Referenda in the USA

Referenda in the USA

  • Referendums, also known as ballot measures or propositions, are an element of direct democracy inserted into the representative democracy system practiced in the United States. They provide voters with a direct voice on public policies and constitutional matters.
  • Unlike in some other countries, national referendums are not used in the USA, as they are not provided for in the U.S. Constitution. However, some states and local jurisdictions routinely use them.

Types of Referendums

  • There are three common types of referendums in the US: mandatory referendums, which are required by constitution or law; popularly initiated referendums, which are brought about by citizens through petition circulation; and legislatively referendums, which are referred by a legislative body.
  • While the specifics can vary, typically, proposed amendments to the state constitution must go through mandatory referendums to be approved.
  • Popularly initiated referendums allow citizens to petition to change laws or policies. If they obtain the required number of signatures, the proposed change is placed on the ballot.
  • Legislatively referendums are used by legislators to gauge public opinion or avoid taking responsibility for controversial decisions. The legislature can put a measure on the ballot for public approval.

Role and Effect of Referendums

  • Referendums expand democratic participation and can serve to validate or challenge the actions of elected officials. They are also a tool for direct policymaking.
  • The outcomes of referendums have led to key changes in American society. Examples include the legalization of cannabis in some states and the expansion of medicaid in others.


  • Critics argue that referendums can lead to dysfunctionality, where consistent voting against tax increases but for increased spending can complicate governance and budgeting.
  • There’s concern about the influence of money in referendums, as well-funded special interest groups could potentially sway the public opinion.
  • Critics also caution against ‘tyranny of the majority’, warning that minority rights might be endangered when decisions are made directly by a majority vote.

Notable Referendums

  • California’s Proposition 8 in 2008, overturned a state Supreme Court ruling that allowed same-sex marriage. This decision was later reversed by the US Supreme Court.
  • Michigan’s Proposal 1 in 2018, led to the legalisation of recreational marijuana use in the state, marking a shift in policy around drug control.

Comparisons with the UK

  • In contrast to the US, the UK does not have a tradition of regularly using referendums. They have been used on only a handful of occasions, primarily for constitutional issues such as Scottish independence and Brexit.