Do you have "referendums" in the U.S. and Canada?

I’m pretty sure i’ve heard of Canada having them, and equally sure the U.S. doesn’t - but I could be wrong.

Basically, have there been times when the country (or state) takes an official (but not binding) vote on some legislation? It’s basically a sort of more accurate opinion poll (or that’s the idea, anyway).

Of course. The states do it. They’re called “propositions.” Everybody in California knows what Prop 13 did. (besides no summer school!)

The US ones are usually binding though.

Ah! I have heard of propositions - the difference in terminology is probably what threw me off.

Any nation-wide propositions?

American/ Canadian posters will answer your questions (though there are referendums at least in some US states), but I had a nitpick : A referendum might be binding. It depends on the law of the country. Actually, referendums seem to me to be binding more often than not. And actually it makes sense that the population’s direct decision would be worth at least as much as the decision of its elected representants.

…and i’d agree with you on that point. But often referendums aren’t binding, or if they are and the results are not what the government expects, then it’s hastily ignored or spun. The various referendums on the European Constitution are a good example of both.

There are no referendums at the national level in the U.S. It would take a constitutional amendment to approve their use, and it’s not easy to pass a constitutional amendment at the federal level in the U.S. There are referendums at various lower levels - state, city, county, township, school district, etc. - in the U.S. These are usually referred to on the ballot as “Proposition Number X”, since there are often several of them voted on at the same time. There will be a statement of what the proposition is about on the ballot. Occasionally there will be nonbinding referendums, but again these are not on the federal level.

OTOH, you could argue that Constitutional amendments are national referendums.

Didn’t the Canadians have one back in the 1990s about some agreement on the scope of federal/provincial powers? It was named after a Canadian city.

I’ll take the Referendum on the Charlottetown Accord in 1992 for $1000, Alex.
They don’t happen often, but when they do they can be explosive–see the Quebec referendums on sovereignity, for example.

SmackFu writes:

> OTOH, you could argue that Constitutional amendments are national
> referendums.

Only if you want to change the meaning of the word “referendum” in such a way as to make it useless. A referendum is something voted on directly by the voters of a jurisdiction. It’s not something voted on by a legisture, regardless of how the legislature is elected. To pass an amendment to the U.S. constitution, first you have to propose the amendment by either

Having a bill get a two-thirds vote of both the Senate and the House of Representatives
Getting the majority of the vote at a convention elected specially for that purpose when two-thirds of the legislatures of the states call for it

and then it has to be confirmed by either

Getting a majority vote of three-quarters of the state legislatures
Getting a majority vote of three-quarters of the conventions elected specially for that purpose in each state (i.e., each state will have its own convention specially elected)

Now, it’s arguable that if a national convention was elected as in the second option of the proposal process or if state conventions were elected as in the second option of the confirming process, then the vote for the representatives might be close to a referendum, since they would be elected only for the purpose of voting on an amendment, which would mean the the representatives to such a convention would run purely on the basis of what their vote on the amendment would be. However, I believe that the national convention option has never been used and the state convention option has only been used once. If you use the word “referendum” for a state legisture voting on confirming an amendment, you might as well say that any bill in a state legislature is a referendum, since each member of the legislature was elected.

The only nation-wide referendum Canada has held in my lifetime was wrt the Charlottetown Accord in 1992. It was a collection of constitutional amendments that would have modified various aspects of provincial/federal jurisdiction, and altered some bits and pieces of the government. It was Brian Mulroney’s last attempt to bring Quebec into the Constitutional fold.

Other than that, Quebec has twice held a referendum on sovereignty (i.e., whether to form their own country), most recently in 1995.

I’m not aware of any provinces making use of the sort of “proposition” direct democracy stuff that’s becoming very popular in certain US states. The Reform/Alliance party (part of what became the current governing Conservative party) had in their earlier days as part of their platform that given a petition signed by x number of people, a binding referendum on the subject would be held. But, if you mention this to most any Canadian they’ll start giggling and saying “Doris” repeatedly.

It’s not quite the same thing, but after the Liberals were elected in Quebec in 2003, they offered the citizens of the former cities that were merged by the previous government the possibility of holding referendums to “unmerge” their city. If 10% of the registered voters signed the register at City Hall, a binding referendum was held, with the condition that 50% of actual voters representing at least 35% of registered voters would have to vote in favour for the former city to spring back into existence. Quite a few referendums were held, some winning and some losing.

This said, many partisans of “unmerging” are now unhappy of the fact that their recreated cities aren’t really as independent as they were before: the law that allowed the referendums also put a large part of the “new” cities’ decision-making power in the hands of an “agglomeration council” formed of representatives of all unmerged cities in the agglomeration.

