Many western countries (Switzerland more than anyone) now and then arrange referendum about issues like membership in the EU, or keeping or abolishing military conscription, or whether or not to shift from driving (cars) on the left hand side to the right one instead.

Has there ever been a referendum (the people's direct majority vote without any middleman elected) in the US? Since I think not, is there any one good explanation? On federal or state level.

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    The constitution was approved through a referendum. States have conducted referenda. It is technically possible for the US to have a referendum; it would require implementing legislation and would have no intrinsic legal authority. Most of this question is not about history, but about law. – Mark C. Wallace Mar 15 '16 at 15:54
  • @MarkC.Wallace - I thought it was roughly equivalent to the current amendment process: There was a convention called by the states, and then it was considered in force when 3/4th of the states legislatures (individually) ratified it. – T.E.D. Mar 15 '16 at 16:16
  • I'm unclear on which entity you assert is equivalent to the amendment process (the approval of the constitution, the referendum, or other). But the constitution was submitted to the people - the states were not permitted to manage the approval. – Mark C. Wallace Mar 15 '16 at 16:56
  • @MarkC.Wallace - According to everything I can dig up, it was sent to the states for individual ratification. Article 7 even spells out the number of states (9) needed to ratify it for it to be in force. The last two states, NC and RI didn't sign on until after the new Congress had already assembled. In Rhode Island's case, it was over a year. – T.E.D. Mar 15 '16 at 17:41
  • Rhode Island only ratified on the threat of being treated as a foreign power. Pauline Maier's book on the constitution makes it clear that it was sent to the people, not the states, and that the distinction was very important. The people in 9 states had to ratify, but the state was not to be involved. – Mark C. Wallace Mar 15 '16 at 17:59

In the US, referendums are handled on a statewide basis. There's no constitutional basis for having a national one. So if you wanted to effect a national referendum, you'd need to get the same referendum put up in all 50 states for the same election.

That may sound a bit daunting, but candidates for president (at least in the primaries), have to go through roughly the same process. There's no automatic way to get put on every state ballot, so supporters must get a primary candidate on the ballot individually in all 50 states through each one of those state's process for that.

Of course there's nothing the individual states can decide this way that is binding on the Federal Government. So all you'd end up with by doing this is an overly thorough publicly-financed opinion poll. Still, this is often done in individual states as a way to encourage certain voters to come out to vote in a particular election.

The exception here is a Constitutional Amendment. It is possible for one of those to get ratified by actions of the states, which could theoretically (if each state wanted to do it that way) come via a popular vote of that state. However, the deciding factor would be getting ratification of 3/4ths (right now 38) of the States. That could in theory happen even if a majority of the voters across the country voted it down.

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    As an example, the much derided anti-sharia law question Oklahoma had on the ballot in 2010 had a very practical purpose. It was meant to increase (Republican) Evangelical turnout in an off-cycle election that also happened to be deciding the Governor's office. It worked in that the Republicans won the office, and did no harm in that it was transparently unconstitutional. To be fair, the Democrats had captured the governorship 8 years prior with the help of a state lottery question, so both sides do it. – T.E.D. Mar 15 '16 at 16:34
  • The amendment process isn't really an exception. The Constitution dictates two methods for states to ratify: approval of state legislators or by conventions (i.e., with specially elected delegates within each state). I suppose theoretically a state could bind their vote for ratification (by either method) to a popular vote by state law, but that's never been done in practice to my knowledge. In practice, it's always delegates, as it would theoretically be for an Article V convention as well. – Athanasius Mar 15 '16 at 18:49
  • @Athanasius - I meant exception to the rule that votes on individual state questions aren't binding on the Federal Government. If the states collectively want to overrule the Federal Government, they can (theoretically) do it via the constitutional amendment process, which could (as you rightly point out, also very theoretically) involve a popular vote. – T.E.D. Mar 15 '16 at 19:10
  • Not all states currently allow referendums, do they? – Gort the Robot Mar 17 '16 at 0:07
  • It's a bit like EU treaties. Each EU country can have its own rules on how they decide whether to approve them. (I don't know whether that technically applies in the U.S. too). In some cases (most often in Ireland), a referendum was required in one or two countries. – John B. Lambe Nov 15 '18 at 21:27

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