“Referendum” is a general term which refers to a measure that appears on the ballot. There are two primary types of referenda: the legislative referendum, whereby the Legislature refers a measure to the voters for their approval, and the popular referendum, a measure that appears on the ballot as a result of a voter petition drive. The popular referendum is similar to the initiative in that both are triggered by petitions, but there are important differences.
Legislatures are often required to refer certain measures to the ballot for voter approval. For instance, changes to the state constitution must be approved by voters before they can take effect. Many state legislatures are also required by their state constitutions to refer bond measures and tax changes to the voters. Although this is not always the case, legislative referenda tend to be less controversial than citizen initiatives, are more often approved by voters than citizen initiatives, and often receive higher vote thresholds. Legislative referenda may appear on the ballot in all 50 states.
The popular referendum is a device which allows voters to approve or repeal an act of the Legislature. If the Legislature passes a law that voters do not approve of, they may gather signatures to demand a popular vote on the law. Generally, there is a 90-day period after the law is passed during which the petitioning must take place. Once enough signatures are gathered and verified, the new law appears on the ballot for a popular vote. During the time between passage and the popular vote, the law may not take effect. If voters approve of the law, it takes effect as scheduled. If voters reject the law, it is voided and does not take effect. 24 states have the popular referendum. Most of them are also initiative states.
A third form of referendum, the advisory referendum, is rarely used. In this form of the process, the Legislature, and in some states the governor, may place a question on the ballot to gauge voter opinion. The results of the election on this question are not binding. An example of an advisory referendum is Question 5, which appeared on the Rhode Island ballot in 2002. Placed on the ballot by the governor, Question 5 asked voters if they favored changing the state constitution to make the three branches of government co-equal. Although voters overwhelming voted yes, the question was non-binding and the governor and legislature were not obligated to act upon the measure.