The B.C. Liberals have also held two referendums in recent years. The first one, shortly after they got elected in 2001, was a mail-in referendum with 8-10 questions on how they should proceed in the native treaty process. It was a bit of a joke, particularly with the very loaded questions that were blatantly designed to get the answer they wanted, and IIRC there was a pretty low return rate, but those that did gave an overwhelming “yes” on all questions.

The second one was held in conjunction with the 2005 provincial election, on whether to change our electoral system from first-past-the-post to a form of proportional representation (single transferable vote, if anyone’s interested). It came within a hair of passing - the government had set a threshold of 60% yes to implement the system, and it got something like 55% support, with the result that the government has said that they’ll continue investigating electoral reform, but not necessarily with that system. IMHO, that’s fine with me - I voted yes to STV even though I didn’t really like the proposed system because I never dreamed it would come even as close to 60% as it did, so I figured a yes vote would be a safe way to send the message that the status quo wasn’t great either.

Oh, and Gorsnak, I still giggle every time I see “Doris” on tv, and not just because of his goofy haircut or memories of the jet ski.

Washington State has both referenda and initiatives. A referendum here is a decision passed from the legislature to the voters, either because the legislature chose to put it to a public vote, or because the legislature passed it and a group of voters petitioned to have it put to a public vote instead. An initiative is basically the opposite: a group of voters petitions either to have a bill considered by the legislature, or to bypass the legislature and put the bill to a public vote.

To my memory, Saskatchewan did try one in a provincial election during the 90s. I can’t remember what they were about though.
British Columbia had a binding referendum concurrent with their last provincial election about proportional representation.

In the strict sense, a vote at the polls on whether measure X shall be enacted as law or not, “the United States” as a national body does not do it. Each of the 50 states, however, has its own laws, and a surprising number permit and in some cases mandate a referendum.

California and a number of other Western states permit any measure (probably with a few stated exceptions, which I don’t know about) to go on the ballot on petition from a stated number of citizens.

The process for amending a state constitution in quite a few states calls for votes by two separate sessions of the legislature followed by submission to the voters in a referendum.

Issuance of bonds to finance a capital project by a state or municipality, school district, etc., within a state generally calls for a referendum on whether the bonds shall be issued, since this acts to put the voters/taxpayers corporately in debt.

All the above tend to work as binding referendums: what is passed becomes law, not as guidance for the legislature but self-effecting.

A few years ago Wisconsin had a referendum on whether >18 year old children who lived with thier military parents out of state were leigiable to vote in statewide elections (or something like that). I was curious why such an obscure law was a referendum. Turns out Wisconsin law (possibly the Wis constitution) requires that any law that alters voting is required to be approved by referendum.

This year there is a non binding referendum on bringing the death penealty back (and I think a gay marriage referendum). Some say these refendums were put there to drive conservative voters to the polls.

note: I live in MN, but most of my news is from WI, so I hear about this stuff.


In Texas (and even more in Austin), we have referenda all the time. Far too many to suit me, but that’s the way the state constitution is set up. In most states, legislatures pass bills which become law when signed by the governor. Here, the voters have to approve a large percentage of the bills passed by the legislature. So, on Election Day, instead of just voting for our preferred candidates for office, we also have to sift through dozens of legislative actions and decide whether or not to approve them.

It seems silly and wasteful to me- I’d just as soon let the legislature do its job, and then hold them accountable at election time. But that’s Texas for you.

And in Austin, it’s even worse. The city council can hardly do anything without putting it up for a referendum. And typically, we get something like 10% voter turnout for such referenda. If the city council wants to spend more than a few dollars on ANY project (whether frivolous or unquestionably beneficial), a referendum is scheduled. And here, the people who DO care enough to vote are invariably:

  1. Senior citizens who don’t want money spent on ANYTHING, ever.

  2. Aging hippie ecologists who think ANY project is bound to harm the environment or shake up old neighborhoods, and will reject it out of hand.

Here, at least, referenda are a formula for inaction.

In the United States, propositions or initiatives are also called “ballot issues” or “ballot measures.” They are most common at the local government level and often involve local property and sales taxes for local government, schools, etc. These also exist at the state level, and often have to do with special tax measures or bond measures (loans taken by the state government). It is rare in most states for substantive law to routinely be the subject of ballot measures (California is the notable exception).

Note that none of these things are really referendums. A referendum, properly, is a question put before the public by the legislature. Propositions/initiatives/ballot issues are proposed by the public itself. Some states do have referenda.

The U.S. Constitution does not provide for referenda or initiatives at the national level. The Congress is the sole source of legislation.