The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Referenda

Referendum has been a hard word to avoid over the past few years, with the word provoking nearly as many reactions as it does appearances in global media. On the surface, referenda are a clear example of the public engaging directly with their democracy. However, their volatile nature has led political theorists like Kenneth Rogoff to denounce them as ‘Russian Roulettes for republics’. Why is the concept and reality of the referendum so contentious? How can they be both democratic and undemocratic, the solution and the problem?

Put simply, a referendum is a public vote on a single issue. The direct engagement with democracy can make a population feel included, powerful, and consulted in state matters. It also can be a way to hold legislature to account and direct the government into negotiating politically popular and sustainable proposals. The recent vote on abortion legislation in Ireland is an example of how popular votes can prove a successful way to circumvent antiquated or extreme laws.

On the other hand, referenda are especially vulnerable to political exploitation. This is because complex national problems are distilled into an often simplified yes or no answer. The simplicity of this choice can be reframed by political actors as a question of values rather than of the specifics of the matter in question. Actors aim to engage and seduce the section of the public that are less informed about the issues in order to be able to control the narrative and direct their choices. Soon enough, the question comes to revolve around who has the moral high ground rather than the actual issue. This also pushes actors to attempt to sway voters with false promises and advertising based on idealised outcomes. All of this leads to deeper political divisions and a distinct lack of cooperation within the government.

Switzerland is often seen as the ‘referendum state’, with its first federal referenda dating back to the 19th century. It is a legacy that it still embraces today as its people vote, on average, four times a year in referenda. The apparent success of the Swiss system has inspired various states, including California, to follow suit. On the other hand, Hitler’s exploitation of the public vote to gain the position of both Chancellor and President of Germany in the mid-twentieth century convinced many modern democracies of the volatile nature of referenda.

California is a well-known example of the inefficiency and risk that referenda can bring to a governmental system. The incorporation of referenda into the Californian system has been blamed for its recent and increasing debts and poor governance. Incessant referenda can obstruct the government from carrying out any actual work, as the legislature is repeatedly written and rewritten. Furthermore, referenda can be hijacked by special interest groups who exploit the chaos and opacity of the system to pass unpopular and, in some cases unconstitutional, legislature. An example is Proposition 8, backed by conservative and religious lobbyists, which removed the rights to same-sex marriage in California that had, up to 2008, been constitutionally protected.

At first look, direct democracy, exemplified in the referendum, should be more democratic. However, even a brief look into the history of referenda shows that they are a powerful tool that can be used for both good and bad, democratic and undemocratic, progressive and regressive actions. To quote Rogoff again, “the idea that somehow any decision reached anytime by majority rule is necessarily ‘democratic’ is a perversion of the term”.

While public engagement is essential, a democracy is much more than just incessant voting, which obstructs rather than promotes the democratic process. Additionally, while the public vote on the question, the question itself is created and controlled by political actors who have chosen to utilise the option of a public vote for their own ends. A politician would never choose to start a referendum if they didn’t think that they would win (see David Cameron). And, while it may engage more citizens in the political dialogue, this dialogue may not be productive or helpful.

In 2011, an Economist article predicted all too accurately the dangers of referendum, that ‘Europeans may snigger at the bizarre mess those crazy Californians have voted themselves into…What has gone wrong in California could all too easily go wrong elsewhere.’ Unfortunately for us, this has come to pass. The next question is: what is our next step?


*Illustration by Isi Williams*

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