Wanted: Ground rules for referendums

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.

About David Walker

David Walker runs publishing consultancy Shorewalker DMS (shorewalker.net) and is commissioning editor of Acuity magazine. David has previously edited the award-winning INTHEBLACK business magazine, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia, and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He has written professionally on economics, business and public policy since 1987 and spent three years in the Canberra Press Gallery for News Limited and The Age.
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17 Responses to Wanted: Ground rules for referendums

  1. Alan says:

    The UK is divided into 4 parts. Two voted narrowly in favour of Brexit while Scotland and Northern Ireland voted strongly against. Section 128 of our constitution has come in for lots of criticism because it requires a double majority, a majority of electors and a majority of states. It suddenly does not look so bad.

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Well I’ve already had my two cents worth. But to summarise, the three big illustrations of the increasingly crazy state that Vox Pop Democracy is taking us to are – in chronological order
    1) The LNP Coalition wins office in Australia on abolishing the carbon tax and replacing it with something that is designed to get through a radio interview, not go into policy.
    2) Donald Trump becomes the first full on con-man to be nominated by a major party for President of the US – a man with apparently no redeeming features.
    3) And now Brexit

    In each of these cases I assert – with strong evidence in the case of the third point – the craziness could have been moderated to the point of not being a problem by deliberative processes based on choice by sortition.

    I really do think the world doesn’t need to be made safe from democracy (though I accept Rogoff’s point that one-time majority vote does not a democracy make). It’s a hypothesis I concede. But solutions which seek to intensify status quo bias may misfire by making people feel even more alienated from the system.

    • Moz of Yarramulla says:

      I am reminded of two of New Zealand’s referenda. One trivial and recent (the flag), one significant (the voting system in 1992, repeated in 2011). Both were done in two steps: first do you want change; second which one? Both also had considerable debate, and by the standards of the UK, very well informed and reasonable debate. The vote referendum in 1992 only had 55% turnout, but 85% of those voted for change. For all the flaws, it works a lot better than any of the above.

      I do feel Australia has gone too far towards making it hard to change, but then we also have referenda on the most stupid things, which suggests that they should be bloody impossible to do just to discourage the idiots in charge from trying it on. Although given the non-referendum coming up on one of the politicans favourite topics, maybe proper referendums should be easier to do and the only option for a popular vote.

      If we’re going to vote on who gets human rights, it should be binding. I object to voting on that topic on principle, but I object even more to wasting time and money voting on something that has no more effect than a Wilderness Society postcard campaign. Which would be a darn sight cheaper.

  3. paul frijters says:

    Hi David,

    there is an easy mechanism in most countries to make it harder to decide on something new: to make it part of the constitution, which itself needs a larger-than-normal majority to put it in as well as out. But it comes with its own dangers, such as we see with the political dead-lock of the Americans.

    I don’t think sortition makes any sense in the case of something like Brexit. The notion that a jury of randomly chosen citizens would decide for the whole population whether or not to quit a union would simply not fly, nor should it: there have been impassioned debates on Brexit for months now all up and down the UK, so its very hard to argue that the population was not informed or not engaged. They have not been this engaged for a generation.

    I dislike the notion of binding people’s hands lest they decide something the Rogoffs of this world disapprove of. People make long-lasting decisions all the time based on imperfect foresight and very limited consensus. And thank god for that too, or most of us would not have been allowed to be conceived for our parents probably had no idea what they were doing! It really is elitist to bind a new generation to the will of past generations on the basis that the old generations got it right and we are too stupid to decide for ourselves.

    I also don’t think Brexit is such a bad idea at all. In many ways the EU has served its pacifying function and is now very dysfunctional, with no realistic mechanism for internal reform (remember the failed referenda on political union?). Populations must either accept eternal inter-governmental muddling, or simply reject what is on the table and find new ways, starting with a dismantling of the old ways.

    To see the vote against the EU as somehow stupid and uninformed is somewhat blind of the massive dysfunction of the EU. As if the ECB has been helping the populations these last 10 years by printing money for bankers … as if the agricultural subsidies and 27 official languages are sensible …. as if the acceptance of the blackmail from the Turkish dictatorship is an act of enlightened statesmanship. There is a cow-towing to the status quo implicit in the rejection of the onlookers that tells me Brexit is a very necessary tonic.

    And think of how cheaply we got that tonic: no war, no famine, apparently not even an emergency budget! If only the previous European generations got their upheavals so cheaply!

    • David Walker says:

      Paul, just to be clear, I don’t have a particular position* on Brexit.

      You may be right that the constitution is the right place for all these matters; I’m wondering whether there’s a class of decisions that rightly sits on level below “constitutional change”.

