Referendums are regularly used in a few countries - notably in Switzerland and the USA - but they are increasingly used on occasion in other countries. A referendum (or plebiscite), in contrast to the bottom-up initiative and recall, is a general vote on a specific proposal originating from the political authorities and as such, as Kriesi points out in this volume, it is a way of concluding debates among political elites. In contrast, initiatives and recalls start discussion and help to set agendas.
Although some believe that referendums are one of the most important forms of direct democracy (e.g. Barber 1984), especially if electronic means make voting much easier (Budge 1996), their powers are often constrained in various ways. Most require a minimum turnout and some require a large majority, especially if they deal with constitutional matters. Some are consultative or advisory, not binding. Courts, legislatures or independent electoral boards often decide referendum wording and set rules and procedures for them. Those called at the discretion of governments are a form of plebiscitary democracy rather than the purer form of direct democracy found in initiatives and recalls. As a result, referendums can be used by governments in ways that blunt the cutting edge of direct democracy: they may call them when they have a good chance of winning; they can organize them in a way that prompts a cascade of preferred results; and they can repeat the referendum till they get the result they want. The European Union (EU) membership referendums held successively in Austria, Finland, Sweden and Norway in 1994 were organized in this order because the first result might influence later results in the desired way. Governments have called a second referendum when the first did not produce the ‘correct’ result (the
Danish EU referendum and the British Columbia referendum on a new voting system - see below).
A common criticism is that referendums usually limit voters to an over-simple Yes/No, Accept/Reject choice on complex issues. This, however, can be remedied by using preferendums or multiple choice ballots. There is some evidence of voter fatigue and random results where ballots are held frequently and when ballot papers contain a large number of propositions (Magleby 1984; Moeckli 2007: 110-12). Turnout can be high, however, in particularly controversial ballots, or where they create a buzz of political interest because they are rarely used.
Some of the more common objections to referendums (and initiatives) are not convincing. The argument that direct democracy is likely to provoke populism, authoritarianism and discriminatory measures has been rejected in research on national referendums in the USA, although there is some evidence to support it in studies of local referendums (Kobach 1994; Svensson 1996; Mendelsohn and Cutler 2000; Bowler and Donovan 2002). Since parties are often very weakly organized at the local level in the USA, or even barred from the non-partisan elections of reformed cities, this is consistent with Budge’s claim in this volume that referendums work best where they are linked with party programmes and organizations. It is said that money talks in referendum campaigns, but then money talks in many political battles, including general elections. Kriesi (in this volume) finds little evidence that elites in Switzerland can buy success at the polls, a conclusion repeated in studies of initiatives in the USA (Gerber 1999; Givel 2008).
In sum, although some criticisms of referendums do not seem to be supported by the evidence, they rarely work in the way required by the advocates of the purer forms of direct democracy. The evidence strongly suggests that referendums are limited, constrained and mediated by the institutions and elites of older and more conventional forms of government. There are, according to Budge and Kriesi in this volume, good theoretical and empirical reasons for believing that this may be both inevitable and to the benefit of democracy.