The right referendum.

It is important that the wording of referendums is clear as the results are legally binding. The way the question is phrased can also have significant affects on how people vote.

There are a number of mechanisms that may be employed to minimise or eliminate the sorts of issues which arise from a referendum being poorly worded. In some US states a proposed initiative is subject to review by the attorney general's office or some other office delegated to do this. This can be done before the initiative is circulated so problems can be worked out in advance. The originators of the initiative however are not required to take the legal advice. In other states, the initiative goes directly to referendum with no review. This can cause problems because referendums can be passed that are unconstituitional or do not comply with human rights legislation that is in force, so after the state has gone to the expense of organising the referendum the result is struck down by the courts.

Americans are well aware of the problem and a survey in California in 2001 asked if voters would favour or oppose a system of review of proposed initiatives to avoid drafting errors and problems with ballot language. 77% favoured a review, 15% opposed review and 8% responded as don't know.

The type of review system adopted is also important. When an initiative is required to pass judicial review in some American states, that review can be subject to political manipulation. In Mississippi, one county judge can prevent an initiative to amend the constitution from being placed on the ballot. This has happened twice on proposals to do away with legalized gambling in the state.

In Switzerland advice is available and the Swiss require each referendum question to address a single issue only.

Research has shown that one of the most important issues is the drafting of the referendum question and that the assistance of an advisory body on referendum wording is a useful tool.