      * That is, beyond being uncertain about whether “Europe” can be a coherent political entity, and doubtful that it makes sense as a currency union, and meanwhile suspecting that British EU membership is pretty good for London, which probably has knock-on effects for the rest of the UK, and at the same time believing that I don’t know enough about most of these questions to have a reliable view, all while suspecting that most other people’s views are not that well informed either …

      • paul frijters says:

        yes, the issue of ‘constitution-light’ super-majorities is of course salient, though I would think precisely for this kind of one-in-a-generation major change you would NOT want anything else but a simple majority. If you get to vote every 5 minutes on whether you want to destroy the world, then of course, yes, the bar should be higher. But that is not the case here.

        I know you were not taking a stance on Brexit. But Rogoff has. And so have many supposedly ‘enlightened’ newspapers, and the majority runs a line of ‘look how stupid the Brits are’. Their elitism and disdain for their populations rankles me. They need a lesson in humility and they got a very cheap one with the Brexit.

        What I personally don’t like about the Brexit is how it seems to have given free reign (hopefully temporarily) to a virulent xenophobic strain. Newspapers report anti-immigrant sentiments all over the UK. Note that this is not white-on-black, as it will include UK-born Indians railing against Polish competitors!

    • Moz of Yarramulla says:

      I dislike the notion of binding people’s hands lest they decide something the Rogoffs of this world disapprove of

      Think about it in Australian terms. Do you really want a simple majority to decide that the constitution says indigenous Australians aren’t people, or QUILTBAGs can’t ever marry? Those are both questions that our political class think the population at large should decide, and it’s worth noting that the main reason the latter question isn’t a referendum is fear by said class that the overwhelming public support would prevent them denying “those people that right privilege”.

      • john Walker says:

        Moz its not a referendum because it’s not a constitutional issue. Tony wanted a referendum because it was more likely to, fail, George kicked that one into touch.

  4. Anthony says:

    Maybe rather than have a particular % we could have electronic voting as Dave suggested in the OP. My personal preference is for the house of reps to be replaced by voting via app. So Bills (including treaties) would typically originate in the Senate, if passed the public would vote on each piece of legislation. Thus giving a mix of professional political decision making and the ‘wisdom of the crowds’.

    Presumably ordinary voters would be too busy to read each piece of legislation so perhaps they could give their vote to a proxy. As many other posters and commentators have suggested, we could incorporate citizens juries into the mix. Perhaps voters could give their proxies to the jury verdicts?

    • Moz of Yarramulla says:

      There’s a whole literature on electronic voting, composed of experts who think it’s a bad-to-terrible idea and a few people who like it until they do some research. Plus people who sell e-voting systems (and election results) who love it. But even within the first two groups, the ones who want app-based voting are a small and little-supported minority.

      Mobile phones are explicitly not designed to run as (part of) secure systems, and the security of things like the banking system relies on easily identifiable, reversible transactions that anyone can track and verify. You might be willing to vote that way, but it would be a huge change and one that I’m not keen on. If nothing else, having a bunch of people “dispute the charge” after an election and reverse their votes could lead to prolonged uncertainty about the result of an election.

      • Anthony says:

        Hi Moz,

        In all honesty I had not considered the issues raised in the literature. Giving it a brief skim it appears a major problem is actually getting eligible people registered on a secure device and preventing fraud. You could probably make things more secure by limiting the app to a specific phone+SIM and/or use public/private. However, hardware is so disposable now and the public has minimal knowledge of cryptography, so yeah I admit it is sorta impossible. For now anyway.

  5. Factory says:

    In Australia we prolly don’t need reform since we don’t have the case where ppl just don’t turn up to support their cause since they believe it will win, since all qualified voters will end up going to the polls.
    Also referendums tend to be voted against in Australia, I’m assuming that the less engaged voters tend to vote for the status quo, rather than change.
    OTOH I suspect that this makes them more likely to happen, it’s an easy for a PM to look like they are doing something when they are not. (See the republic referendum)

  6. john Walker says:

    The Leave campaign was effectively a political program, (without a party.)

    Implementing ‘ exit’ will occupy most of their givernments time for several years.

    Most normal referendums are about a single fairly clear cut issue, no?

  7. MikeDee says:

    Its interesting that the maths of the situation does not add up when the result obtained is less than that required by the so called ‘educated elites’.
    Where was the similar analysis at the Irish result for the acceptance of ‘gay marriage’?
    Curiously quiet when the result is acceptable.

  8. Alan says:

    Actually that is untrue. Social media and the Irish press were full of complaint that the referendum was defective because the yes majority did not amount to a majority of all electors. The difference between the two referendums is that the Irish vote did not threaten the integrity of the state as this referendum clearly does.

  9. David, not sure how if 58% of voters want out but are stopped by the remaining (in both contexts) 42% then that is democracy in action.
    Ironically, your suggested vote-weighting “such changes should be a little harder to make.” was already entrenched with regards to Brexit. Because of the natural conservatism of most voters, ‘same as’ always takes a preference to ‘change’. That’s why there is so many term limit articles in American legislation and the Constitution.

    However I do believe super majorities sometimes have their uses, such as when non-partisan decisions are needed. For example, to change the electoral system for reasons of natural fairness rather than to benefit one side of the political divide over the other.

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