What is a Referendum?

NewsPoliticsWhat is a Referendum?
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referendum (plural: referendums or referenda) is a direct vote by the electorate on a proposal, law, or political issue. This is in contrast to an issue being voted on by a representative. This may result in the adoption of a new policy or specific law, or the referendum may be only advisory. In some countries, it is synonymous with and also known as plebiscite, votation, popular consultationballot question, ballot measure, or proposition.

Some definitions of ‘plebiscite’ suggest it is a type of vote to change the constitution or government of a country. The word, ‘referendum’ is often a catchall, used for both legislative referrals and initiatives.

Types of referendums


The term “referendum” covers a variety of different meanings, and the terminology is different depending on the country that holds them. A referendum can be binding or advisory. In some countries, different names are used for these two types of referendum. Referendums can be further classified by who initiates them.

David Altman proposes four dimensions that referendums can be classified by:

Mandatory referendums

mandatory referendum is a class of referendum required to be voted on if certain conditions are met or for certain government actions to be taken. They do not require any signatures from the public. In areas that use referendums a mandatory referendum is commonly used as a legally required step for ratification for constitutional changes, ratifying international treaties and joining international organizations, and certain types of public spending.

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Typical types of mandatory referendums include:

  • Constitutional changes: Some countries or local governments choose to enact any constitutional amendments with a mandatory referendum. These include AustraliaIrelandSwitzerland, Denmark, and 49 of the 50 U.S. states (the only exception is Delaware).
  • Financial referendum: Many localities require a referendum in order for the government to issue certain bonds, raise taxes above a specified amount, or take on certain amounts of debt. In California for example, the state government may not borrow more than $300,000 without a public vote in a statewide bond proposition.[19]
  • International relations: Switzerland has mandatory referendums on enacting international treaties that have to do with collective security and joining a supranational community. This type of referendum has only occurred once in the country’s history: a failed attempt in 1986 for Switzerland to join the United Nations.[20]
  • War referendum: A hypothetical type of referendum, first proposed by Immanuel Kant, is a referendum to approve a declaration of war in a war referendum. It has never been enacted by any country, but was debated in the United States in the 1930s as the Ludlow Amendment.

Optional referendum

An optional referendum is a class of referendums that is put to the vote as a result of a demand. This may come from the executive branch, legislative branch, or a request from the people (often after meeting a signature requirement).

Types of optional referendums include:

  • Authorities plebiscite: Also known as a legislative referrals, are initiated by the legislature or government. These may be advisory questions to gauge public opinion or binding questions of law.
  • Initiative referendum: A citizen-led process to propose and vote on new laws.
  • Popular referendum: A citizen-led process to oppose and strike down existing laws.
  • Recall referendum: A procedure to remove elected officials before the end of their term of office. Depending on the area and position, a recall may be for a specific individual, such as an individual legislator, or more general such as an entire legislature.


From a political-philosophical perspective, referendums are an expression of direct democracy, but today, most referendums need to be understood within the context of representative democracy. They tend to be used quite selectively, covering issues such as changes in voting systems, where currently elected officials may not have the legitimacy or inclination to implement such changes.

“the principle or practice of referring measures proposed or passed by a legislative body to the vote of the electorate for approval or rejection.” Dictionary.com

Referendum is the buzz word in Kenya’s political lexicon. This follows the declaration by the Okoa Kenya movement and the Council of Governors, separately, to lobby and initiate the process to conduct a referendum.

The word referendum is used in the Constitution of Kenya (2010) nine (9) times.

It is first used in Chapter Four – The Bill Of Rights, article 38 (3)(b) confers political rights to every adult “to vote by secret ballot in any election or referendum“.

Seven (7) times the word referendum is used is in Chapter Sixteen – Amendment of This Constitution. Four times in Article 255 Amendment of this Constitution;

“255. (1) A proposed amendment to this Constitution shall be enacted in accordance with Article 256 or 257, and approved in accordance with clause (2) by a referendum, if the amendment relates to any of the following matters—
(a) the supremacy of this Constitution;
(b) the territory of Kenya;
(c) the sovereignty of the people;
(d) the national values and principles of governance mentioned in Article 10 (2) (a) to (d);
(e) the Bill of Rights;
(f) the term of office of the President;
(g) the independence of the Judiciary and the commissions and
independent offices to which Chapter Fifteen applies;
(h) the functions of Parliament;
(i) the objects, principles and structure of devolved government; or
(j)the provisions of this Chapter.
 (2) A proposed amendment shall be approved by a referendum under clause (1) if—
(a) at least twenty per cent of the registered voters in each of at least half of the counties vote in the referendum; and
(b) the amendment is supported by a simple majority of the citizens voting in the referendum.
(3) An amendment to this Constitution that does not relate to a matter mentioned in clause (1) shall be enacted either—
(a) by Parliament, in accordance with Article 256; or
(b) by the people and Parliament, in accordance with Article 257.”

Thrice in Article 256 Amendment by parliamentary initiative (5)(a), and in Article 257 Amendment by popular initiative (10) and (11).

Finally in Chapter Eighteen – Transitional and Consequential Provisions, article 263 there is specific reference to the referendum held on August 4, 2010 to ratify the Constitution of Kenya (2010).

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