Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Plebiscite Definition:

The submission of a legislative proposal to the vote of the people.

Related Terms: Referendum

The term plebiscite is often defined in statute as it applies to the surrendering of approval of a legislative proposal to the will of the people taken by popular vote of citizens. For example, this definition in the Manitoba (Canada) Gaming Control Local Option Act:

"Plebiscite means a vote by the electors of a municipality on a resolution approved by the council or stated on a petition (a) to prohibit video lottery gaming within the municipality, or (b) where video lottery gaming within the municipality is prohibited because of a plebiscite, to permit video lottery gaming within the municipality."

In his 1990 article published in the Houston Journal of International Law, Visuvanathan Rudrakumaran used these words:

"A plebiscite is a vote of the people that expresses their choice for or against a proposed law or enactment, which, if adopted, will work a change in the constitution that is beyond the powers of the regular legislative body....

"The plebiscite is hailed by many as the most democratic interpretation of the concept of self-determination... (but) plebiscite means subjection, subordination of minority to a majority. Therefore, except in almost unanimous decisions, a plebiscite will not do justice to the minority.... Democracy is a process in which deliberations, mediations, and compromises are made; a plebiscite, however, involves absolute and quick decisions."

Shumaker defines a plebiscite as follows:

"... a submission to the popular vote of a law or governmental policy."

Henry Sumner Maine wrote, in his well-known treatise on government:

"Another experiment, which, like the system of representation, is founded on the acknowledgment of fundamental difficulties, has been attempted several times in our generation, though not in our country. In one of its forms it has been known as the plebiscite. A question, or a series of questions, is simplified as much as possible, and the entire enfranchised portion of the community is asked to say" Aye" or "No" to it."

Maine suggests that a plebiscite is synonymous with referendum but during a political debate in the Canadian House of Commons in 1942, then-Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie-King (who had a law degree) proposed a distinction:

"The objection to a referendum on conscription is that far from freeing the hands of the government, it would be a specific request to the people to make a decision with respect to conscription.

"A plebiscite differs from a referendum in that a plebiscite is taken to ascertain the views of the people, whereas a referendum is a request for a decision by the people on a specific plan or project.

"The government does not believe that it would be fair to the people to ask them to make military decisions. In consulting the people, we are not shirking responsibility, we are asking for full responsibility."


  • Clark, Sherman, A Populist Critique of Direct Democracy, 112 Harv. L. Rev. 434 (1998)
  • Gaming Control Local Option (VLT) Act, C.C.S.M., Chapter G7, §1
  • Maine, Henry, Popular Government (London: John Murray, 1885).
  • Rudrakumaran, Visuvanathan, Requirement of Plebiscite in Territorial Reapprochement, 12 HJIL 23 (1989-1990)
  • Shumaker, Walter and Longsdorf, George Foster, The Cyclopedic Dictionary of Law Comprising the Terms and Phrases of American Jurisprudence, Including Ancient and Modern Common Law, International Law, and Numerous Select Titles From the Civil Law, the French and the Spanish Law, Etc., Etc. With an Exhaustive Collection of Legal Maxims, (St. Paul, Minnesota: Keefe- Davidson Law Book Company, 1901), page 698.


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