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A consultative referendum (also called an advisory referendum) leaves the interpretation of the vote to the legislature.
A binding referendum is possible only in some countries, a certain size of the participating electorate often being a prerequisite.
A plebiscite is directed to all citizens, regardless of their franchise. A plebiscite, in its narrow sense, is the request for approval of a (radical) governmental decree, typically in states without Democracy, Parliamentarism or a representative parliament.
Referenda are a key measure in semi-direct democracy and the only measure in a pure direct democracy. Few believe that such "rule by poll" is always desirable. However, most advocates of grassroots democracy propose measures that would make them far more common.
In most jurisdictions practicing representative democracy, referenda, the calling of which can only be achieved through the act of a legislature, are a relatively rare event.
If the choice presented is negative, i.e. a 'no' vote challenges the status quo and forces action but a 'yes' vote has the same result as not voting or remaining neutral, the referendum is a special case of disapproval voting.
If the choice presented is positive, i.e. a 'yes' vote challenges the status quo and forces action but a 'no' vote has the same result as not voting or remaining neutral, the referendum is a special case of approval voting.
The distinction is important because of the tolerances versus preferences problem, and the culture bias in some societies towards 'saying yes' or 'saying no' to new ideas. Some suggest that the most fair way to present a referendum question is 'status quo' or 'change'.
Constitutions, in many jurisdictions, are modifiable only by referendum. In part this is due to the arguments above, to ensure that the cases for and against change are concentrated at one point in time for a balanced presentation to the public.
However, in some jurisdictions, some non-constitutional issues are put to referenda, which can be initiated by a petition of a certain proportion of voters. One such measure is representative recall which permits voters (or party members) in one district to "fire" their elected representative. This would require a referendum only in the firing district.