Atlas Obscura is organizing trips! Join us on an adventure »

A Brief History of the Referendum

From 13th century Switzerland to Brexit.

(Photo: Jeff Djevdet/CC BY 2.0)

The United Kingdom voted by referendum yesterday to leave the European Union, an outbreak of populism that many are also saying could have long-lasting effects on the country’s economic and political future. 

Referendums are common features of many democracies, but rarely, in modern times, have they been so far-reaching and consequential. But throughout history referendums have also had a complicated legacy, leading many countries to political independence, while, in other cases, allowing dictators to legitimize their reigns.

The first evidence of the referendum as we know it was in the 13th Century in Switzerland, when men gathered and took votes on issues with a show of hands. The country later became something like the referendum capital of the world, incorporating the practice into the Swiss constitution in 1847. And, today, any issue that receives over 100,000 signatures in 18 months goes to a public vote, producing nine already in 2016 and 180 in the last 20 years.

But while Switzerland might swear by it, elsewhere the practice has a dark history. Former U.K. Prime Minister Clement Attlee called the referendum an “alien” device because it “has only too often been the instrument of Nazism and fascism.” Attlee was referring to Germany, which used referendums to authorize tremendous power for Adolf Hitler, like in 1934, when a public vote then made Hitler both Chancellor and President of the country. That gave him, the New York Times said then, ”dictatorial powers unequalled in any other country, and probably unequalled in history since the days of Genghis Khan.”

Referendums in other countries, though, have been used for good, like dozens this century that have used the votes to win self-determination and expell their imperial rulers. In 1958, for example, Gabon, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Congo, Chad and Niger all voted to secede from France. The same happened after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia and Ukraine all voted in favor of independence. More recently, Montenegro did the same in 2006, and people in South Sudan voted to become independent in 2011.

In the U.S., there’s no mechanism for national referendums, mostly because the Founding Fathers believed it would undermine a federal system, which is designed to provide autonomy to state governments. 

Still, 24 states hold referendums in two forms: legislative, whereby the Legislature refers a measure to the electorate, or popular, when the electorate petitions for one, usually by collecting residents’ signatures. The first referendum here is believed to have taken place in Massachusetts in 1788, and southern states used a referendum vote to propose secession in the run up to the Civil War. 

In modern times, California’s system might be the most famous, as the state regularly asks residents to vote on a variety of measures, many of which sometimes have drastic and unintended consequences. Most notoriously, voters approved Proposition 8 in 2008, repealing the state’s same-sex marriage law, years before the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage constitutional on a national level. 

Since the first British referendum was held in 1973, the ‘Brexit’ vote became the eleventh, and the second time the U.K. held a referendum to determine its future relationship with Europe. In 1975, Britain overwhelmingly voted to stay in the European European Community, the E.U.’s predecessor. 

And while the Brexit result has sent shockwaves across Europe and beyond, it probably won’t be the last referendum to have a dramatic effect on the U.K. The pro-EU leader of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon, said after Brexit that it was highly likely there will be another referendum to vote on Scotland’s independence from Britain, after most of Scotland voted to remain in the E.U. on Thursday. That means, for Scots at least, they might be able to correct the failure of one referendum with another.