Do referendums improve democracy?

If the people lead them, like in the Irish case, referendums point way to improved democracy. But less so if political elites, like in the UK or Colombia cases, do lead them.

Inés M. Pousadela
14 January 2019

In Ireland, 2019 gets going on the heels of a busy, bumper year when some watershed changes were delivered via referendums. And by the looks of it, there’s more on the way.

In October 2018, almost two thirds of Irish voters chose to remove a constitutional ban on blasphemy. But even this crucial advance in the freedom of expression was dwarfed by the unprecedented outcome of a referendum held five months earlier, which led to the legalisation of abortion in this staunchly Catholic nation.

The Irish referendum on abortion showed the positives, but other recent referendums have had a far less happy ending 

Three years earlier, a majority had also chosen to support same-sex marriage, disregarding Church authorities’ instructions to vote against it.Driven by an unusually high turnout, the landslide victory took even most the ardent pro-choice activists by surprise. “We certainly never saw 66 percent coming,” confessed the spokesperson for the Abortion Rights Campaign in the aftermath of the historic referendum.

“We thought that the people who were not really engaged would just stay home and not make what they surely considered a tough choice. But with close to 70%, turnout was the third highest ever for a referendum.”

Irish voters should be prepared to go to the polls in several referendums that could be held this year, on issues such as the liberalisation of divorce laws and the removal of a section of the constitution that refers to a woman’s place as being in the home.

Looking at Ireland’s ballots signalling a wave of social change, it would be easy to conclude that referendums are the magic bullet we need: an injection of vitality into our tired governance institutions, an antidote to people’s dissatisfaction with the failings of their elected representatives, and the perfect tool to secure rights and build more democratic and secular societies.

But this is often not the case. If the Irish referendum on abortion showed the positives, other recent referendums have had a far less happy ending for those of us who believe in social justice and human rights. In June 2016, just over half of British voters (with a 72% turnout) chose Brexit – the British exit from the European Union.

Just a few months later, barely 50% of Colombian voters (on a low 40% turnout) unexpectedly rejected a watershed peace agreement putting an end to the half-century long conflict between the Colombian government and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas.

A year-long international research initiative on democracy, led by the global civil society alliance CIVICUS, surveyed the views and concerns of thousands of people in almost 80 countries worldwide and found that most feel excluded from political decision-making and want to have a direct say in the decisions that affect their lives.

Deliberative structures at every level, from the local community to the global scale, and voting mechanisms allowing them to exert influence on policy-making, such as referendums, were among the promising forms of participatory democracy suggested during our consultations.

So-called direct democracy mechanisms do not turn representative democracies into direct ones – if anything; they help make them more representative.

Referendums allow citizens to participate beyond electing representatives, directly making decisions. As a result, they can help revitalise exhausted representative institutions that are increasingly viewed as exclusionary and rigged to benefit a few rather than the many.

No matter what, all contemporary democracies are representative: on a daily basis, power is exercised by a special category of people, professional politicians, that are elected by citizens and expected to represent them, rather than by citizens themselves.

So-called direct democracy mechanisms do not turn representative democracies into direct ones – if anything; they help make them more representative. They ensure that outcomes on particularly important or divisive issues more closely reflect the distribution of citizens’ preferences by devolving decision-making to them.

Evidently, referendums do not always yield the results we desire – but then neither do elections. And if we don’t question democracy simply because an election didn’t go our way, we shouldn’t reject referendums for the very same reason.

Some referendums are more democratic than others

But some referendums are more democratic than others. Not only were the results of the British and Colombian referendums regressive; so were the processes that yielded those results.

The contrast between the British and Colombian votes, on one hand, and the Irish abortion referendum, on the other, was as stark in process as it was in outcome.

Referendums vary according to their origin: some, like the Irish referendum on abortion, are held because the law requires so in specific circumstances or to introduce certain changes; others are optional and take place because someone initiates them.

Among the latter, some are initiated from above – by a president, prime minister or, less frequently, a legislative body – while others are initiated from below, through a citizen initiative. Who initiates the vote – political elites or ordinary citizens – and who decides what question is asked and how it is framed can make a huge difference in a referendum’s impact.

Referendums initiated by citizens eager to place an issue on the agenda and campaigning for the required number of signatures have the highest democratising potential, as they turn private citizens into political actors.

These are, however, the most unusual ones – only in a small number of countries that allow referendums, and enables them to be used for policymaking rather than only to remove elected officials, is it possible for citizens to activate them. And even a smaller proportion has ever used them at all.

In Ireland, the proposal on abortion submitted for referendum came from a Citizen Assembly formed by randomly selected citizens and intended as a cross-section of Irish society.

In both Colombia and the UK, the referendums were not required by law and were activated from above with the purpose of consolidating authority, solving internal party disputes, or providing legitimacy to a decision taken at the top.

Over five weekends between November 2016 and April 2017, the Citizen Assembly’s 99 members listened to presentations by experts spanning the spectrum of positions, discussed the proposal, and eventually issued a favourable opinion. In the run-up to the vote, huge coordination efforts were undertaken by thousands of activists and volunteers deployed throughout Ireland, canvassing neighbourhoods, promoting reflection and disseminating factually correct information to counteract scare tactics and dogma.

In both Colombia and the UK, the referendums were not required by law and were activated from above with the purpose of consolidating authority, solving internal party disputes, or providing legitimacy to a decision taken at the top.

In both cases, the campaign leading to the vote was marked by the use of scare tactics, appeals to prejudice – homophobia in Colombia, xenophobia in the UK – and the proliferation of conspiracy theories and outright lies meant to mislead the public. Not surprisingly, informed debate was largely absent from both scenes.

What can be learned from these experiences is that, as with the institutions of representation, the institutions of participation need scrutiny and reform, so that they foster better deliberation and ground-up influence over decision-making.

Direct-democracy institutions need to become mechanisms of democracy in more than name – they need to be a part of the citizen’s toolbox rather than a tool at the disposal of political leaders.

If, as our research shows, people feel excluded from top-down decision-making processes that fail to meet their needs and aspirations and they want to be able to shape the policies that affect them at every level, the answer to the failings of democracy has to be not just more democracy – but better democracy.

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