Referendums may be relatively new for the Cayman Islands, but around the world they have been used to varying degrees for some time as part of the democratic process.
Here, we look at the how, why and when of referendums in other jurisdictions.
Switzerland, the capital of direct democracy
Switzerland is the undisputed capital of direct democracy with the oldest and most entrenched referendum system in the world. Residents go to the polls up to four times a year to vote on numerous federal and regional proposals.
The Swiss have three types of referendums.
Mandatory referendums are for constitutional amendments and require a ‘double majority’, meaning they must carry the national popular vote at the polls and win favour in the majority of the cantons – the Swiss government districts.
Optional referendums can be brought if citizens are able to gather 50,000 signatures within 100 days to contest a new law. The law is then passed or rejected by a simple majority of voters.
Popular initiatives are perhaps the closest the Swiss have to Cayman’s people-initiated referendums. These must be launched by a group of at least seven citizens and backed by 100,000 signatures within 18 months to push it to the polls. These votes also require a double majority.
Popular initiatives are often the most controversial, headline-making referendums. The Swiss banned minarets – the tall towers that feature on mosques to call the faithful to prayer – through a popular vote in 2009. A proposal to introduce a universal basic income of around $2,000 per month per person was rejected overwhelmingly at the polls in 2016.
Though the Swiss have the double majority rule to raise the bar in referendums, there is no equivalent to Cayman’s requirement for a majority of registered electors (rather than a majority of those who turn out to vote). With a turnout rate of around 54% in Swiss referendums, this would be a near-impossible bar.
Brexit, a rare and bruising experience for UK
Though the Brits have hosted perhaps the most controversial and consequential referendum in recent times, going to the public for a national vote of this kind is not something that happens often in the UK. The Brexit vote was one of only three referendums ever held across the whole of the UK.
One of the reasons for this is the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, which is entrenched in British politics. The result of a referendum is not constitutionally binding on Parliament or the government. As seen in the Brexit vote, however, it does have a persuasive political impact.
Though the UK has a law that sets out the basic details of how referendums are organised and sets campaign finance limits, each vote has to be arranged through bespoke legislation. The European Union Referendum Act 2015, which facilitated the Brexit referendum, didn’t say anything about implementing the result of the vote and there is no constitutional measure within the UK that would make it binding. In legal terms, the Brexit vote was ‘advisory’.
Prime Minister David Cameron would have been free to ignore the result and keep Britain in the European Union. However, he campaigned on a promise to follow the will of the people and the Conservative-led government has stood by that promise since his resignation. Despite the turmoil that has ensued since the vote, there is a general consensus within UK politics that whoever is in government should abide by the result.
Brexit was decided by a straight majority of those who turned out at the polls – 17.41 million voted to leave the EU while 16.14 million voted to stay. Just over 70% of registered voters turned out to have their say.
Californians vote on everything from plastic bags to same-sex marriage
In the US, 24 states have voter-sponsored initiative processes. Among those, California’s is one of the most liberal and most active.
Any voter can sponsor an initiative or a referendum in California. An initiative can be a proposed law or an amendment to the state Constitution. A referendum is an approval or rejection of a law already passed by the state legislature.
Getting either one on the ballot as a proposition requires a US$2,000 filing fee and submitting the text of the initiative to the secretary of state for legal review.
Once that hurdle is cleared, backers of the proposition must collect a qualifying number of voter signatures. An initiative or referendum requires signatures totalling 5% of the number of people who voted in the previous gubernatorial election. For a constitutional amendment, the threshold is 8%.
Independent companies are often contracted to collect signatures, depending on the financial resources of the backers of a proposition. Organisers have 150 days from the time of approval to collect the required number of signatures.
Propositions are typically added to the ballot of a general election. A proposition passes if it receives 50% plus 1 of the votes cast in the election.
Recent referendums in California have resulted in a ban on single-use plastic bags and the legalisation of marijuana for recreational use. A successful proposition against same-sex marriage in 2008 was overturned by the state’s Supreme Court, which ruled it was unconstitutional.
Battle for human rights a feature of Irish referendums
Since Ireland implemented its first Constitution in 1937, the country has held 38 referendums, including 12 in the past decade. The subjects of the referendums have been diverse, from legalising divorce, same-sex marriage and abortion, to removing blasphemy as an offence in the constitution. Several have involved Ireland’s relationship with the European Union.
The referendums are decided with a simple majority of votes cast, with no minimum turnout required.
The Irish constitution provides for two types of referendums – a ‘constitutional referendum’, on a proposal to amend the constitution, and an ‘ordinary referendum’ on matters of national importance that do not involve amending the Constitution. Up to now, no ordinary referendum has ever taken place in Ireland.
A referendum on abortion was prompted in 2018 following recommendations from a Citizens Assembly, consisting of 99 randomly chosen citizens and chaired by a judge. The assembly was established in 2016 to consider a number of constitutional issues. It lasted 18 months and considered five subjects: abortion, climate change, Ireland’s ageing population, how referendums are conducted and fixed-term parliaments.
Generally, for each new referendum, a Referendum Commission is set up. The commission is an independent body whose primary role is to explain the subject matter of the referendum proposal, to promote public awareness of the referendum and to encourage the electorate to vote.
A proposal to amend the country’s constitution first must be approved by both Houses of the Oireachtas (parliament), then submitted to a public referendum, and finally signed into law by the Irish president.