POLYAS Election Glossary

We provide explanations and background information on elections, voting rights and digital democracy


A referendum is a popular vote which expresses the will of the public regarding a particular political issue.

An example: Brexit Referendum in 2016 / United Kingdom 

The most recent referendum in the UK asked the public ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’ Commonly known as the ‘Brexit’ (short for ‘British Exit’) Referendum, 72% of the population across all four Home Nations turned out to vote on one of two options given on their poll cards, namely, ‘Remain a member of the European Union’ or ‘Leave the European Union’. In the end, and after a long campaign in which politicians and public figures advocated for both positions, 52% of those who turned out voted in favour of leaving the European Union, whilst 48% voted to remain. Whilst the constitutional princple of parliamentary sovereignty in the UK means the results of referendums are not legally binding upon governments, they nevertheless generally implement referendum outcomes to avoid widespread backlash for ignoring 'the will of the people'. 

Legal status of referendums in the United States 

The US Constitution does not permitt referendums at the federal level. Only the President and its Vice-President are elected by a nation-wide popular vote, albeit through the electoral college system. However, certain individual states do allow for referendums. At this point, 26 states and Washington D.C. offer a form of referendum or right of initiative to their citizens.

History of referendums in Canada

Historically there have been very few referendums in Canada. In fact, there have only been three referendums in which the entire Canadian population was asked to vote on a particular issue: on Prohibition in 1898, on World War II conscription in 1942 and on the Charlottetown Accord in 1992. 

Referendums are more common at the provincial level. Almost all provinces have held a popular vote in the last decades. One issue was electoral reforms leading to referendums in Ontario in 2007, as well as Prince Edward Island and British Columbia in 2005.

See also: Popular vote, Protest vote, Quorum

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