Referendum - Procedure and Status

Procedure and Status

In a first classification by necessity, a referendum may be mandatory, that is, the law (usually the constitution) directs authorities to holding referendums on specific matters (such is the case in amending most constitutions, or impeaching heads of state as well as ratifying international treaties) and are usually binding. A referendum can also be facultative, that is it can be initiated at the will of a public authority (President of the Republic in France and Romania or the Government/Parliament in Greece or Spain) or at the will of the citizens (a petition). It can be binding/ non-binding.

A foundational referendum or plebiscite may be drafted by a constituent assembly before being put to voters. In other circumstances a referendum is usually initiated either by a legislature or by citizens themselves by means of a petition. The process of initiating a referendum by petition is known as the popular or citizens initiative. In the United States the term referendum is often reserved for a direct vote initiated by a legislature while a vote originating in a petition of citizens is referred to as an "initiative", "ballot measure" or "proposition."

In countries in which a referendum must be initiated by parliament, it is sometimes mandatory to hold a binding referendum on certain proposals, such as constitutional amendments. In countries, such as the United Kingdom, in which referendums are neither mandatory nor binding there may, nonetheless, exist an unwritten convention that certain important constitutional changes will be put to a referendum and that the result will be respected.

By nature of their effects, referendums may be either binding or non-binding. A non-binding referendum is merely consultative or advisory. It is left to the government or legislature to interpret the results of a non-binding referendum and it may even choose to ignore them. This is particularly the case in states that follow Westminster conventions of parliamentary sovereignty.

In most referendums it is sufficient for a measure to be approved by a simple majority of voters in order for it to be carried. However, a referendum may also require the support of a super-majority, such as two-thirds of votes cast. In Lithuania certain proposals must be endorsed by a three-quarters majority (among them, any proposal to amend article 148 of the Lithuanian Constitution, which states, "Lithuania is an independent and democratic republic").

In some countries, including Italy, there is also a requirement that there be a certain minimum turn-out of the electorate in order for the result of a referendum to be considered valid. This is intended to ensure that the result is representative of the will of the electorate and is analogous to the quorum required in a committee or legislature.

The franchise in a referendum is not necessarily the same as that for elections. For example, in Ireland, only citizens may vote in a constitutional referendum, whereas citizens of the United Kingdom are also entitled to vote in general elections.

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