Referendum - Encyclopedia

GEOGRAPHICAL NAMES Spanish Simplified Chinese French German Russian Hindi Arabic Portuguese

REFERENDUM and Initiative, two methods by which the wishes of the general body of electors in a constitutional state may be expressed with regard to proposed legislation. They are developed to the highest extent in Switzerland, and are best exemplified in the Swiss federal and cantonal constitutions. By these two methods the sovereign people in Switzerland (whether in the confederation or in one of its cantons) approve or reject the bills and resolutions agreed upon by the legislative authority (Referendum), or compel that authority to introduce bills on certain specified subjects (Initiative) - in other words, exercise the rights of the people as regards their elected representatives at times other than general elections. The Referendum means " that which is referred " to the sovereign people, and prevailed (up to 1848) in the federal diet, the members of which were bound by instructions, all matters outside which being taken " ad referendum." A similar system obtained previously in the formerly independent confederations of the Grisons and" of the Valais, in the former case not merely as between the Three Leagues, and even the bailiwicks of each within its respective league, but also (so far as regards the upper Engadine) the communes making up a bailiwick, though in the Valais the plan prevailed only as between the seven Zehnten or bailiwicks. The Initiative, on the other hand, is the means by which the sovereign people can compel its elected representatives to take into consideration either some specified object or a draft bill relating thereto, the final result of the deliberations of the legislature being subject by a referendum vote to the approval or rejection of the people. These two institutions therefore enable the sovereign people to control the decisions of the legislature, without having recourse to a dissolution, or waiting for the expiration of its natural term of office.

As might have been expected, both had been adopted by different cantons before they found their way into the federal constitution, which naturally has to take account of the sovereign rights of the cantons of which it is composed. Further, they (at. any rate the referendum) were employed in the case of constitutional matters relating to cantonal constitutions before being applied to all or certain specified laws and resolutions. Finally, the action of both has been distinctly conservative in the case of the confederation, though to a less marked degree in the case of the cantons.

Two forms of the Referendum should be carefully distinguished: the facultative or optional (brought into play only on the demand of a fixed number of citizens), and the obligatory or compulsory (which obtains in all cases that lie within its sphere as defined in the constitution). The Initiative exists only in the facultative form, being exercised when a certain number of citizens demand it. Both came into common use during the Liberal reaction in Switzerland after the Paris revolution of July 1830. In 1831 St Gall first adopted the " facultative referendum " (then and for some time after called the " Veto "), and its example was followed by several cantons before 1848. The "obligatory referendum " appears first in 1852 and 1854 respectively in the Valais and the Grisons, when the older system was reformed, but in its modern form it was first adopted in 1863 by the canton of rural Basel. The Initiative was first adopted in 1845 by Vaud. Of course the cantons with Landsgemeinden, Uri, Unterwalden, Appenzell and Glarus (where the citizens appear in person) possessed both from time immemorial. Excluding these there were at the end of 1907 92 cantons, which had the " obligatory referendum " (Aargau, rural Basel, Bern, the Grisons, Schaffhausen, Schwyz, Soleure, Thurgau, the Valais and Zurich), while 71 cantons possess only the " facultative referendum " (Basel town, Geneva, Lucerne, Neuchatel, St Gall, Ticino, Vaud and Zug). Fribourg alone had neither, save an obligatory referendum (like all the rest) as to the revision of the cantonal constitution. As regards the Initiative, all the cantons have it as to the revision of the cantonal constitution; while all but Fribourg have it also as to bills or legislative projects. In the case both of the facultative referendum and of the Initiative each canton fixes the number of citizens who have a right to exercise this power. The constitution of the Swiss confederation lags behind those of the cantons. It is true that both in 1848 (art. 113) and in 1874 (art. 120) it is provided that a vote on the question whether the constitution shall be revised must take place if either house of the federal legislature or 50,000 qualified voters demand it - of course a popular vote (obligatory referendum) must take place on the finally elaborated project of revision. But as regards bills the case is quite different. The " facultative referendum " was not introduced till 1874 (art. 89) and then only as regards all bills and resolutions not being of a pressing nature, 8 cantons or 30,000 qualified voters being entitled to ask for such a popular vote. But the Initiative did not appear in the federal constitution till it was inserted in 1891 (art. 121), and then merely in the case of a partial (not a total) revision of the constitution, if 50,000 qualified voters require it, whether as regards a subject in general or a draft bill, - of course the federal legislature had an Initiative in this matter in 1848 already. The results of the working of these two institutions in federal matters up to the end of 1908 are as follows. Excluding the votes by which the two federal constitutions of 1848 and 1874 were adopted, there have been 30 (RD of them between 1848 and 1874) votes (obligatory referendum) as to amendments of the federal constitution; in 15 cases only (of which only one was before 1874) did the people accept the amendment proposed. In the case of bills there have been 30 votes (very many bills have not been attacked at all), all of course since the facultative referendum was introduced in 1874; in 11 cases only have the people voted in the affirmative. Finally, with regard to the Initiative, there have been 7 votes, of which two only were in the affirmative. Thus, between 1874 and 1907, of 57 votes 27 only were in the affirmative, while if we include the Io votes between 1848 and 1874 the figures are respectively 67 and 28, one only having been favourable during that period. The result is to show that the people, voting after mature reflection, are far less radically disposed than has sometimes been imagined.

The method of referendum by itself is also in use in some of the states of the American Union (see United States) and in Australia, and under the name of plebiscite has been employed in France; but it is best studied in the Swiss constitution.


W. A. B. Coolidge, " The Early History of the Referendum " (article in the English Historical Review for October 1891); T. Curti, Die schweizerischen Volksrechte, 1848 bis 1900 (Bern, 1900) (Fr. trans. by J. Ronjat with additions by the author, Paris, 1905) - Curti's earlier work, Geschichte d. schweiz. Volksgesetzgebung (Bern, 1882), is not entirely superseded by his later one; S. Deploige, The Referendum in Switzerland, Engl. trans. with additional notes (London, 1898); N. Droz, " The Referendum in Switzerland " (article in the Contemporary Review, March 1895); J. M. Vincent, Government in Switzerland, chaps. v. and xiv. (New York and London, 1900). See also, for the United States and generally, the American works on the Referendum by E. P. Oberholtzer (1893 and 1900). (W. A. B. C.)

Encyclopedia Alphabetically

A * B * C * D * E * F * G * H * I * J * K * L * M * N * O * P * Q * R * S * T * U * V * W * X * Y * Z

Advertise Here


- Please bookmark this page (add it to your favorites)
- If you wish to link to this page, you can do so by referring to the URL address below.

This page was last modified 29-SEP-18
Copyright © 2021 ITA all rights reserved.