Referendum or Plebicite?

Stupid question, ok, but what’s the difference between a referendum and a plebecite when a plebicite is defined as an important decision brought to the people to vote upon. Maybe referendum is prefered nowadays?

Depends on what the specific law/charter says. But in cases where there is any distinction it’s down to the consequences.

A referendum produces a binding outcome. A plebiscite just produces a clear opinion.

For example, if there is a referendum on “Should we ban GM foods” and the required majority vote “Yes”, then the government/office holders/powers-that-be are obliged to enact that ban. It’s effectively a law/carried motion in its own right. It may require other laws or documentation changes to enact, but those are formalities and the referendum has power and legal standing in its own right. If the result isn’t enacted then there are grounds for a legal challenge that is very likely to force the enactment or create precedent to the same end.

A plebiscite is just a formally sanctioned opinion poll. It has no legal status and can be, and often is, ignored. If a plebiscite shows that 99% of the population want to ban GM foods, that gives the powers-that-be an unambiguous opinion on that issue. They can then claim a “mandate” to act. But they don’t *have *to listen. In fact it’s reasonably common for the results of a plebiscite to be ignored when it produces the wrong result for TPTB.

I thought a plebiscite was one in which the voters decide to secede or to be annexed by a neighboring sovereign state. When the Saarland voted to return to Germany in 1935, that was a plebiscite, and as I understand it, today’s vote in Crimea would also be termed a plebiscite.

By contrast, I’ve always understood a referendum to be when voters decide on internal questions, for example statewide ballot initiatives in the United States, or municipal bond measures.

This is actually an interesting question. The best differentiation I’ve been able to find is that referendum refers to the process and plebiscite to the actual vote. In practice, I doubt that anyone other than a few specialists talking to a specialized audience ever make the distinction; they are effectively synonymous in popular speech. The usage is undoubtedly influenced by the word used in the local law governing such votes.

This Google ngram chart shows that referendum has been the favored word for the past 125 years except for a short period in 1930s. That appears to have been heavily influenced by a plebiscite asking whether the Saar should be returned to Germany, although the League of Nations seems to have forced others as well.

Simple Wiki says that referendums can be either binding or advisory depending on location. Of course it also states that a referendum is “very similar, but not the same, as a plebiscite” without backing that up in any way, so i would take it with a grain of salt.

My understanding, for which I don’t have any cites:

Initiative: A proposition placed on a ballot via a voter petition.

Referendum: A vote on an existing law or policy (sometimes also used to refer to a vote on an elected legislator or other politician). If the Legislature passes a law which proves to be unpopular, and the People then place an initiative on the ballot to overturn that law, that is a referendum. Also used informally, as in “The volume of citizens signing up for Obamacare, or the lack thereof, serves as a referendum on the Affordable Care Act.”

Plebiscite: A more specific kind of election, in which the people vote on what kind of government they will have. I suppose this meaning applies also to a vote of secession or a vote to join with another country, as in the Crimea vote.

ETA: Upon a quick glance at various Wikipedia pages: The various uses aren’t entirely clear and distinct from one another, and not necessarily in quite the same ways as I have just defined here.