Flag DE[DE] Eine Typologie moderner direkter Demokratie und der Volksabstimmungsverfahren
Flag FI[FI] Modernin suoran demokratian ja kansanäänestysmenettelyjen luokittelu

A General Typology of Modern Direct Democracy

This typology offers a coordinate system, covering all procedures of popular votes on substantive issues. This means that popular votes on persons and parties, like for example recall procedures, are NOT included. The basic structure of the proposed classification is based on the division of popular vote procedures into three different types: initiative, referendum and plebiscite. The initiative comprises procedures where the author of the ballot proposal is THE SAME as the initiator of the procedure, the referendum procedures where the author of the ballot proposal is NOT the same as the initiator of the procedure. Finally the plebiscite comprises procedures initiated by a representative authority. There exist procedures and practices where elements of different types of procedure are mixed like, for example, the agenda setting initiative. Such procedures are usually the outcome of a compromise between proponents and opponents of direct democracy, often resulting in bad legal design.

Typology table all

(1) ‘Popular initiative’ and ‘citizens’ initiative’ are used as synonyms.
(2) ‘Popular referendum’ and ‘citizen-initiated referendum’ are used as synonyms.
(3) The agenda setting initiative does not include a popular vote.
(4) Citizens’ assemblies are forms of direct democracy; they call for their own analysis and are not considered here.

How to use the typology (Opens PDF in new window)

Contains an algorithm designed to help to determine the forms of procedure that are given by law (constitution + referendum laws + regulations).

Popular vote procedures can be considered as political tools, of which different types can be identified: initiative, referendum and plebiscite. Just like a hammer or screwdriver exists in different forms, also initiative, referendum and plebiscite exist in different forms for different applications. One form of a referendum is for example a referendum triggered by law, another a citizen-initiated referendum. In the following the different forms of popular vote procedures and their characteristics will be described. The term popular vote is used to designate a vote on a substantive political issue made by the voters, as opposed to a vote made by elected representatives. The term does not indicate of what type the designated procedure is, and no particular definition of direct democracy is implied.

On the one hand a typology is needed to avoid confusions in the discussions of direct democracy. Confusions arise when different types of procedures are given the same name, like when the word ‘referendum’ is used indistinguishably for authorities’ controlled popular votes and for real referendums. Inversely a good deal of confusion results if the same procedure is given many different names, for example, if an agenda setting initiative is also called people’s petition, popular initiative and people’s proposition. On the other hand different countries use different juridical terminologies. Without a typology it is not possible to compare the repertoire of popular vote procedures between countries.

The aim of this typology is to classify the really existing procedures in a realistic and not only formal way. The words ‘initiative’ and ‘referendum’ designate two different types of procedures, whose use is controlled by minorities (a group of citizens) except for the obligatory referendum, which is determined by law. The word ‘plebiscite’ is used to designate a third type of procedure: authorities’ controlled popular votes. The distinction between citizen-initiated referendums and authority-initiated plebiscites is crucial; whereas referendums are tools of the people, plebiscites operate as tools of power holders for legitimization and mobilization or for bypassing other representative institutions or for disengaging from tough policies.

What does this typology look like?
This classification of popular vote procedures includes only votes on substantive issues, not on people (like recall elections). It distinguishes popular vote procedures according to who is

1) the author of the ballot proposal (a group of citizens, a minority of a representative authority, a representative authority)

2) the initiator of the procedure (a group of citizens, law, a minority of a representative authority, a representative authority).

3) the decision-maker (the whole electorate, a representative authority).

As a result we get five procedures, which empower citizens (table 1) and four procedures, which empower representatives, not citizens (table 2). Unlike initiative- and referendum-procedures, plebiscites can be binding or merely consultative, in which case the final decision is made by representatives. In my view plebiscites do not belong to direct democracy (see What does modern direct democracy mean?).

In the following tables the forms of procedure are listed in column 1. The following columns indicate who is the author of the ballot proposal (column 2), who has the right to initiate the procedure (column 3), and who has the right to decide about the outcome of the procedure (column 4). Colours indicate the TYPE of procedure: green for the initiative, red for the referendum, and grey for plebiscite.


First letter = initiator of the procedure
A=Authority, L=Law, M=Minority of an Authority, P=Popular

Second letter = characteristic feature of the procedure
A=Agenda setting, C=Citizen controlled, O=Obligatory, T=Top-down, V=Veto,

Third letter = type of procedure
A=Assembly, I=Initiative, P=Plebiscite, R=Referendum, X=Mixed

The “+” sign tells, that the procedure includes the possibility of a counter proposal

Table 1 Tools for empowering citizens (initiatives and referendums)

Typology table1

Table 2 Tools for empowering authorities (plebiscites)

Tyology table2

The agenda setting initiative is not a popular vote procedure for the obvious reason that it does not include a popular vote. It also lacks an essential ingredient of direct democracy: the right of citizens to decide. Although the initial phase of the agenda setting initiative resembles a citizens’ initiative, there is a significant difference: the citizens’ initiative is directed to all the citizens and the agenda initiative to a representative authority (e.g. parliament, the European commission). In addition, while the citizens’ initiative makes a ballot proposal the agenda setting initiative makes merely a request, which is at the discretion of a representative authority. The agenda setting initiative may look much like a real citizens’ initiative, but it assumes a deeply different character due to the categorical imbalance of power between the citizens and the decision-makers. It is of a mixed type, combining elements of an initiative with elements of a plebiscite: citizens have the right to initiate the procedure and make a request, but then control is handed over to representatives, which have the right to decide what to do with the request.
Table 3 Agenda setting initiative (mixed type)

Typology table3

TYPES and forms of popular vote procedures


Designates a type of popular vote procedures. Initiative procedures are characterized by the right of a minority, normally a specified number of citizens, to propose to the public the introduction of a new or renewed law. The decision on the proposal is made through a popular vote.

