Referendums: Have We Reached a Democratic Disaster?

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My participation in last year’s EU referendum was a surprising experience. As I stood in the voting booth and went to draw a cross in the box next to my choice, I was suddenly filled with a sense of trepidation. This was a powerful moment in our country’s history and I wanted to be sure I had made the right decision. Although I had made my mind up on EU membership several years prior I still found myself questioning the process. Who was I to be given the opportunity to change national policy in such a significant way?

For me, this is the power of the referendum. By providing ordinary citizens with a single choice on the main issue of their time, you increase voter engagement and reduce voter apathy in the long run. Anecdotally, I noticed friends and family who had shown no previous interest in current affairs suddenly debating the pros and cons of EU membership. Despite critics arguing that most modern political issues are too nuanced and complicated to be simplified down to a binary choice, referendums enable ordinary people with no prior engagement in the political system to have their say, on the issues that will have a more noticeable impact on their lives than those of the politicians.

Referendums only hold their value as a democratic tool when the voters can be confident their decision will be held as final.

However, it must be said that not all referendums are created equal and perhaps Clement Atlee was right about their use being reserved for “dictators and demagogues”. This was apparent in 2008 when Ireland was the only EU nation to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and subsequently voted to reject it with a majority of 53 percent. Of course, this was the wrong decision to make and the Irish Government alongside their puppet masters in Brussels arranged a revote for the following year. This time, the Irish people made the ‘right’ decision.

Referendums only hold their value as a democratic tool when the voters can be confident their decision will be held as final, with no retrospective clauses or caveats being added to change the vote’s relevance. But what about the turnout itself? Can a referendum’s result really be used for massive change if the turnout is less than half of the voting population?

Can a referendum’s result really be used for massive change if the turnout is less than half of the voting population?

The 2011 Alternative Vote (AV) referendum is an interesting example, when only 42.2% of eligible voters bothered to vote. Those who believe in retaining ‘First Past The Post’ would argue that turnout does not matter because, like any election, the result only holds its value when the electorate is free to decide whether they even wish to vote or not. Conversely, those who support voting reform argue that if less than half of the eligible population voted, then how can the result be held as the people’s decision?

Those who back the winning argument can be blamed for the consequences of the vote, regardless of whether the result was genuinely right or wrong for the country.

This exemplifies the nature of the debate, where the losing side holds a kind of advantage each time. Those who back the winning argument can be blamed for the consequences of the vote, regardless of whether the result was genuinely right or wrong for the country. Meanwhile, those on the losing side get the opportunity to request another referendum is held immediately, or if not, can continue to campaign in the knowledge that a vote can always be held again in the future. Regardless, referendums are a powerful moment in every country’s history and everyone’s participation in the political process is vital for a healthy democracy.

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