Tue, Jul 05, 2016 - Page 9 News List

Reforming the referendum: Flawed questions lead to flawed results

By Christopher Granville

World leaders’ reactions to the Brexit shock included one that should not be ignored — and from an unexpected source: Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rather than exulting in the latest body blow to the EU, Putin castigated Britain’s leaders for “arrogance and a superficial approach … to issues that are vital to their country and to Europe as a whole.”

Coming from Putin, this criticism of direct democracy might be dismissed as an authoritarian conceit. However, there are states with impeccable democratic credentials that share his wariness, not least Germany, which has a constitutional prohibition on referenda, lest another demagogue should use them, as Adolf Hitler did, to extinguish democracy and the rule of law.

Brexit leader Boris Johnson, in his victory speech, offered a different view: The UK’s membership in the EU could be decided only by “putting it to the people.” So when are referenda appropriate in large modern democracies? The answer is that it depends on the question placed before voters.

We would do well to recall the two other referenda held in the UK in the past five years: over Scottish independence in 2014 and, much less memorably, over voting rules in 2011.

Voters in referenda often care little about the question being asked and instead treat their vote as an opportunity to register protest against the powers that be or discontent with some unrelated issue. The process is emotionally more satisfying than in a normal election, in which voters cannot see any one issue in isolation, and must weigh their dislike of the incumbent government against the risk of an even less palatable alternative.

This heuristic effect is compounded when a referendum question is perceived to be of little import. A classic example is the French referendum of 1969, when voters ignored the obscure constitutional changes put before them and focused instead on then-French president Charles de Gaulle’s prior announcement that he would resign if the referendum lost. The referendum lost, and De Gaulle resigned, as promised.

The victory for the “Leave” camp in the Brexit referendum seems like a similar protest. While the EU question was weightier than the French one about constitutional procedural matters, it still was not enough to discourage voters from pursuing other motives — above all, the desire to give the (pro-European) “establishment” a good symbolic whipping, seemingly at little to no cost. Sooner or later, voters will realize that the price of Brexit far outweighs any satisfaction derived from symbolic gestures. Many will reckon that such momentous changes should never be left solely to the whim of the electorate.

The Scottish independence referendum — which dealt with similar matters of identity and statehood — offers a different, and a more practical, lesson. The stakes could not have been higher, yet it was safe to “put it to the people,” because no voter could fail to understand the question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Voting intentions hinged overwhelmingly on what voters thought about Scottish independence, as opposed to what they happened to be feeling about other issues at the time.

The lesson is clear: put questions to a popular vote only when there can be no misunderstanding about how much (or how little) is at stake. Doing so would minimize the risk of voters being swayed by tangential considerations (and, in the case of a low-stakes question, as in the 2011 referendum on electoral systems, the government should not be perceived to have a strong preference).

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