Voting once or voting twice? The case for double referendums

Many referendums concern a decision in principle from which must follow a detailed implementation plan. In such cases, argues Richard Rose, good democratic practice demands a second referendum giving voters the option to change their mind

As an institution of direct democracy, referendums offer an alternative to parliamentary decision-making at a time when popular distrust is high in politicians and parties, the central institutions of representative democracy.

The practical issue is: How should referendums be held? Calling a referendum involves a number of choices. If the question is whether to put into effect a government decision embodied in an Act of Parliament or an accession agreement with the European Union, voters know what will change if they vote for the measure. However, if the question is whether to approve a change in principle, then how it is to be implemented depends on the nature of the issue.

When double referendums are necessary

As Max Weber showed in Politics as a Vocation, it may be irresponsible to put an absolute principle into practice. A double referendum gives voters a chance to make an informed decision. After an initial vote for a change in principle, policymakers would then need to prepare a detailed plan for implementing change. In a second referendum voters could then decide whether what appears attractive in theory is actually desirable in practice.

A double referendum gives voters a chance to make an informed decision

A pair of referendums provides a means for testing whether voters initially in the majority will alter their opinion when it is clear what the outcome means.

In double referendums on EU treaties, Danish and Irish voters have been prepared to abandon their anti-treaty views when the government takes the trouble to make a better case for adopting the treaty.

A sequence of referendums spaced out over decades have led a majority of Swiss to swing from endorsing closer association with the EU to rejecting it.

Norwegians have used a second referendum, 20 years after the first, to reaffirm to their pro-Brussels government that their ‘no’ to membership means ‘no’.

In New Zealand an initial referendum offered voters a choice between endorsing the existing first-past-the-post system or one of four alternatives. Five-sixths wanted change, and almost two-thirds endorsed the middle-of-the-road choice of a mixed-member system.

When the second referendum reduced the choice to two alternatives, on a higher turnout the vote for the status quo increased much more than the vote for the mixed-member system. Nonetheless, the latter gained enough support as a second-best change to be put into effect.

In 2011 a single referendum asked two questions. The first was whether to keep the mixed-member system and the second was, if a change were made, which of four alternatives was preferable. The mixed-member system, by then the status quo, was endorsed by an absolute majority so there was no need for a second ballot.

The case of Brexit

The British experience with a single referendum on the principle of withdrawal from the European Union illustrates the dangers of voting on an issue of principle without regard to its implementation.

How Referendums Challenge European Democracy, by Richard Rose (Palgrave)

Richard's new book with Palgrave, How Referendums Challenge European Democracy: Brexit and Beyond, explains how citizens are using referendums to challenge decisions taken by the European Union

The ‘Leave’ side campaigned in 2016 for withdrawal with poster slogans such as ‘take back control’ (from Brussels). The majority for leaving the EU gave the winning side political legitimacy but it had no plan for implementing withdrawal beyond Boris Johnson’s claim that Britain would ‘have its cake and eat it too’; that is, keep the benefits of membership and shed the obligations. The withdrawal agreement that Brussels offered was hard cheese.

The withdrawal agreement that Brussels offered was hard cheese

The People’s Vote movement, a cross-party coalition of EU supporters, lobbied for a second vote offering the alternatives of approving a political agreement with the EU or reversing the first vote and remaining in the EU.

Surveys of public opinion were cited to show that many voters were having second thoughts about leaving the EU and a second referendum could well have withdrawn popular approval of withdrawing from the EU.

A House of Commons motion in favour of a second referendum failed by a small margin because MPs who had voted to remain in the EU felt bound to give losers’ consent to the initial result.

Had a double referendum been included in the Act of Parliament authorising the 2016 vote of principle, the pro-Brexit government would have been under pressure to negotiate realistically with the EU or risk having the electorate reject a poor agreement and deciding to remain in the EU after all.

A way to break the impasse in Scotland

A double referendum offers a way to break the current impasse between the Scottish National Party government and the UK government on holding another referendum on Scottish independence.

The Scottish Parliament has approved a bill for a fresh independence referendum because Scots voted in favour of remaining in the EU in the ‘Brexit’ referendum. The UK government has refused to authorise the ballot on the grounds that the 2014 referendum, in which 55 percent of Scots voted to remain in the UK, was a once-in-a-generation event. Public opinion polls show that in a vote on the principle, a majority in Scotland now favour independence.

Neither side is discussing the terms of an Anglo-Scottish withdrawal agreement, should a majority of Scots back the principle of independence, despite its importance to Scotland. The British government would be in a stronger position to dictate terms for withdrawal and any agreement would need approval of the Westminster Parliament where 90 per cent of MPs represent English constituencies. Moreover, Scottish Unionists argue that, faced with the reality of what independence means in practice, enough Scots would change their minds to keep the UK together.

the electorate should give their informed consent

The logic of a democratic referendum is that losers should give their consent. It is consistent with democratic principles to argue that the electorate should give their informed consent. A double referendum gives the electorate information needed to confirm whether what they like in principle is also what they want in practice.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Richard Rose
Richard Rose
Professor, University of Strathclyde and Robert Schuman Centre, European University Institute

Richard is a pioneer in the comparative study of public policy through quantitative and qualitative analysis.

He has given seminars in 45 countries across Europe, North and South America, Africa, and Asia, and his writings have been translated into 18 languages.

Richard is the founder-director of the Centre for the Study of Public Policy, for which he has been made a fellow of four national academies and given many lifetime achievement honours.

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