Referendum in United States

Referendum Definition


In international law

A note addressed by an ambassador to his government, submitting to its consideration propositions made to him touching an object over which he has no sufficient power, and is without instructions. When such a proposition is made to an ambassador, he accepts it ad referendum; that is, under the condition that it ahall, be acted upon by his government, to which it is referred.

In Political Economy

A system of legislation, whereby proposed laws are submitted to the popular vote. (1)

Referendum in the International Business Landscape

Definition of Referendum in the context of U.S. international business and public trade policy: The procedure by which citizens vote on a piece of legislation.

Types of Referendums

Certain bills are presented to voters at the polls. This process is called a referendum . A referendum takes place only at the state level. There are different kinds of referendums.

Petition Referendum

After a law is passed by the state legislature, citizens may use a petition to protest the law. Someone who objects to the law may circulate a petition for others to sign. If enough people sign the petition, a petition referendum will be placed on the ballot. Voters can vote for or against the law at the polls. If enough votes are cast against the law, the law will be rejected.

Optional Referendum

In some states the legislature may refer a proposed law to the public for acceptance or rejection. This is called an optional referendum . In this case, the legislature is not forced by law to refer the law to the voters, but it does so willingly. Usually the issues referred to the public are ones that have caused a great deal of controversy.

Compulsory Referendum

When state laws require that certain issues be sent to the voters for their approval or rejection, a compulsory referendum is used. For example, a state may use a compulsory referendum to get voter approval to change the state constitution. Delaware is the only state that may change its constitution without public approval.

United States Constitution

According to the Encyclopedia of the American Constitution, among the political reforms introduced during the Progressive era was the referendum, by which acts of the legislature are referred to the people for their approval or rejection at an election. Referenda may be initiated by the legislature itself or by petition of the people.

Referendums and Initiatives

When Americans go to the polls, they do more than select officials to represent them. They also vote on proposals that will affect numerous aspects of their everyday lives. For example, when California voters went to the polls during the 1988 presidential election, they were confronted with many state issues, ranging from water conservation and education to automobile insurance and food programs for the needy.

How do these various proposals get on the ballot in the first place? It all depends on whether they are referendums or initiatives.

A referendum is the practice of submitting a measure passed or proposed by a legislative body to a popular vote. Sometimes a state legislature is required by law to refer pending legislation to the voters. Certain subjects may trigger this requirement, such as those involving large expenditures of state funds for roads or schools. In some states, the legislatures are permitted to voluntarily submit laws to the voters for approval.

In 24 states, citizens can also pass judgment on laws through a petition referendumn — even though the state legislature opposes it. Under this procedure, if voters opposing a law can collect a specified percentage of voter signatures on a petition, the issue is put on the ballot at the next election.

In contrast to referendums, which allow voters to judge legislative measures, initiatives permit voters to propose laws themselves. Twenty-three states use initiative procedures. These authorize any registered voter to draft a law, but he or she must persuade a certain percentage of other registered voters (usually five to 15 percent of the voting population) to support it by signing a petition. In some states, an initiative is placed directly on the ballot, bypassing the state legislature altogether. In other states, the proposed law is sent to the legislature which may enact it or reject it. If the legislature does not act upon the measure within a specified time, however, the issue will be put on the ballot automatically. (2)

Referendum in Foreign Legal Encyclopedias

For starting research in the law of a foreign country:

Link Description
Referendum Referendum in the World Legal Encyclopedia.
Referendum Referendum in the European Legal Encyclopedia.
Referendum Referendum in the Asian Legal Encyclopedia.
Referendum/referendum/ Referendum in the UK Legal Encyclopedia.
Referendum Referendum in the Australian Legal Encyclopedia.

Back to Top


A description about Referendum is available here: A measure referred to voters by a state legislature proposing that specific legislation be approved or rejected is a referendum. The terms referendum, proposition and ballot initiative frequently are used interchangeably.

Concept of Referendum in Political Science

The following is a very basic definition of Referendum in relation to the election system and the U.S Congress: Having voters vote on a law proposed by popular demand or by a legislative body

Initiative and Referendum in the U.S. Legal History


A procedure that allows citizens to propose legislation through petitions, it was passed by numerous states at the turn of the century but rarely used until the 1970s.


Notes and References

  1. This definition of Referendum is based on the The Cyclopedic Law Dictionary
  2. Notes and References

  3. “An outline of American government” (1980), by Richard C. Schroeder

See Also

Further Reading

Referendum: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Referendum. This part provides references, in relation to Referendum, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Referendum by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Referendum and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Referendum or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Referendum and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Referendum. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Referendum should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Referendum when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

*This resource guide is updated frequently. However, if you notice something is wrong or not working, or any resources that should be added, please notify us in any of the "Leave a Comment" area.

Leave a Comment