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What is a referendum?

Find out why a referendum would be called and if you're eligible to vote.


Written by SpunOut | View this authors Twitter page and posted in life


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A referendum is a vote that gives citizens of a country the opportunity to vote on changes to a constitution, or Bunreacht na hEireann, as it’s called in Ireland. A referendum can occur to edit the constitution or to add to it. 

What is Bunreacht Na hEireann?

Bunreacht Na hEireann is the Constitution of Ireland. The people of Ireland brought it into effect on the 1 July 1937. There are 50 articles (sections) in the Constitution of Ireland. It covers a variety of issues, such as: the president, the Dáil, courts, the family, rights, and education.

The Irish Constitution is the highest law in the land. It surpasses and guides all other laws. The government, when passing any laws in the Dáil must ensure that they are not going against what is said in the constitution. 

It is the job of the Supreme Court to make sure that all the laws of the land respect and adhere to the constitution. If you have been affected by a law that you believe is unconstitutional (goes against the constitution), you can go to the Supreme Court. The President of Ireland can also refer any Bill that has come from the government for them to sign to the Supreme Court, if they believe it goes against Bunreacht Na hEireann. The Supreme Court's ruling is final.

How to make a change to the constitution

It is not possible to add, delete, or edit anything in the constitution without a vote of the people. The only way to make changes to the constitution is by referendum. This is why we are asked to vote on whether or not we want to change something in the constitution - the majority of Irish citizens must agree to the change before it can happen.

Can I vote in a referendum?

You are eligible to vote in a referendum in Ireland if you are:

  • 18 years of age on or before the date of the referendum
  • An Irish citizen

While there are certain types of elections in which residents who are non-Irish citizens can vote, this is not the case for the referendum. You must be an Irish citizen in order to vote in this referendum. 

Find out more about registering to vote here.

What does a ballot paper in a referendum look like?

In a referendum there are only two choices: Yes and No. You will be given the proposed change to the constitution to read, and then asked to agree to this change, or to reject this change. An example of what a ballot paper in a referendum will look like is below:

Image source: Referendum Commission (refcom.ie)

What is a spoiled vote?

Spoiling your vote means that if you place your mark in the wrong place, draw or write on the ballot paper (other than marking X in the box), or in any other way tamper with the ballot paper, your vote won’t be counted.

Some people use this as a direct strategy or sign of frustration. They want to vote, but might not be sure or feel fed up with what they are being asked. If you don’t want to spoil your vote make sure you mark as instructed on the ballot paper. 

If you want your voice heard, do not spoil your vote. Take time to carefully consider what you're being asked, and make your decision on the day.

Check the register

If you are eligible to vote, and you want to have the chance to have your say in a referendum, make sure you check that you are on the electoral register at checktheregister.ie.

If a referendum or election has been called and you are not on the register, you must fill out form RFA2 and send it to your local authority at least 15 days before polling day, not counting Sundays or public holidays. 

Find out all you need to know about registering to vote here.

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Published February 28th, 2013
Last updated May 3rd, 2018
Tags politics voting get involved
Can this be improved? Contact editor@spunout.ie if you have any suggestions for this article.

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