Why referendums are messy tools of democracy



The voters of the world have had quite a year: They rejected Colombia’s peace deal; split Britain from the European Union; endorsed a Thai Constitution that curtails democracy; and, in Hungary, backed the government’s plan to restrict refugees, but without the necessary turnout for a valid result, The New York Times reports:

Each of these moves was determined by a national referendum. Though voters upended their governments’ plans, eroded their own rights and ignited political crises, they all accomplished one thing: They demonstrated why many political scientists consider referendums messy and dangerous.

“This is a tool that’s risky, but politicians keep using it because they think that they’ll win,” said Alexandra Cirone, a fellow at the London School of Economics….Colombia, Ms. Cirone said, also highlighted that “in contexts where the referendum addresses a historical political issue, it may be hard for voters to separate past experiences with what is best for the country in the future.”

When a referendum is put forward by the government, people often vote in support if they like the leadership and vote in opposition if they dislike it, according to research by Lawrence LeDuc, a political scientist and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto.

“A vote that is supposed to be about an important public issue ends up instead being about the popularity or unpopularity of a particular party or leader, the record of the government, or some set of issues or events that are not related to the subject of the referendum,” Professor LeDuc wrote in a 2015 paper.


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