What is a Plebiscite?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A plebiscite is a popular vote on a proposal which includes the entire populace. Voters are asked to either reject or accept the proposal, with the outcome of the plebiscite determining the fate of the proposed measure, action, constitution, or other political proposal. A plebiscite should not be confused with a general election or regular voting, as no party candidates are included in it.

Voters are asked to either reject or accept the proposal.
Voters are asked to either reject or accept the proposal.

The word comes from the Latin plebis, “the people” and scitum, “decree.” Under a plebiscite, the people are allowed to decide on an issue of importance, and the outcome of the vote is like a decree from the citizens. Both democracies and dictatorships use plebiscites, although for very different purposes. In both instances, the vote cannot truly be called a plebiscite unless all eligible voters are able to participate.

In a democracy, a plebiscite serves a valuable function. It allows legislators and citizens alike to place laws directly in front of the citizens for judgment. In the United States, for example, many propositions on a ballot are actually from members of the population who lobbied for their inclusion and acquired the proper number of signatures to sponsor the proposition. The issue covered by a plebiscite can vary widely, from a measure proposing additional taxation to a resolution which censures the government.

In a dictatorship, a plebiscite is often use to prop up a government. A plebiscite does not offer alternatives, forcing voters to make a yes or no answer. This is not always a bad thing, especially when the proposal is clear cut, but it can be used to skew election results. The proposal may be worded in such a way that citizens feel obligated to vote one way or the other, or voters may be intimidated into making a particular choice. The government uses the results of the plebiscite to suggest that the citizens of the country are satisfied with their current political situation.

The term is also used in the context of major national political decisions, such as a those which result in the changeover of a government, the ceding of territory to another nation, or a bid for independence from a colonial power. This type of plebiscite can sometimes represent the first time citizens were asked to contribute their personal views to the decisions of the government, and can be a way to get citizens involved in the administration of their own nations. However, colonial powers have been known to use plebiscites to cement their authority, much in the way that dictatorships do. If the results of such a plebiscite seem unusual, people concerned about freedoms may want to consider reading the proposed measure carefully, or checking for tactics such as voter intimidation and ballot stuffing.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Vincenzo -- Things are even more complex than that. Quite often, a state attorney general will release an opinion declaring that something about a ballot initiative is improper.

Citizens might still try to get it on the ballot, but once the attorney general finds some deficient the chances are good that it will be struck down by the courts.

There are some that claim that the fact the judicial system exercises such power over these initiatives is somehow wrong. But it is important to recognize that courts exist to protect the laws and rights of citizens. Anything that violates those laws or rights should be struck down.


Keep in mind that in the United States, citizens are not allowed to just put any old thing on the ballot. Even if they circulate petitions and get enough votes to put an initiative on the ballot, the courts can still strike down the proposal as violating the state or United States constitution before voters even get the chance to decide on it.

That is why it is not uncommon to see an issue on the ballot on election day that can never become law.

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