Fri, May 12, 2017 - Page 8 News List

[ LETTER ]

Dangers of referendums

I write in response to your editorial (“Unleash the power of referendums,” May 5, page 8). Direct democracy has been debated for more than 2,000 years and has generated a vast literature. I will not attempt to summarize that literature, but there are two important cautionary points that we should be aware of when considering the power of referendums.

Majority rule often comes into conflict with minority rights. Written constitutions generally require supermajorities (higher standards than simple majority rule) to overturn core interests, providing protection for minority rights.

Referendum restrictions can also protect minority rights against majority rule.

Consider what is happening in the UK. In a supposedly non-binding referendum 52 percent of voters chose Brexit, voting to leave the EU.

Should so narrow a majority serve to negate the rights of a minority with vested interests in the benefits of belonging to the EU?

What if a majority voted for strict censorship of speech, or restrictions on free press, or a state religion? Supermajority provisions help to protect these rights.

Referendums can serve vital purposes, but unrestricted direct governance through referendums is not the kind democracy we expect. Some restrictions are reasonable and some interests deserve supermajority protection. Achieving the proper balance is a difficult problem.

The second point is perhaps less recognized, but is equally important. Consider again the Brexit vote in the UK. Leaving the EU is a very complex issue with a lot at stake.

Most Brexit voters did not have the time, interest or resources to really study the economic, political, social and cultural effects of Brexit, and reach an informed decision for their individual votes. They had to vote without a clear understanding of how the outcome would affect themselves, the nation and the world.

It is a simple fact that casting a single vote will not determine the outcome of a national referendum. The odds against a single vote are like the odds against winning a billion dollar lottery. Given the odds, there is little incentive for individual voters to invest heavily in studying and fully understanding complex referendum issues.

It is unreasonable to expect voters to invest a lot of time and effort on the details of complex issues.

Representative government, where voters can elect trusted representatives to study and make informed decisions, is a response to the complexities of governance.

Any system of government can (and will at times) break down. Safeguards are necessary if a democratic system is to survive. Written constitutions and referendum provisions are safeguards.

A majority in the US might now be wishing that their constitution provided for a recall referendum for the US presidency.

However, we should also beware of constitutional referendums, such as witnessed in Turkey and Hungary, where majority rule has been abused to restrict democratic freedoms.

The US Senate just did away with supermajority protection for Supreme Court appointments, overturning a well-established Senate rule solely for the expediency of an immediate result: The confirmation of a controversial justice appointment.

This is not a model to be followed. Unknown consequences, for good or for ill, were discounted by the Senate.

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