There is an ongoing debate in the UK over whether holding another referendum on EU membership would be democratic or not. Drawing on a new study, Sveinung Arnesen explains that while in general most citizens believe governments should follow the results of referendums on EU membership, this depends heavily upon the level of turnout, the size of the majority, and the outcome of the specific referendum in question.
Facing growing risk of defection by disaffected voters, politicians have become more willing to let citizens decide on contested issues. This logic has prompted referendums on a wide range of issues, not least on different aspects of European integration such as the British “Brexit” vote in 2016.
Majority rule is popular across the full spectrum of human groups, from hunter-gatherer tribal societies to modern industrial democracies, and indeed, among several nonhuman social animals as well. It encourages the expression of sincere personal beliefs, rather than conformity, and it is a form of decision-making that is easily executed. In referendums, all voters have an equal chance to participate, voice their opinion, and have an influence on the specific decision outcome. Do people therefore think that the government should always follow any result once the issue is decided on in a referendum? Or is the referendum mandate conditional on properties of the referendums?
In a new study (co-authored with Troy S. Broderstad, Mikael P. Johannesson, and Jonas Linde) I assess three such properties using evidence from Norway: the size of a majority, the level of turnout, and the favourability of the outcome – i.e., whether the result is in accordance with one’s own view on EU membership. The results reveal an important insight into the dynamics of politics. When there is varying turnout, majority size, and outcome favourability, the share of citizens who think the government should follow the result spans from virtually everyone to only a quarter of the population. Hence, holding an advisory referendum on EU membership does not automatically provide stronger legitimacy to the decision.
Figure: Effect of referendum properties on whether citizens believe result should be implemented
Note: For more information, see the accompanying study in European Union Politics
Many studies have shown that individuals having voted for losing parties express lower levels of political support and trust than those voting for parties ending up in government. Can referendums reinvigorate trust in the political system? Not really: in the case of referendums, the losers are also unhappy. They are much less likely to view the referendum as a mandate that the government should follow, irrespective of the size of turnout and majority size.
What is more, they tend to perceive the size of majority differently than the winner. Individuals who receive an unfavourable outcome will assess majority sizes more negatively than those who receive a favourable outcome. That is, it takes a larger size of majority for the losers to accept the outcome as a mandate for the governement to act upon. The large discrepancy between winners and losers in how they evaluate the result of a referendum shows that getting people to agree on what is a fair democratic decision-making procedure will be difficult, if not impossible.
The findings from the Norwegian study ignite some questions about the British “Brexit” referendum. Would the voices demanding a second referendum have been so loud if the majority was significantly larger than it turned out to be? What if the turnout were at 85 percent rather than 72 percent? The results indicate that these factors matter, and they matter in particular for the losing side in coming to terms with the outcome. With this said, we should bear in mind that every country is different, and our study does not speak directly to the British Brexit case. A follow-up study in the UK is therefore about to be fielded.
Why does turnout and majority size matter for the legitimacy of a referendum?
In 2017, Turkey held a referendum on a constitutional reform package backed by the country’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The result was a close vote in favour of the reforms. When defending this narrow victory, Erdogan invoked a football analogy, saying: “It doesn’t matter if you win 1-0 or 5-0. The ultimate goal is to win the game”. Yet, the margin by which you win in a referendum does indeed matter. When the turnout is low, and the size of the majority is small, the power of the parliament to carry out a decision is weaker.
Why, then, does majority size and turnout matter for the legitimacy of a referendum? Psychology scholars and political scientists have since the first half of the 20th century observed that people tend to conform to the opinions of others. Citizens are in general cognitive misers, relying on social cues from sources they perceive as knowledgeable. Faced with uncertainty and limited information, perhaps people use the majority opinion as a cognitive shortcut when making up their own mind. Holding and expressing divergent attitudes is also a social cost that people, all else being equal, desire to avoid if they can. Information about where the majority stands on an issue may thus impose social pressure on individuals to conform to the majority opinion.
Turnout would also matter in this context, as a low turnout increases the uncertainty that the referendum truly has expressed the “will of the people”. Being part of a community, citizens need to make distinctions between their own self-interest and the shared interests of the group community. When outcomes offend our sensibilities or harm our interests, our response is conditioned by concern over whether they are consistent with the shared interests of our political community. The size of a majority and turnout levels are in this context measures of certainty of what these shared interests are.
