Comparing Referenda and Plebiscites

by Norman Davies

The difference between a referendum and a plebiscite is a fine one. Both pertain to collective decisions made by the direct vote of all qualified adults. The referendum, which derives from Swiss practice, involves an issue that is provisionally determined in advance, but that is then ‘referred’ for a final decision by the whole electorate. This would have suited the circumstances envisaged by the Treaty of Turin, but ‘plebiscite’ was the term that the treaty used.


Plebiscites were common in neneteenth-century Europe, especially in France. The scitum plebis or ‘people’s choice’ had its roots in ancient Rome and was revived during the French Revolution, when popular support was sought for successive constitutions. Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’etat was approved by plebiscite in 1851, as was the restoration of the French Empire in 1852. The plebiscites in Nice and Savoy were to form part of a a series starting in Parma, Modena, Tuscany and Romagna. Plebiscites are often critized for being open to manipulation. The wording, the timing, the local circumstances and the degree of impartial supervision can all affect the outcome. In 1860 in Nice and Savoy, none of the basic safeguards were in place. The plebiscites were staged for the purpose of obtaining a preconceived result; Napoleon III aimed to keep procedures under close French control; the press was subjected to censorship; and the ‘Sardinian’ government obligingly ┬áresigned all responsibility.

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