Popular or citizens’ initiative (PCI)

A popular vote procedure and a political right that allows a given number of citizens to put their own proposal on the political agenda. The proposal may be, for example, to amend the constitution, adopt a new law, or repeal or amend an already existing law. The procedure is initiated by a prescribed number of eligible voters. The sponsors of a popular inititive can force a popular vote on their proposal (assuming that their initiative is formally adopted). The initiative procedure may include a withdrawal clause, which gives the sponsors the possibility to withdraw their initiative, for example in the event that the legislature has taken action to fulfil the demands of the initiative or part of them.

This procedure may operate as a means of innovation and reform: it allows people to step on the gas pedal. In principle, initiatives enable people to get what they want. In practice, it is a means to synchronize the citizens’ view with the politicians’ view.

Popular or citizens’ initiative + authorities’ counter-proposal (PCI+)

Within the framework of a popular initiative process a representative authority (normally parliament) has the right to formulate a counter-proposal to the initiative proposal. Both proposals are then decided on at the same time by a popular vote. If both proposals are accepted, the decision on whether the initiative proposal or the authority’s counter-proposal should be implemented can be made by means of a special deciding question.


Designates a type of popular vote procedures. A referendum is a popular vote procedure, which includes a popular vote on a substantive issue (ballot proposal) like, for example, a constitutional amendment or a bill; the voters have the right to either accept or reject the ballot proposal.

The procedure is triggered either by law (-> obligatory referendum) or by a specified number of citizens (-> popular referendum).

Popular or citizen-initiated referendum (PCR)

A popular vote procedure and a political right that allows a specified number of citiens to initiate a referendum and let the whole electorate decide whether, for example, a particular law should be enacted or repealed.

This procedure acts as a corrective to parliamentary decision-making in representative democracies and as a check on parliament and the government. The „people“ or demos (i.e. all those with the right to vote) has the right to decide in retrospect on decisions made by the legislature. Whereas the popular initiative works like a gas pedal (speeding up developments, which can be progressive or regressive), the popular referendum gives people the possibility to step on the brakes. In practice, popular referendums (like popular initiatives) are a means to synchronize the citizens’ view with the politicians’ view.

Popular referendum + counter-proposal (PCR+)

This popular vote procedure combines a popular referendum against a decision by an authority with a referendum on a counter-proposal. If both proposals are accepted, the decision between the two can be made by means of a deciding question.

Obligatory referendum (LOR)

This popular vote procedure is triggered automatically by law (usually the constitution), which requires that certain issues must be put before the voters for approval or rejection. A conditional obligatory referendum means, that a specified issue must be put to the ballot only under certain conditions (for example, in Denmark the delegation of powers to international authorities is decided by popular vote if more than half but less than four fifth of the parliament accept such a proposal). Unconditional referendums are without loophole (for example, in Switzerland changes of the constitution must always be decided by a popular vote).


Designates a type of popular vote procedures. A plebiscite is a public consultation controlled „from above“. It is the powers that be (the President, Prime Minister, Parliament), which decide when and on what subject the people will be asked to vote or give their opinion. Rather than being an active subject in control of the procedure, people (popular votes) become means to an end, which is determined by a representative authority. Plebiscites give ruling politicians additional power over citizens. They are used to evade responsibility for controversial issues, which have become an impediment, they are used to provide legitimacy for decisions those in power have already taken, they are used to mobilize people behind rulers and parties, and they are used by an authority to bypass another representative authority. The aim of a plebiscite is not to implement democracy, but to reinforce or salvage those in power with the help of „the people“.

Plebiscite (ATP)

A popular vote procedure whose use lies exclusively within the control of an authority. In this form the author of the ballot proposal and the initiator of the procedure are the same (for example parliament or president).

Veto-plebiscite (AVP)

A popular vote procedure whose use lies exclusively within the control of the authorites. In this form the author of the ballot proposal and the initiator of the procedure are NOT the same. For example, a government or a president may oppose (veto) a decision of parliament and refer it to a popular vote; hence the name veto plebiscite.

Authorities’ minority veto-plebiscite (MVP)

A popular vote procedure characterized by the right of a minority of a representative authority to put a decision made by the majority in the same authority before the voters for approval or rejection. This procedure enables a minority of a representative authority to step on the brakes and give the final say to the voters.

Authorities’ minority plebiscite (MTP)

A popular vote procedure and a political right that allows a specified minority of an authority (e.g. one third of the parliament) to put its own proposal on the political agenda and let the people decide on it by a popular vote.

Agenda (setting) initiative (PAX)

An agenda setting initiative is the right of a specified number of eligible voters to propose to a competent authority the adoption of a law or measure; the addressee of this proposal and request is not the whole electorate but a representative authority. In contrast to the popular initiative, it is this authority, which decides what is going to happen to the proposal.

An agenda initiative can be institutionalized in a variety of ways: for example as an agenda initiative without popular vote, as an agenda initiative combined with the possibility of a consultative or binding plebiscite or as a popular motion (“Volksmotion”). The popular motion can be the equivalent of a parliamentary motion; if adopted, it can also be treated like a popular initiative (this is the case in the canton of Obwalden, Switzerland).

updated 14.06.2015
[FI] added on 31.05.2015
[DE] added on 02.06.2015
[GR] added on 16.06.2015