Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Referendum Definition:

The putting of a question of proposed law to popular vote of the people.

Related Terms: Plebiscite

In Haig v Canada, Justice l'Heureux-Dubé of the Supreme Court of Canada wrote:

"A referendum ... is basically a consultative process, a device for the gathering of opinions. Voting in a referendum differs significantly from voting in an election.

"First, unless it legislatively binds itself to do so, a government is under no obligation to consult its citizens through the mechanism of a referendum. It may ... bind itself to conduct a specific referendum but, in the absence of such legislation, there is no obligation to hold this type of consultation.

"Second, though a referendum may carry great political weight and a government may choose to act on the basis of the results obtained, such results are non-binding in the absence of legislation requiring a government to act on the basis of the results obtained. In the absence of binding legislation, the citizens of this country would not be entitled to a legal remedy in the event of non-compliance with the results. Were a government to hold a referendum and then ignore the results, the remedy would be in the political and not the legal arena."

The 2012 version of the Canadian Referendum Act:

"Where the Governor in Council considers that it is in the public interest to obtain by means of a referendum the opinion of electors on any question relating to the Constitution of Canada, the Governor in Council may, by proclamation, direct that the opinion of electors be obtained by putting the question to the electors of Canada or of one or more provinces specified in the proclamation at a referendum called for that purpose."

In the 1987 Illinois Appellate Court decision in Check Inn Lounge v Kozubowski, Justice Hartman used these words:

"A referendum is the right of the electorate to have a proposition submitted for their approval or rejection."

In Pacific States Telephone & Telegraph Co. v. Oregon, Chief Justice Edward White of the Supreme Court of the United States used these words to describe a referendum:

"(R)eferendum ... a reference to a popular vote, for approval or disapproval, of any law passed by the legislature."

In Whitmore v Carr, Justice Jones of the California Court of Appeals wrote:

"This power of referendum is the right reserved to the people to adopt or reject any act or measure which has been passed by a legislative body...."

In Wyatt v Clark, Justice Davison of the Supreme Court of Oklahoma adopted these words:

"Referendum is the right reserved by the constitution to the people of a state or local subdivision thereof to have submitted for their approval or rejection any act, or part of an act, item, section, or part of any bill, passed by the legislature, and which, in most cases, would without action on the part of the electors become a law."

Shumaker defines a referendum as follows:

"A system of legislation, whereby proposed laws are submitted to the popular vote.

"In international law, a note addressed by an ambassador to his government, submitting to its consideration propositions made to him touching an object over which he has no sufficient power, and is without instructions. When such a proposition is made to an ambassador, he accepts it ad referendum; that is. under the condition that it shall be acted upon by his government, to which it is referred."

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