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(plĕb`ĭsīt) [Lat.,=popular decree], vote of the people on a question submitted to them, as in a referendumreferendum,
referral of proposed laws or constitutional amendments to the electorate for final approval. This direct form of legislation, along with the initiative, was known in Greece and other early democracies.
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. The term, however, has acquired the more specific meaning of a popular vote concerning changes of sovereignty, as compared to a regularized system of popular voting upon laws and constitutional amendments. This more modern use of the plebiscite arose out of the French Revolution and the French Republic's policy of holding popular votes on the question of French annexation of a territory it had occupied. Many, although not all, of these plebiscites and those held in the following century were manipulated by the occupying power to legitimate an outcome already achieved through military or diplomatic means. The use of the plebiscite reached a high point following World War I, when it was employed extensively in Central and Eastern Europe to determine the boundaries of newly created nation states. Since then, it has been used in settling the status of disputed or border territories, e.g., SaarlandSaarland
, state (1994 pop. 1,080,000), 991 sq mi (2,567 sq km), SW Germany; formerly called the Saar or the Saar Territory. Saarbrücken is the capital; other cities include Völklingen, Saarlouis, and Sankt Ingbert.
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 (1935) and, most recently, in the process of the decolonization of Africa and Asia, e.g., West New Guinea (1969; see PapuaPapua
or Irian Jaya
, province (2014 est pop. 3,486,000), 123,180 sq mi (319,036 sq km), Indonesia. Comprising most of the western half of New Guinea and a number of offshore islands, it is Indonesia's largest province; the extreme western peninsulas and offshore
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) and Namibia (1989).


See S. Wambaugh, Plebiscites since the World War (1933); L. T. Farley, Plebiscites and Sovereignty (1986).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(1) In ancient Rome, a resolution (plebiscitum) passed by assemblies of the plebs. The plebiscite, which originated in the early fifth century B.C., was not confirmed by the Senate and was originally binding only on the plebs. The plebiscite became binding on all the people through the laws of Valerius and Horatius (449 B.C.), Publius Philo (339 B.C.), and Hortensius (287 B.C.). In the third century B.C., lex (law) gradually replaced the plebiscite.

(2) A type of popular vote. As a rule, a plebiscite is conducted by a state that has annexed a foreign territory. The population is offered a plebiscite in order to give an accomplished fact the appearance of popular sanction.

In international relations, a plebiscite is held when foreign territories are seized or annexed in order to determine the will of the people in regard to state affiliation.

As stipulated by the Constitution of the USSR, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR or its Presidium may submit a draft law for a national discussion or a national referendum either on its own initiative or at request of a Soviet Republic.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. a direct vote by the electorate of a state, region, etc., on some question of usually national importance, such as union with another state or acceptance of a government programme
2. any expression or determination of public opinion on some matter
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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Taft's behavior illustrates all of his major political principles, most particularly his concern with radical, plebiscitary majoritarianism (and the concomitant problem of demagoguery), and helps to further elucidate his theory of the presidency.
(110.) See TUCK, supra note 8 at 190-205 (describing the development of plebiscitary constitutionalism as the predominant American model).
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Popular plebiscitary initiatives differ with regard to referenda for crucial national matters, and the difference lies in the timing in relation to the bill.
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In 1959, conservative political scientist James Burnham, in Congress and the American Tradition, wrote that "the political death of Congress would mean plebiscitary despotism for the United States in place of constitutional government, and thus the end of political liberty."
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He regretted the "abdication of Congress" and predicted that "the political death of Congress would mean plebiscitary despotism for the United States in place of constitutional government, and thus the end of political liberty" (Burnham 1959, 277, 352).
Is that not a major failing of a direct democracy system that has become more plebiscitary than it wants to be?
They are also deliberative as opposed to plebiscitary events, signature drives, or opinion surveys, in that they encourage dialogue between participants, seek to foster reflection about existing beliefs, and incorporate expert analysis and political argument into the ongoing discussion.
For this reason, constitutional changes are difficult and are meant to be difficult, typically requiring a combination of super majorities, ratification at both levels of government or even plebiscitary approval.