The Brexit Referendum – a flawed and misleading question?

On the 23rd of June 2016 a majority of 52 % of the British voters elected to leave the European Union – a decision which has since sparked an astonishing amount of controversy within both the UK and EU. What has become evident in the aftermath is that a large amount of misleading information within both the “Remain” and “Leave” sides were present during the period up until the referendum. One of the most notably claims being, that the British National Health Services (NHS) would gain 350 million pounds a week as a direct result of the UK leaving the EU. This claim has however been debunked by credible authorities, with The UK Statistics Authority labelling it a “clear misuse of official statistics”. They estimate the figure to be in the region of 250 million pounds, and adds to the fact that it remains unknown how much of the “saved” money would actually be allocated to the NHS (Shehab, 2018). The “Leave” side, spearheaded by among others Michael Gove, also saw an opportunity to take advantage of the European Refugee Crisis by claiming; “Turkey is going to join the EU and millions of people will flock to the UK”. Michael Gove, one of the central figures of the “Leave” side, even went as far as to claim that Turkey’s inclusion could happen within the next four years. Nevertheless, what happened? Just months, after the referendum the EU suspended negotiations with Turkey due to questions over human rights abuses (Shehab, 2018). It’s important to point out that the “Remain” side also deployed misleading information. One example being, how pro-EU campaigners claimed that leaving the EU would spark a renewed push for Scottish independence. Though true to the fact remains, that 62 % of the Scottish people voted in favor of staying against a mere 46.6 % in England (Dickson, 2017).

One of the busses that went around London during the campaign

Although these campaigning tactics led to various kinds of misleading information and “mud throwing” being presented to the voting public, I will argue that the referendum question itself maybe poses an even greater problem of democratic deficiencies. Here’s why.

A flawed question design?

We know from within the scientific literature that questions applied in surveys, voting polls etc. should be structured in a clear and accurately formulated manner, in order to let the respondents formulate the desired answer (Fowler & Cosenza, 2008). But what this actually the case with the Brexit referendum? Researchers such as, Thomas Colignatus has recently argued that the binary nature of the referendum question (to either Leave or Remain the EU) did foster a disparity in the voting process and a misleading interpretation (Colignatus, 2017).

The Referendum Ballot Paper (Source: Wikipedia)

He bases his arguing on the fact, that the referendum question was worded in a far too narrow and binary manner for it to capture the complexity of the question itself. When interpreting the question I admit I also find myself supporting the point made by Thomas Colignatus. The notion of either leave or remain does stand out as a somewhat vague wording, which paves the way for countless number of understandings and interpretations. For example, does leaving the EU entail; to leave everything within the European Union, or would leave imply a situation where the UK would still see themselves cooperating with other member states and be a part of certain supranational matters (eg. Crime collaboration, the single market etc.). In another study by Miljan & Alchin (2018) on the design of referendum questions, they found that the particular wording of questions is an important factor in ensuring legitimacy to the results. They state, based on advice from International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), that the question must not be “vague or capable of different meanings” (Miljan & Alchin, 2018). I will argue though, that this Brexit referendum question was capable of exactly that; vague and different meanings. Especially when considering the campaigning tactics this becomes even more evident. In that sense, it could be debated to what extent the vast amount of misleading information from both sides during the period leading up to the vote made it even more difficult for the voters to sort through the false claims, and therefore gain an understanding of what it actually meant to either leave or remain in the EU.

One or multiple questions?

The question that still begs to be answered is; what else could have been done to outweigh the democratic deficiencies of the binary referendum question? Although the literature seems rather inconclusive on this dilemma, it do offer another possibility – a multiple-choice ballot. As argued above, the question of independence is in reality more complex than just a YES/NO, what could be needed to offset this, is a ballot capable of capturing complexity. Rosulek (2016) finds that a multiple-choice ballot could be capable of doing exactly that. He argues that a ballot design through alternative measures such as rank ordering or to split issues into two or more sections could be applied. A multiple-choice ballot would at the same time work in favor of increased democratic legitimacy because it affords more engagement by the voting public (Rosulek, 2016). On the other hand, a multiple question ballot would require voters to inform themselves on a great number of issues, which can be both demanding and time-consuming. Furthermore, this can lead to confusion, lower turnouts and less informed decision-making. Finally, Rosulek suggests that if multiple-choice questions are left out of the ballot it can lead to widening societal disparities. The results of independence referendums tend to frustrate and even aggravate people, which was also evident in the Brexit referendum. An aggravation that can lead to social polarization, for example between different age groups (Rosulek, 2016) – a problem that became apparent in the aftermath of Brexit.

