Referendum: When Legislatures Make Bad Laws

The referendum is a direct democratic procedure through which proposed legislation is submitted to the electorate for approval. Referendum proposals may originate from the initiative process or from a legislature.

Three basic types of referendums exist:

  • Petition Referendum. A referendum by petition follows the initiative process in which a statutory number of signatures is collected in order to qualify the measure for the ballot. The voters then decide the measure's fate.

  • Optional Referendum. The optional referendum is the means for a legislature to refer a controversial matter (e.g. a new tax) to the electorate for a vote.

  • Constitutional (or Statutory) Referendum. Some states and localities require that certain types of measures (often constitutional amendments, bond measures and some types of taxes) be submitted to the electorate in a referendum. These measures often require more than a simple majority for approval.
In 1898, South Dakota became the first state to provide both the optional and petition referendums. One form or another of this process is used today in many Midwestern and Western states, and in numerous cities and local governments.

There is no provision for the use of referendums for federal legislation.


The referendum, along with the initiative and recall, won public attention because of the Populist Party platforms of the 1890s and were advanced as means to stimulate unresponsive government.