To Leaders Wanting To Hold A Referendum: Think Twice

Close up of male hand putting vote into a balot box
Close up of male hand putting vote into a balot box


The economic and social implications of Britain's vote to leave the European Union are still playing out, but the political fallout has already begun: David Cameron has announced his resignation, and the Conservatives face a divisive leadership battle. To many, Cameron's election pledge to hold a referendum in order to defeat Labour now looks particularly short-sighted.

Britain's is the latest in a recent uptick in referendums, and may have set the stage for even more to come. Referendums have become a tempting mechanism for politicians like Cameron to let voters vent their frustrations about immigration, globalization and control by powerful elites. But do they provide a safety valve for populist anger, or do they stoke that anger further?

While referendums may enable politicians to score points with their voters by permitting a measure of direct democracy, these supposed outlets for voter frustration can clearly backfire. We have seen several dynamics from recent referendum campaigns beyond Brexit that may cause leaders to think twice before going this route.

Referendums rarely end up being about the exact issue on the ballot. The irony of a referendum is that while voters are typically deciding on a very specific issue, the campaigns around them tend to wander into other, often tangential issues. Referendums must answer a question other elections do not -- why make this specific change? The way voters answer can be hard for a campaign to control.

While less visible than Brexit, a constitutional referendum on gender equality in The Bahamas earlier this month provides a good example. The June 7th vote included four different questions, which seemed complex to many voters. Rumors that voting "Yes" would lead to same-sex marriage began before the campaign officially launched, and gained momentum despite reassurances from a former Supreme Court justice, religious leaders and politicians from both major parties. The need to clarify the referendum's impact on LGBT rights left little room to talk about gender equality. Ultimately, the confusing legal arguments and fear of same-sex marriage trumped the desire for equality of the sexes. On Election Day, 79 percent voted against the gender nondiscrimination bill.

Low participation can distort true opinion. Referendums are notoriously hard for pollsters like us to predict. A big reason is that many voters often do not tune in until the final days of a campaign, and even then, only the most enthusiastic vote. (There has been speculation that Thursday's rain kept some Remain voters at home.) Despite their resemblance to direct democracy, the results of referendum campaigns often depend less on the balance of public opinion, and more on the question of which side has the more energized grassroots movement. Without wide participation, minority opinion can hijack referendums.

Some countries require turnout thresholds, and these can be hard to meet. Recently, an April 2016 Italian referendum on offshore drilling and a February 2015 Slovakia referendum on marriage failed to drum up enough voters to pass; analysts will never know how many stayed home out of apathy, and how many out of strategy. Even in countries without such a requirement, low participation looks bad for the leaders who champion referendums, becoming the main story rather than the issue at hand.

Referendums can shine a spotlight on fringe movements. Many smart referendum campaigns unite support across ideological lines, so as not to become a protest vote. The downside is that this can leave room for outsider groups to take up opposition space. The recent referendum in The Netherlands, in which 61 percent voted against ratifying an association agreement with Ukraine, is a good example. Extreme or marginal figures like Geert Wilders, the Socialist Party, and the provocative blog GeenStijl gained a mainstream following and media attention. The Dutch government, who supports the agreement, has been left in the unenviable position of negotiating a ratification deal without popular support.


None of this is to make the case that referendums are always pernicious. They can unite voters across political lines, and provide leaders a mandate for divisive issues. Ireland's 2015 same-sex marriage referendum -- the first time a country adopted marriage equality by national referendum -- was an inspiring and important milestone in the world's changing attitudes on the issue. Instead of stoking negative rage, it became a showcase of positive emotion. Politicians from all major parties spoke eloquently about their own families and children -- some even coming out themselves -- and young people rang their grannies to discuss the vote.

But the Brexit outcome shows that politicians may want to think twice before turning to referendums as an easy solution for populist frustrations. Direct democracy is often anything but direct.

Lowe and Suter are a Vice President and Senior Associate, respectively, at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a global polling and campaign management consultancy.