Political Science Referendums and Direct Democracy
Matt Qvortrup
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0323


Referendums have been defined as popular votes on bills before they become laws. However, referendums can also be held on existing laws or constitutions (as in the cases of the British referendum on membership in the European Union in 2016 or the Irish vote on abortion in 2017). In addition to these types, there are initiatives, defined as popular votes on laws proposed by the citizens, and plebiscites, which are votes by the whole population in authoritarian states. Scholars have sometimes disagreed as to the definition of referendums. Some have adopted the general umbrella term MDD (Mechanisms of Direct Democracy) to cover all these different types of institutionalized direct or semidirect democracy. But the word referendum has been used as the general signifier.

The Early Studies of Referendums

While some major thinkers such as Max Weber, Morsei Ostrogorski and Hans Kelsen made passing reference to the referendum these did not amount to analyses. Admittedly some of the greatest philosophers of the Western tradition wrote approvingly about mechanisms that allowed the citizens to approve or reject policy proposals put forward by the elected representatives—in other words, what we would call referendums. These writers include Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Rousseau. However, it was not until after the French Revolution that the term referendum was used, and that researchers began to reflect on the institution (see Suksi 1993, Qvortrup 2018, and Morel and Qvortrup 2017). The French mathematician de Condorcet proposed that constitutions should be ratified by the people in national votes. This idea was further developed by the Swiss politician and utopian socialist Karl Bürkli. His writings were translated into English and inspired both British and American reformers. One of the ideas espoused in Bürkli 1869 was that the referendum could provide a ‘veto’ against decisions made by the politicians. The idea that the referendum could perform the function of a ‘people’s veto’ was also the thrust of the writings of constitutional lawyer, Albert Venn Dicey (Dicey 1890). Many of the ideas that inspired the referendum came from Switzerland, which was not only true in the United Kingdom, but also in the United States. From the 1890s onward a number of books appeared which combined activism with scholarship. Thus Sullivan 1893, written by an American who had traveled in Switzerland, inspired the political movement that led to the adoption of the initiative and the referendum in several US states, mainly in the West. These experiences with direct democracy were analyzed in essays collected in Munro 1920. While Dicey and Munro made some references to the practical use of referendums, it was the research by Sarah Wambaugh (in Wambaugh 1920 and the successive study Wambaugh 1933) which inaugurated the systematic, critical, and empirical study of referendums, which, in some regards, is yet to be surpassed or even matched by later scholars. A somewhat shorter work, covering the same ground, but with a focus on referendums on independence and national sovereignty, is Mattern 1921.

  • Bürkli, Karl. Direct Legislation by the People, versus Representative Government. Translated by Eugene Oswal, Cherry & Fletcher. London: International Workingman’s Association, 1869.

    From the original Swiss pamphlets, an immensely influential collection of writings on direct democracy which inspired American and British politicians.

  • Dicey, Albert Venn. “Ought the Referendum to be Introduced into England?” The Contemporary Review 24.4 (1890): 489–511.

    A seminal article that established the modern idea of the referendum as a ‘people’s veto,’ though written in a somewhat polemical tone.

  • Mattern, Johannes. The Employment of the Plebiscite in the Determination of Sovereignty. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1921.

    A well-written and concise history on referendums on sovereignty and border disputes covering the period from 1400–1920.

  • Morel, Laurence, and Matt Qvortrup, eds. The Routledge Handbook to Referendums and Direct Democracy. London: Routledge, 2017.

    An anthology covering the history and practice of referendums in mainly democratic countries. The book also contains a list of the provisions for direct democracy institutions and of the number of votes held.

  • Munro, William B. The Initiative, Referendum and Recall. New York: D. Appleton, 1920.

    A comprehensive anthology of the major articles written about and in favor of initiatives and referendums, including an early article by Woodrow Wilson, a Princeton political scientist who later became the twenty-eighth president of the United States.

  • Qvortrup, Matt. Referendums around the World, ed. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

    This edited volume is divided into chapters on different continents rather than countries, although there is a special chapter on Switzerland. It provides an overview of the philosophy of the referendum, its history, and the politics of its use by some of the leading writers on the topic.

  • Suksi, Markku. Bringing in the People: A Comparison of Constitutional Forms and Practices of The Referendum. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1993.

    A legal treatise that provides a comprehensive overview of the constitutional provisions for referendums. The focus is on developed Western European countries.

  • Sullivan, J. W. Direct Legislation by the Citizenship through the Initiative and Referendum. New York: True Nationalist Publishing Company, 1893.

    A largely activist book that covered the use of the referendum as a check on organized capitalist interests.

  • Wambaugh, Sarah. A Monograph on Plebiscites: With a Collection of Official Documents. New York: Oxford University Press, 1920.

    A truly revolutionary study of the theory and practice of referendums until 1920. The first treatise on the comparative study of referendums, which covered all votes until the end of the First World War.

  • Wambaugh, Sarah. Plebiscites since the World War: With a Collection of Official Documents. Vol. 1. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1933.

    This work complemented Wambaugh’s earlier work and provided empirical evidence on referendums held after the First World War, with parallel translations of important documents. A true tour de force.

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