For more information, see the author’s accompanying study (co-authored with Troy S. Broderstad, Mikael P. Johannesson, and Jonas Linde) which is available free of charge at European Union Politics
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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: Mark Ramsay (CC BY 2.0)
Sveinung Arnesen – NORCE
Sveinung Arnesen is a researcher at NORCE – Norwegian Research Centre and and Associate Professor at the Department of Comparative Politics, University of Bergen. His research focuses on democratic legitimacy, public opinion, and voting behaviour. He is on Twitter @sveinungarnesen
This article explores a legitimate theme around the relationshio between majorities and turnout.
But I don’t see any conclusion or recommendation about thresholds.
For example, the Referendum on whether to re-create a London Assembly – and add a Mayor was supported by “only” 25% of all potential voters – due to an abysmal turnout of 37%.
If ANY referendum result should have been treated a merely “advisory” then surely this was it ?
Yet the Government proceeded – without any “watering down”.
By contrast, the EU Referendum’s resulted in the largest number of UK citizens voting for one thing … and the Government has treated it as merely “advisory”.
Other factors include:
Whether the original decision was subject to a “People’s Vote”?
In neither case (joining the EEC in 1972 nor abolishing the GLC) were those decisions taken after a Referendum.
thanks for your comment. Indeed, imposing thresholds (a.k.a. quorum rules) in referendums is one of the measures that would need to be seriously considered by more countries than those who already have it. However, that deserves a study of its own. In the full article in the European Union Politics, we mention quorum rules as a potential future research topic.
A worthwhile study, yet I can’t help thinking that this particular article is pointing indirectly to Brexit in a way to suggest that the result of the Brexit referendum should be moderated because the majority was a modest 4%.
Another observation relates to the country which has a lot of decisions made per referendum. Why not mention Switzerland? Because the decision is, almost always, final, no matter how large or small the majority? A curious omission, for sure. Nevertheless, the last word about referendums and Brexit will be years, decades, into the future. There is plenty of time for impartial study. For each country, the use of the referendum, interpretation of the results, and the manner of and degree in which governments act upon the results, will be different to a greater or lesser extent. Given time, referendums may become more popular or be phased out entirely. I think they are a useful tool to decide certain sticky issues. These issues may be minor, but yet important for governments to want to know the electorate’s view on, or important, as in constitutional issues.
In the case of Brexit, the arguments have been done to death, nearly. However, it is indeed very important for people who support democracy and good governance that the sticking points are debated at length and that the conclusions to be drawn are kept alive. The author here argues that people may be socially persuaded to side with the majority view, I gather. In the case of Brexit, that does not appear to be so. Unfortunately, the media is not neutral in this, both in the reporting and the moderation of comments. Even worse, as is now a known fact, some people use more than one alias to make it appear as if there are more people voicing a certain opinion than is in fact the case. How would that affect the study as enumerated above? Then there are computer bots, masquerading as real persons. The mind boggles. What is the future if these practices are allowed to run riot in the internet medium?
Brexit, the referendum, is denied by an unknown number of losers. The execution of the result is stymied by MPs in some ways, but most of all sabotaged by the PM and a small coterie of her, let’s say, kitchen Cabinet. The terminology may be offensive to many remainers, but the facts are very much in evidence. Cameron may be faulted for calling the referendum, or just criticised on the assurances he gave about the government accepting the result and implementing it. As it was, he bolted and left it to the next PM, who assured the nation that the government would go ahead as Cameron had promised. It’s all on record, from the very beginning when the Brexit referendum was mooted until today. Yet many people cannot accept the verdict given per the referendum. Not every referendum is the same. In this case, it had to be in or out, remain or leave. The EU had already made it clear there would be no more concessions.
The Brexit referendum and its aftermath is worthy of a scholarly study, to say the least. If democracy is to survive in Europe, this issue of not accepting the verdict of the majority and not delivering on the express assurances made by the Cameron government and again and again by May, affirmed as it was by Parliament, this issue is not a minor matter. Again, if the boot had been on the other foot, and Leave had lost by a small, or not so small, margin, the issue of the non-democratic EU, the forced federalisation of Europe and the autocratic-technocratic dictatorial rule by the EU apparatus, would still have been reason enough for Brexiteers and democrats generally to seek to save their sovereignty and democracy. That struggle will never cease. The EU project, fortunately, has brought a greater number of eligible voters into the wider body politic. This can only be an advantage for citizens rights, democracy and, ultimately, good government, if it is still possible to achieve such anywhere in the world. Looking at the mess the EU and May have made, sofar, it will be a long way back to find some semblance of proper, statesman-like behaviour emanating from the pinnacles of power in the western democracies.