Voting behavior in referendums

Authored by: Michael Marsh

The Routledge Handbook of Elections, Voting Behaviorand Public Opinion

Print publication date:  September  2017
Online publication date:  September  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138890404
eBook ISBN: 9781315712390
Adobe ISBN:


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Most of the research into voting behavior is carried out in the context of elections for parliaments and, particularly in the US, of an executive. These elections tend to focus on parties, and to a variable extent on individuals who will assume responsibility for policy making. However, in many countries voters are also provided on occasion with the chance to vote directly on policy options through a referendum. These have long been common in Switzerland, where citizens can initiate such votes, and in Italy, and have also been common in some US cities and states, but have been less common in most democracies. Major constitutional changes and questions of sovereignty have often been put to a referendum, as have moral issues. The establishment, and particularly the enlargement of the EU, seems boosted to the referendum industry as states have provided opportunities to the electorate to vote on initial membership, on treaty change and even, in Greenland and the UK, on whether or not to remain a member. Several European countries have also held votes on changes to laws, or constitutional provisions on moral issues like divorce and abortion and same-sex marriage, but we have also seen votes on matters as diverse as a new flag, a new electoral system, water privatization or cuts in judges’ pay. The question addressed in this chapter is how far what we know about voting behavior from looking at elections generalizes to voting behavior in referendums.

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