The Deliberative Referendum: An Idea Whose Time has Come?

AuthorFrank Hendriks,Charlotte Wagenaar
Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterPerspectives
Administration & Society
2023, Vol. 55(3) 569 –590
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00953997221140898
The Deliberative
Referendum: An Idea
Whose Time has Come?
Frank Hendriks1 and Charlotte Wagenaar1
While deliberative citizens’ assemblies and plebiscitary referendums have long
been perceived as antithetical, the idea of combining the two democratic
instruments for better connecting administration and society has come to the
fore in both theory and practice in more recent years. In this article, three
ways of linking citizens’ assemblies to the referendum process are distinguished,
exemplified, institutionally compared, and reflectively discussed. The three—the
referendum-preparing, referendum-scrutinizing, and referendum-elaborating
citizens’ assembly—come with their distinctive features, potential merits, scope
limits, and related design questions. Fitting the “square peg of deliberative
democracy” into the “round hole of direct democracy” and embedding hybrid
design in diverging political systems are overarching challenges of institutional
design. The article concludes that considering recent developments in theory
and practice, the idea of a deliberative referendum linking citizens’ assemblies
to direct voting on issues, seems an idea whose time has come, but also comes
with challenges and questions that design thinkers and practitioners have only
begun to tackle and answer.
democratic innovation, direct democracy, deliberative democracy,
referendum, citizens’ assembly, hybrid reform
1Tilburg University, Department of Public Law and Governance, The Netherlands
Corresponding Author:
Frank Hendriks, Tilburg University, Warandelaan 2, Tilburg, 5000 LE, The Netherlands.
1140898AAS0010.1177/00953997221140898Administration & SocietyHendriks and Wagenaar
570 Administration & Society 55(3)
Small-Group Deliberation and Mass Voting: From
Antithetical to Synergistic?
In discussions about democratic innovations—instruments intended to forge
effective connections between administration and society in democratic sys-
tems—much attention is paid to two specific types of citizen participation
and collective will formation: referendums, in which the whole electorate, the
“maxi-public,” can vote directly on a policy issue, and citizens’ assemblies, in
which an—ideally representative—sample of the population, a “mini-public”
deliberates on a policy issue (e.g., Elstub & Escobar, 2019; Gastil & Richards,
2013; LeDuc, 2015). Neither innovations focused on direct voting in referen-
dums nor those focused on extensive deliberations in mini-publics are ideal
on their own (Geissel & Gherghina, 2016, p.88: Hendriks, 2019, p.448). By
connecting such innovations, we might be able to create synergies between
their relative merits, the benefits of which are potentially greater than the
benefits of each separate innovation (McKay, 2019; Saward, 2001, p. 363;
Tierney, 2013). A referendum proposal may for instance receive more sup-
port and policy impact when a citizens’ assembly has been involved in
designing, reviewing, or interpreting the proposition (Fishkin et al., 2015;
Gastil et al., 2014, 2018; Suiter & Reidy, 2020). Vice versa, the addition of a
referendum to a citizens’ assembly process may add focus to deliberations,
and may help to prevent the deliberations of the citizens’ assembly’s disap-
pear into thin air (e.g., Farrell et al., 2019, 2020; Fournier et al., 2011).
The idea of linking citizens’ assemblies and referendums may seem an
idea whose time has come, but it also comes with questions and reservations.
The referendum and the citizens’ s assembly emanate from two very different
strands of democratic theory and practice, and have long been perceived as
antithetical (LeDuc, 2015, p. 139; El-Wakil, 2017, p. 59; Landemore, 2018,
p. 320; Parkinson, 2020, p. 485); with the mini-public founded on a belief in
patient small-scale deliberation, and the referendum geared at swift aggrega-
tion of mass votes.1 The domain of referendums and other plebiscitary for-
mats seems one of “thinking fast”—reflexively, quickly translating individual
inclinations to a collective signal—whereas the domain of citizen’s assem-
blies and other deliberative formats seems one of “thinking slow”—reflec-
tively, patiently weaving a rug of shared meaning (Kahneman, 2011). “The
twin objectives of voice and votes too often pull in opposite directions,” as
LeDuc (2015: 147) explains. And then the question is indeed, as he nicely put
it: “Can the square peg of deliberative democratic theory be pounded into the
round hole of direct democracy?” In trying to answer this question construc-
tively, Leduc is among a slowly but surely growing group of theorists who
explore the scope for integrating deliberation in direct voting, either through

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