Just looking for confirmation that many countries have ways for citizens to vote directly on rulings on the federal level but that the US has absolutely no similar such construct.

  • 2
    "initiate", or "vote on"? Title and text don't quite meet.
    – WPNSGuy
    May 15 at 2:40
  • 6
    individual US States do have "ballot initiatives", which in some cases (eg California) do include a mechanism for "citizen" initiatives. With the requirement of e.g. some number of petition signatures to get it on the ballot. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_ballot_proposition ... there is no equivalent for the Federal government as far as I know. There is something called a Constitutional Convention which can be called by States (themselves perhaps determining this via referendums??), but this is a much more elaborate exercise and prohibitively hard
    – Pete W
    May 15 at 2:40
  • 18
    Actually, if you look at Europe in referendums by country, a good number of the European examples can only be initiated by the government or parliament. The citizens can't just say "let's hold a referendum". May 15 at 3:51
  • 2
    Direct ballot referenda are about as small-d democracy as you can get. The Founding Fathers were very much pro-republicanism and anti-democracy (if for no other reason than it was a big and incredibly rural country in 1785). Travel was slow between big cities, so you can imagine how hard/muddy it was out to small towns and villages. It's why the Electoral College was developed: vote for someone you trust who is informed and can take the time to go to the Capital and vote for President. Heck, even Senators were elected by state legislatures.
    – RonJohn
    May 16 at 18:21
  • 1
    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica : The citizens can say "let's hold a referendum" by gathering enough signatures and petitioning the government. The government is not forced by law to hold a referendum, they can just ignore it. But if enough signatures are gathered, they usually do hold it, else they fear they would suffer a hit to their approval ratings.
    – vsz
    May 17 at 5:25

2 Answers 2


There is no constitutional provision for referendums in the constitution of the USA. In practice, the USA does not hold referendums across the whole country.

Popular initiative processes exist in 24 of the 50 states and DC.

Around the world there are various countries that have popular initiative processes. They tend to be unitary states rather than federal states. The exact process varies, and normally involves the legislature of the country in some way.

In many countries (eg Finland) if a certain number of signatures are collected, then the proposal will be considered by the legislature, but it is not bound to hold a referendum. In other countries (eg Poland) a popular initiative can force a referendum, but the precise wording of the law is still set by the legislature. The legislature may amend or re-word a draft bill between the collection of signatures, and the referendum to confirm it.

In many countries, the process to amend the constitution is to hold a referendum, in some countries (eg Romania) constitutional amendments may be proposed by the citizen initiative.

Federal states tend not to have such provisions. This is consistent with the principle that the members of a federal state are the individual states, not the people. Thus in the USA, the process for approving a constitutional amendment involves referral to the states, not referral to the population.

See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Popular_initiative

  • 29
    It might be worth mentioning that Switzerland, a country well-known for its citizens referenda, is a very federal state.
    – Philipp
    May 15 at 7:36
  • 5
    Re: "the principle that the members of a federal state are the individual states, not the people": I think that principle is somewhat mixed. The American federal system mostly took that approach before the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted in 1868 -- though never completely -- but the Fourteenth Amendment really upgraded the notion of "U.S. citizen". It's just that the mechanism for constitutional amendments predates that.
    – ruakh
    May 15 at 23:32
  • 5
    Timing is as much as factor as federalism. Initiatives and referenda in U.S. politics are largely a product of the Progressive movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The states that first adopted it were mostly Western states that were admitted later when that was a thing. Where it is present in Eastern U.S. states this is largely in imitation of prior efforts in these Western States. The U.S. Constitution was adopted before there was a real awareness of direct democracy at the ballot box, when Republics at all were rare, and it was made to be hard to amend.
    – ohwilleke
    May 16 at 0:00
  • 1
    As another point of anecdotal evidence, Germany is a federal state that does not have referenda.
    – Toffomat
    May 16 at 7:16
  • 1
    @Philipp: Switzerland is an exception to many rules. There are very few other countries in the world whose national/federal government looks anything like Switzerland's federal government. If you tried to implement a Swiss-like government on a larger scale than Switzerland, you'd probably end up with something at least as fragile as the Holy Roman Empire.
    – Kevin
    May 17 at 8:42

You are correct. There is not.

What might surprise you more is that "US elections" are a verbal shorthand for something like "all 50 states voting on issues of national importance on the same day." There's no mechanism in the US Constitution for nationwide vote counting in any capacity. There's no national authority for voter registration. There are minimal national regulations on who may or may not vote. Democracy is a function of American states much more than the federal government.

Legal challenges aside, it's one of the primary weaknesses in the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. When the vote is close, it's common for candidates to call for a recount. There's no such thing as a nationwide recount for a popular vote, a unified process for requesting one between states, or even grounds for recounts that make sense when you're counting votes both inside and outside the state.

  • I wouldn't necessarily say that "there are minimal national regulations on who may or may not vote" is true. The U.S. Constitution specifically requires that no one can be disenfranchised due to race, sex, or (for those 18 or over) age and also that no poll tax or other charge can be required to vote. In practice, the only factor that can prevent a citizen 18 or over from voting in any state is conviction of a felony.
    – reirab
    May 17 at 2:52
  • 1
    @reirab There is no affirmative federal definition of the franchise, just limitations on what state governments can and cannot do. For example, property ownership could be required to vote (and historically was required) so long as non-payment of property taxes on that property wasn't disqualifying. Or, a state could prohibit voting if you'd ever filed for bankruptcy (a historical requirement in some countries). Literacy tests are only barred by statute under the Voting Rights Act utilizing the enforcement powers of the 14th Amendment, rather than constitutionally.
    – ohwilleke
    May 17 at 18:17
  • 1
    The first two examples are true in theory, but would probably set a record for quickest ratification of a Constitutional amendment if a state tried that today. The last is also true, but a law passed by Congress would still count as a "national regulation," at least if I'm correctly interpreting what that term is supposed to mean. Agreed that there's not a set federal definition, but rather only specific limits on what states can do, though, in practice, there's little difference today between states, aside from how felons are handled.
    – reirab
    May 17 at 22:55
  • 1
    In all fairness, the federal government does have some affirmative guidelines on registration. Some locales allow noncitizens to vote in local elections, which is permitted as long as they aren't voting in federal elections. Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council gave rise to a really bizarre scenario for the reverse: some people get a ballot with only federal elections because they haven't adequately proven their citizenship status to the state, which disqualifies them from voting in the local elections. But in general SCOTUS has held that states, not Congress, get to decide who can vote.
    – Alex
    May 18 at 1:38

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .