Referendums do not by any measure have a good past; dating back to 1930s Hitler used them to legitimise his illegitimate actions including the annexation of Austria and the Rhineland and even continued in the 1970s when Pinochet forced his people to choose between country and cowardice. However, in light of the revolution which has seen the popularisation of referendums, the question must be posed whether referendums are an expression of democracy.
For the purposes of the essay, a democracy is defined as Abraham Lincoln did so; "rule by the people, for the people" A referendum asks the public to vote on a single issue, this way the will of the people is expressed and although at first it may seem that this is an obvious expression of democracy and one could go further and say that it actually encourages democracy; it gives people who have been disenchanted with politics a chance to see that they can be listened to.
It can also be said that referendums are better than general elections because they allow for a democratic decision to be made on a single issue rather than a spectrum of issues. However, political observers must acknowledge that there are two types of referendums, and one of them shows that referendums aren't necessarily an expression of democracy: advisory referendums. Just because the public have given an opinion doesn't mean their 'will' will be implemented. New Zealand appears to be one of the worst offenders, where the government have rejected two of the three referendums since 1993.
Following this line, governments call referendums either when they know that they will get the majority of the vote (much like Hitler's four plebiscites), it is a constitutional necessity (such as the Ireland vote on the Lisbon Treaty) or when they can't make a decision. It can also be argued that referendums do not express democracy because the turnout it low and thus can not express "the people's'" will. In Ireland, when the Nice treaty was put to the people only 35% of the electorate participated, suggesting that the majority hadn't expressed their will therefore the referendum could not express democracy.
However this point is addressed in some countries where the put a quote on the amount of people who must take part before it is accepted. Although this can also be disputed, when Wales was asked if they wanted an assembly in 1997, only 50. 1% of the electorate showed up (which qualified the quota) but of this turnout, only 50. 3% wanted the Assembly. Referendums can also be seen as undemocratic because they undermine a representative democracy. The essence of a representative democracy is accountability and the ability of the electorate to vote for someone else if the government should make an unfavourable choice.
However, this argument fails to note that democracy is about the will of the people consistently, to uphold a democracy, people must always be asked. Furthermore, by not allowing a referendum to check government, elective dictatorships will be allowed to rule and effectively do what ever they so wish in the years they are in power. This will also insure there is a check on government, as Thomas Hobbes said "liberty is power cut up into pieces". Although executives aren't the only ones who induce tyranny, indeed as James Madison said referendums are "tyranny of the majority".
Referendums only express the people's will at a certain point in time. Just because Scotland wants her own parliament now, doesn't mean that she wants parliament in twenty years. This need for continuity would see voter fatigue arise. Furthermore, can we actually say that the public are expressing their will at all? Voters may be swayed by celebrities, strong figures or even expansive campaigns. Commentators such as George Schi?? pflin have suggested that referendums are not just about the issue but a way of showing support (or lack of) for the current government.
He notes the 2008 Hungarian Referendum which wasn't about the issue at all but a stance against the socialist government. The view that referendums are not an expression of democracy and that the results do not necessarily show the will are then reinforced by the fact that referendums often have two options and two different questions. This can lead to voter confusion which means that when they vote they are not actually expressing what they believe and thus not expressing democracy (if it is a binding referendum)
It can also be said that because of the ambiguous meaning of the word "democracy" means that referendums can indeed be undemocratic. Yale University defines democracy as "free press, free elections, equal rights and liberties" and so certain referendums can be said to undemocratic. For instance, the Swiss Referendum naturalisation which would result in people's rights to live (by implication) being taken away depending on the vote given. If were to go further and take a more liberal definition of democracy we can see that California referendum on 'Proposition 8' would violate a liberal view of democracy.
Proposition 8 stated that same-sex marriage were no longer valid in California thereby taking away their right to marriage. To conclude, referendums can not be considered to be democratic because they only represent the opinion of one group at a certain time, governments can ignore them and they are usually only given when it is known that they will be passed. To ensure that referendums are more democratic, questions and answers shold be made more clear (so that the 'seperability problem' is removed) and should be enforced more frequently over a wide range of issues.