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Referendum vs. Plebiscite: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Janet White || Updated on September 25, 2023
A general vote on a specific political question, often initiated by the government. A direct vote of the people on an issue, usually initiated by the government for legitimacy or public opinion.

Key Differences

A "Referendum" is generally a vote by the electorate on a particular issue or law, usually initiated by the government or legislature. "Plebiscite," on the other hand, is typically a direct vote by the citizens on an issue that often seeks to legitimize government actions.
"Referendum" usually addresses a specific policy or legislative initiative, asking the public for approval or disapproval. In contrast, a "Plebiscite" often deals with fundamental or constitutional matters and may be used to gauge public opinion more broadly.
In terms of grammar, both "Referendum" and "Plebiscite" function as nouns, with the plural forms "Referendums" or "Referenda" for Referendum, and "Plebiscites" for Plebiscite. The terminology can often vary based on jurisdiction or context.
The scope of a "Referendum" is generally narrower and pertains to laws or specific governmental decisions. A "Plebiscite" usually addresses broader constitutional or national issues, such as sovereignty or territorial changes.
While both "Referendum" and "Plebiscite" are tools of direct democracy, a Referendum is often binding, meaning the government is obliged to act based on the result. A Plebiscite, however, is often consultative, meaning it gauges public sentiment but may not be binding.

Comparison Chart


Vote on a specific political question.
Direct vote on an issue for legitimacy.


Usually legislative or policy.
Often constitutional or national.

Grammatical Use

Functions as a noun.
Functions as a noun.

Binding Nature

Often binding.
Usually consultative.


Narrower, specific laws or policies.
Broader, fundamental issues.

Referendum and Plebiscite Definitions


Vote on specific legislation.
The Referendum on healthcare was divisive.


Public vote on constitutional matters.
The Plebiscite decided the fate of the territory.


Popular vote to confirm a political action.
The Brexit Referendum shocked many.


Consultative vote to gauge public opinion.
The Plebiscite was non-binding but influential.


Government-initiated public vote.
The Referendum on tax reforms was overwhelmingly positive.


Direct vote for political legitimacy.
The Plebiscite was held to legitimize the new regime.


Public opinion on a policy change.
The Referendum showed strong support for renewable energy.


Vote on territorial changes.
The Plebiscite determined the border dispute.


The submission of a proposed public measure or actual statute to a direct popular vote.


Vote on national issues.
The Plebiscite was about joining a new federation.


Such a vote.


A direct vote in which the entire electorate is invited to accept or refuse a proposal
The new constitution was ratified in a plebiscite.


A note from a diplomat to the diplomat's government requesting instructions.


A vote in which a population exercises the right of national self-determination.


(politics) A direct popular vote on a proposed law or constitutional amendment. The adposition on is usually used before the related subject of the vote.


A referendum, especially one that concerns changes in sovereignty


An action, choice, etc., which is perceived as passing judgment on another matter.
My father is taking my decision on whether to go to university as a referendum on his performance as a parent, and it's very stressful.


A vote by universal male suffrage; especially, in France, a popular vote, as first sanctioned by the National Constitution of 1791.
Plebiscite we have lately taken, in popular use, from the French.


A diplomatic agent's note asking for instructions from his government concerning a particular matter or point.


A vote by the electorate determining public opinion on a question of national importance


The right to approve or reject by popular vote a meassure passed upon by a legislature.


The principle or practice of referring measures passed upon by the legislative body to the body of voters, or electorate, for approval or rejection, as in the Swiss cantons (except Freiburg) and in various local governments in the United States, and also in the local option laws, etc.; also, the right to so approve or reject laws, or the vote by which this is done. Referendum is distinguished from the mandate, or instruction of representatives by the people, from direct government by the people, in which they initiate and make the laws by direct action without representation, and from a plebiscite, or popular vote taken on any measure proposed by a person or body having the initiative but not constituting a representative or constituent body.


A legislative act is referred for final approval to a popular vote by the electorate


Decision on constitutional amendments.
The Referendum led to changes in gun control laws.


Can a Referendum change laws?

Yes, a Referendum can lead to changes in laws or policies.

What is a Plebiscite?

A Plebiscite is a direct vote by the people on an issue, often for legitimacy or public opinion.

Are Referendums binding?

Referendums are often binding, meaning the government must act on the result.

What is the scope of a Plebiscite?

A Plebiscite often deals with broader constitutional or national issues.

Are Plebiscites binding?

Plebiscites are usually consultative and may not be binding.

What's the plural of Plebiscite?

The plural of Plebiscite is "Plebiscites."

What is a Referendum?

A Referendum is a general vote by the electorate on a specific political question.

How are Referendums initiated?

Referendums are usually initiated by the government or legislative bodies.

Can individuals initiate a Referendum?

In some jurisdictions, citizens can petition for a Referendum.

What's the plural of Referendum?

The plural can be either "Referendums" or "Referenda."

How are Plebiscites initiated?

Plebiscites are often initiated by the government to gauge public opinion or legitimize actions.

Are Referendums democratic?

Yes, both Referendums and Plebiscites are tools of direct democracy.

Is a Plebiscite the same as a Referendum?

While similar, they differ in scope, initiation, and often in their binding nature.

Can a Referendum be reversed?

Depending on the jurisdiction, some Referendums can be overturned by future Referendums.

Can a Plebiscite be about anything?

A Plebiscite is usually about significant constitutional or national matters.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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