Citizen Referendum? I Vote “Needs Review”

We welcome a guest post from Larry Schooler, manager of the public engagement division for the city of Austin, Texas.

When is a referendum a good idea and when is it the wrong thing to do?

Citizen referenda bypass elected representatives and “the people” (or those who choose to vote and have the right to do so) decide.I am concerned that yes/no kind of referenda are not a good idea unless there is a strong lead-up for effective deliberation and the kind of question really is a yes/no choice.

I’m thinking about this based on actual or possible referenda not just for the June big event in the UK knows as “Brexit”, but also in Minneapolis, and my hometown of Austin.

  • Did the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote resolve anything? What does such a narrow margin of victory for the Leave (EU) position really mean?
  • What about the referendum in Austin, Texas, on transportation networking companies like Uber and Lyft? The measure was drafted by the companies and when it failed, two of the largest companies left the market entirely, though both sides have signaled the conversation isn’t over. What did that accomplish?
  • And what happens if a referendum moves forward in Minneapolis to require police officers to carry liability insurance? It may not even make it onto the ballot if the City Council says it’s illegal under state law, which could prolong the fight even longer in an expensively litigated process.






It is clear that referendum measures drafted by citizens, reinforced by petition signatures, are here to stay. I think they serve as an important “check” on the power of elected officials. But a “referendum on referendums” is in order.

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