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A thought on referendums

March 13, 2017

I’m not a big fan of referendums. They tend to simplify an issue too far, and particularly in the recent UK ones they’re turned into black and white issues where you’re either voting for Good or Evil. I think that mostly we should be electing people who represent us, and can be handed a bunch of time to do the research and work out the intricacies before coming to a nuanced conclusion.

However, I accept that there are some situations which cross (party) political lines, where you may want to go direct to the population with a question for them to settle. In that case I’d still rather that we didn’t have Yes/No answers on the ballot – New Zealand’s putting of a variety of different electoral systems to their citizens struck me as a great example of what can be done. But when there is an actual need for a black and white result then I still think we can manage this better.

Specifically, if neither side wins by more than a few percent then a case can be made that the referendum wasn’t won by the will of the people, but by the weather keeping old people at home, or by a newspaper headline the day before, or some other piece of frankly random chance which tipped things a tiny amount.

And in those situations, I’d like to give people the chance to go away, think about it, and come back again. Not indefinitely – but certainly the chance to have a gap, debate further, and then either confirm their original choice or realise they’d made a mistake and change their mind.

My suggestion would be this:
For any referendum where the winning side gets less than 60% of the vote the referendum will be re-run six months later, and the result from _that_ referendum will be the accepted result.

If the first one gets 51% Yes and then the second one gets 51% Yes, then you don’t ask a third time – the No side had six months to persuade the Yes voters that they had made a mistake, and they didn’t manage to do so. We should then accept that the people were better educated in their second choice, and having had time to reflect, that’s the one they’ve settled on.

And yes, I’m perfectly happy for it to apply to referendums that I want to win as much as ones I don’t. This is not just about Brexit. Or Scottish Independence. Or any other specific choice. It’s about making sure that, when the result of a choice is not easily reversible, we get as clear as possible a picture of what people really want.

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