We cannot all go down to the local town centre as the ancient Athenians did. Our nations and our states are too big for that. Citizen-initiated referendum is one way for citizens to have a direct say in government decisions where there are large populations. Two of the things citizen-initiated referendum can do are:
- allow citizens to propose a new law
- allow citizens to vote against laws passed by parliament.
Some countries that have citizen-initiated referendum have one of the above and others have both.
Citizen-initiated referendum in three countries
The Swiss have had citizen-initiated referendum for over 100 years and in that time have voted on more than 300 issues. In 1977 the people rejected a proposal by the government for a new kind of tax. In 1984 they rejected another government proposal to reduce the working week from 42 hours to 38 hours.
In the United States many states have some form of citizen-initiated referendum. In California during the 1990 elections, voters had to deal with a ballot paper with 20 referendum questions and 144 pages containing arguments for and against each referendum proposal.
In the 1960s the Californian government passed a law that real estate agents and owners of apartment houses could not use racial discrimination against people who wanted to rent or buy apartments or houses. The real estate agents initiated a referendum to overturn this law so that they could discriminate against people in this way. The real estate agents won.
Four states have voted to bring back the death penalty through referendum. Anti-gun laws have been introduced in several states.
In Italy the citizens can only initiate a referendum to vote against a law passed by the government. They cannot initiate a referendum to propose a law. In 1991 Italian people voted to remove a law which prohibited divorce.
How citizen-initiated referendum could work
This is how citizen-initiated referendum could work in a state or a nation:
Some people in the community want a new law or to remove an existing law. They collect a number of petitions of registered voters and take them to the electoral office (say 1 per cent of voters in a majority of electorates in order to move to the next step).
Parliamentary officers prepare a proposed law.
The proposed law is debated in the parliament. If the parliament does not pass the proposal, it moves to Step 4.
A referendum is held and if a majority of voters in a majority of electorates support the proposal, it becomes law.