A Guide to Understanding Referenda


Wis. Stat. § 5.02(16s) defines “referendum” as an election at which an advisory, validating or ratifying question is submitted to the electorate.” Broadly speaking, “referendum” or “referenda” are general terms that refer to a question appearing on the ballot to be voted on by voters. A referendum can arrive on the ballot through a number of means, for example, by action of a governing body explicitly placing a question on the ballot, some indirect action of a governing body which triggers a referendum, or through circulation of a petition by a voter (direct legislation) in a city or village. Except for most types of advisory (non-binding) referenda, the placement of referenda on a ballot in Wisconsin is governed by specific statutes. The statutory references to particular referenda are numerous in Wisconsin law and mostly outside of the WEC’s jurisdiction, therefore this guide will not cover every referendum permitted by statutes. While this guide provides general information regarding referenda, legal counsel specializing in the subject matter that permits or requires a referendum to be held in certain circumstances should be consulted to ensure that compliance with all requirements are met.

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