There’s a reason that the UK’s vote on EU departure seems so strange, and it applies regardless of whether you like Brexit or not.
It’s this: the UK has made what might be a very substantial change to its own nature based on a simple majority vote – and such changes should be a little harder to make.
This probably matters, since my guess is that there will be more popular votes on big national issues over the next 50 years than there have been in the past 50. At some point we will start to conduct voting electronically, and at that point there’s a good chance that referendums will become much more popular.
The case for a better mechanism has been well made in recent days by economist Kenneth Rogoff at Project Syndicate:
The real lunacy of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union was not that British leaders dared to ask their populace to weigh the benefits of membership against the immigration pressures it presents. Rather, it was the absurdly low bar for exit, requiring only a simple majority. Given voter turnout of 70%, this meant that the leave campaign won with only 36% of eligible voters backing it.
This isn’t democracy; it is Russian roulette for republics. A decision of enormous consequence – far greater even than amending a country’s constitution (of course, the United Kingdom lacks a written one) – has been made without any appropriate checks and balances.
Does the vote have to be repeated after a year to be sure? No. Does a majority in Parliament have to support Brexit? Apparently not …
… The idea that somehow any decision reached anytime by majority rule is necessarily “democratic” is a perversion of the term. Modern democracies have evolved systems of checks and balances to protect the interests of minorities and to avoid making uninformed decisions with catastrophic consequences. The greater and more lasting the decision, the higher the hurdles.
Rogoff is precisely the sort of person to be most horrified by Brexit, part of the economic and cultural elite that would prefer to downplay issues of national sovereignty and makeup – what Nick calls “the Business Class set” and Megan McArdle might call a “Transnationalprofessionalistani“. So he has an incentive to now be pointing out why the vote was a bad idea.
But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. Majority votes do seem a poor device for making what is, if not a constitutional change, then at least a change in how the country is constituted. Being in or out of Europe has big long-term consequences. It’s not the sort of decision that can be changed at the stroke of a pen, like, say, the GST rate.
(And in case you’re wondering, the issue didn’t arise so keenly on Britain’s way into the EU. After joining the EEC in 1973, the UK held a referendum in 1975 on continued membership, and the vote in favour was 67%.)
What is the right way to do it? I suspect that there’s not a simple number (60?) that is right for every type of question. Rogoff writes that he asked several political scientists and couldn’t see any consensus answer. He adds that “the general principle is that, at a bare minimum, the majority ought to be demonstrably stable”. Not a bad starting point.