Referenda

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The recent British election highlights the core problems with referenda. Some voters who voted to leave Europe either resented their choices or did not see Brexit as a ‘conservative’ issue. Instead of supporting Theresa May and the Tories, they chose someone else. Referenda are never more that simplistic snapshots of how someone mostly feels on a particular day.

Mostly is the key factor here – and it is easy to see how even winning a referendum on a simple either/or question does not necessarily reflect the popular will. It has to do with how strongly you feel.

Some people of course are 100% for something or 100% against. These are the same people who constantly use ‘always’ and ‘never’ in arguments. “You always spend too much money or you never do the dishes” is usually a replacement for “You often spend too much money and you seldom do the dishes.” Indeed, even if the splits are more like 60/40, the words always and never get bandied about.

And that is how most people are about most things. They are mostly for them or mostly against and sometimes that mostly is just 51/49.

Take a person who voted to leave Europe – they might know that their kids are doing okay in the city and they might enjoy a bit of low cost French cheese or Spanish wine but hate the idea of large number of foreign workers or the tax cost of supporting Greece. They may feel 47% for Europe and 53% against it but by voting Leave, they become 100% for going. The same analysis works on the other side.

But now imagine that the 48% of Brits who voted to stay in Europe are actually more committed to the idea – say on average 60-40 – while the 52% who voted to go are more ambivalent – say 45-55 – and, if you do the math, the popular sentiment (adding up all those splits) would be to stay in Europe.

Of course, there is no way to measure that with the simplistic way we currently run referendum – but why should we be stuck with something designed 100 years ago? This is 2017 and we do have the technology. Suppose you could register your ambivalence?

There might be a two part question. Are you for or against proposition Z? How much are you for or against it? A person might, if they are at all reflective and capable of seeing in colours other than black and white, decide that they are 51% in favour and 42% against and 7% undecided.

Then our clever machines could tally it all up and say that the average voter is 48% in favour, 45% against and 8% undecided. And we all get to embrace Proposition Z and most of us would be at least partly satisfied.

There are plenty of other things wrong with referenda (and difficulties with true democracy, despite its superiority to other forms of governance) but at least this version could provide you with some certainty about how the people feel – if not why they feel that way.

And that’s ten minutes.

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2 thoughts on “Referenda

  1. Good luck getting people to quantify their feelings. An easier way to find out what people really want would be to offer a graded set of choices. For Brexit, this might range from, “I want to stay in the European Union at any cost,” through to “I want to blockade the ports and mine the English channel.” I’m guessing many people would honestly choose answers in the middle ground: “I want access to jobs in Europe,” or “I don’t want to pay taxes to bail out foreign countries.” For extra fun, let the voters tick as many boxes as they want. Assuming you asked the right questions, you’d get a Bell curve showing the majority sentiment on the key issues.

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    • In practice you would use a 7 point Likert scale to calculate strength of feeling. Getting voters to answer one question is tough enough, two will be tricky but a whole questionnaire seem unlikely to bring out the vote.

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