How to Initiate a Referendum or Plebiscite Question

June 7, 2017  |   Found in Advocacy // Blog // Feature

As an undergraduate student, it can be difficult to feel that your voice and concerns are heard by those who represent you. The decisions made in your university environment can feel far away, confusing, and unrelated to what you want. This desire to participate more directly in democratic systems is exactly why referendums and plebiscites exist! The SU Bylaw and Constitution defines your right as an undergraduate student and member of the Students’ Union to bring forward questions or concerns for the student body to consider. By initiating referendum and plebiscite questions, you have the opportunity to keep the SU accountable to the decisions the student body favours, or to pressure the SU to pay more attention to what the student body values. Referendums and plebiscites are your best friend if your goal is to consult the student body and have your voice be heard. If you’re looking to initiate a referendum or plebiscite, its important to know the difference between them:

  • A referendum question compels the SU to make a decision that has been decided on by voters. Since these kinds of questions are a “final decision” making tool, they must be formatted as polar questions (i.e. “yes” or “no” questions). Whatever choice the majority of students select becomes binding, and the SU must act according to the chosen answer.
  • A plebiscite question gauges’ public opinion on an issue by asking voters to either express their opinion on a polar question (i.e. “yes” or “no” questions), or indicate their preference from a number of options. The goal of these questions is to bring an issue to the attention of the SU, allowing for direct consultation between the student body and the SU to help shape future policy initiatives.

Referendum and plebiscite questions that you initiate must be approved by the Students’ Legislative Council (SLC) before being placed on election ballot of either the By-Election in fall, or the General Election in winter. Referendum and plebiscite questions have been a part of the election process since 1960! Since then, questions have ranged from referenda’s lowering the SU General Fee from $33.00 to $32.50 in 2005, to plebiscite questions articulating student desire to declare the campus a nuclear weapons free zone in 1985. By initiating your own referendum or plebiscite questions, you have the opportunity to push forward similar changes at the U of C!

There are a lot of rules governing referenda and plebiscites, because we need to make sure that we are asking 25,000 undergraduate students legal, strong, well-thought out, feasible questions. But don’t be discouraged! The SU has resources to make this process seem less daunting – check out our Referendum and Plebiscite How to Guide on the SU website to get started on your own question, or stop by the SU Office to discuss with the process with the Policy Analyst. Direct democracy is at your fingertips – take this chance to influence the SU in a way that matters to you!


Jessica is a second year Secondary Education/History student with a passion for crime shows and Kalamata olives. She used to enjoy a good book until university made her feel guilty for not reading something course related.