century with a show of hands. Since 1848, Switzerland, the world’s only direct democracy, has held more than 500 referendums, more than any other country. Nationally, the United States doesn’t allow referendums. However, many states, such as California, have provisions for referendums. A 1978 referendum in the state resulted in an amendment to the Constitution of California, called Proposition 13, decreasing property taxes. Many European countries have also held referendums. Brexit, in 2016, and the Greek referendum on the European Deal, in 2015, are some recent examples.

Referendums can be either obligatory or optional. Obligatory referendums are set up for specific legislative actions where the change only gets implemented after the people have voted on it. Constitutional amendments fall under obligatory referendums in many American states. Under an optional referendum, a certain number of petitions are required for a vote to take place on a political issue.

Applying It

Supporters see referendums as a tool for putting power in the hands of the people, holding lawmakers accountable, and strengthening democracy. They can encourage productive discussions among people, getting citizens more involved in the decision-making process. In the example of Elisa’s school, students influenced the vote’s outcome by educating their classmates about the pros and cons of switching to Meatless Mondays. More public awareness regarding politics leads to effective, albeit polarizing, decisions. 

However, issues that divide political leaders can be heightened through referendums. Referendum questions are typically ‘yes’ and ‘no’ choices, so there is little room for nuance. Referendums may split the population and polarize the country. This split may leave the losing side bitter, creating more unrest in society.

One recent referendum that gained international media attention was the Brexit referendum in 2016. 52% of voters opted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, while 48% voted to remain. This referendum polarized British society and government. It also drew attention to how incomplete or biased information provided by the media and politicians can influence public opinion. 

Referendums are powerful tools available to the public in a democracy, but over-reliance on them can increase polarization. Voters need to be aware of their powers to hold governments accountable while also being wary of biased and prejudiced information aimed at swaying outcomes in referendums.

Think Further

  1. Should referendums be mandatory on every major legislative decision made by the government?
  2. How can the government make sure that the public makes its decision during the referendum on complete and unbiased information?
  3. Under the backdrop of the rising popularity of referendums, is there a need for representative democracies?

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  1. Bale, Tim. “Elections, voting, and referendums.” in European Politics a Comparative Introduction. London: Macmillan Education, 2017, 217
  2. Goodman, Jack. “A Brief History of the Referendum.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 1 July 2016, www.atlasobscura.com/articles/a-brief-history-of-the-referendum.
  3. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Referendum and Initiative.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 7 Oct. 2019, www.britannica.com/topic/referendum.