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What is a referendum, anyway?

On Behalf of | Mar 2, 2022 | Firm News |

You hear it all the time; that a school board is trying to pass a referendum. You  see it on your voting slip. People might ask you, are you for the referendum or against it?

Some of us are profoundly involved in the referendum process. To us, it can be a real nail-biter. We are as invested in the referendum as are in the Cowboys winning the Super Bowl. To others, whether or not a referendum passes can feel about as significant as whether we get four or six packets of ketchup with our drive thru fries.

No matter where you fall on the importance of referendums ideological scale, you might be interested to know a thing or two about why we have them.

Referendum basics, the ‘why’

The purpose of any referendum is so that citizens can have a say. Referendums are focused on a single political question or objective that needs a direct decision. With the legislature, a referendum allows the people to vote on whether or not a legislative act becomes a law.

The purpose of a school district referendum  is usually to supplement operating and capital revenue. A school district may want funds for:

  • General operating needs (can only be held the first Tuesday in November with two exceptions, limited to ten years)
  • Building needs (typically through the sale of bonds, can be done any time, bonds can be issued for 20-30 years, have a per-pupil cap)
  • A down payment program (usually this is to raise up-front cash)

A referendum is voted on either by the electorate or by the people who live within a specific school district. A referendum is different than an issue that is voted on by a representative. The scope of a referendum can vary. It can involve one school district, one local area or be nationwide.

A law by any other name

Not all countries use the term referendum. Some countries call this process a plebiscite, a votation, a proposition or a popular consultation. You may hear talk of “the ballot question” or “the ballot measure” when folks are talking about a referendum. The word referendum can be somewhat of a catchall; used for both legislative referrals and initiatives.

What is the plural of referendum?

Here is the kicker: it’s referenda. Who knew?



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