Final thoughts

I hope that this blog has provided you with a different take on the Brexit-debate, and given a little more insight on how vital the wording of a question can be for the outcome of such important matters as an independence referendum. I think it’s to fair to conclude that the Brexit referendum, especially in regards to the campaigning activity, was one of a kind. Based on the different viewpoints throughout this blog, I would argue that a referendum with multiple-choice questions would have promoted a more fair campaign and a more democratic referendum. What do you think?


Colignatus, T. (2017, 17th of May). “The Brexit referendum question was flawed in its design”. Retrieved from:

Fowler, F.J., & Cosenza, C. (2008). “Writing effective questions”. In E.D. de Leeuw, J.J. Hox, & D.A. Dillman (Eds.), International Handbook of Survey Methodology (pp.136-160). New York, London: Taylor & Francis.

Miljan, L., Alchin, G. (2018). “Designing A Referendum Question For British Columbia”. The Fraser Institute. Retrieved from:

Rosulek, P. (2016). “Secession, Referendum and Legitimacy of a Ballot Text – Scholarly Reflection 1”. Politické Vedy. (4), 93. Retrieved from:

Shehab, K. (2018, 28th of July). “Final Say: The misinformation that was told about Brexit during and after the referendum”. Retrieved from:

10 thoughts on “The Brexit Referendum – a flawed and misleading question?

  1. Great blog! Very informative and relevant! Brexit was engulfed in so much misleading information; the most notable one was that red bus with “We give £350 billion a week, let’s fund our NHS instead: Vote Leave.” Turns out that was a major falsehood and people bought into that. It seems to me that those who favored ‘Leave’ were the ones in charge of phrasing surveys. Brexit goes to show the consequential power that poorly phrased and misleading information have: they can impact economies around the world! We must always question the validity of such claims and not be blinded into believing everything we are shown.


  2. I find your example for this topic very good and interesting to read! It’s actually very concerning that misleading questions are even used in referendums like Brexit. I actually agree with your statement. It would have been better if people were better informed about Brexit and had some kind of pretest with questions about the referendum. In this way, people would have understood the referendum better and they could have made a better decision in the end.


  3. I like your topic, youre presentation on it was also really clear.

    Your suggestion about considering multiple choice referenda is interesting. Your points arguing in favor of multiple choices are good and well thought-out. However, I doubt whether the way the question is formulated was the biggest problem in this case. In turn, I’m not sure whether or not it should be updated at all. The question itself wasn’t that bad: it was presented in a matter-of fact, neutral manner. You described that the main issue was that it was a very complex situation the vague question did not reflect well. But I can imagine a more extensive question like a multiple choice one would have implications as well. For example, people might incorrectly assume that they have influence on parts of the conplex problem. In this case, when presented with a question about Turkey and a question about the trade agreement with europe, people might vote against one and in favor of another. But complex problems like these generally can’t be solved this way. It is either A or B, both options having their own downsides. What do you think? If you think this misinterpretation is likely as well, how would you suggest this may be taken into account when presenting multiple choice questions?

    I would argue that your first analysis of Brexit contains the biggest problem in this case: it was not so much the formulation of the question that was vague, but rather the campaigns leading up to the referendum that made it hard for participants to decide which box to cross. Ideally, people should be presented with factual information regarding the issue, including both pro’s and con’s. But, as argued in this class, this is very hard to achieve with so many fake news, biases, misinterpretations, unreliable sources and manipulations that surround us. So why this might have been the biggest contributing factor to the overall confusion, it may also be the hardest to tackle. What do you think about maybe including a sheet of factual information with both pros and cons as well as sources with the voting pass? People could then filter factual information out of everything they may have heard and vote afterwards.

    To conclude, it is a very complex case, and I think you did a really good job in analyzing it, breaking it down to main points and coming up with a possible solution within the required amount of words. Nicely done. (:


  4. I really like your blog and find the topic very relevant. I think that you may be correct when saying that the voting was too narrowly worded. I’d even go as far as saying that “leave” and “remain” are in themselves bias words. It could be that the people of Britain wanted a change. This may not mean they want to leave the EU, but with wording such as “remain” it could mean that individuals felt like they only had two options – that of “LEAVE the EU which would result in a change” or “REMAIN in the EU and keep things the way they are”. I agree that the campaign itself had misleading data being presented to the public. It is clear that with such a small difference in the voting, almost 50/50, that things were maybe not so clear, and this is a great example of how misleading information and bias or narrowing wording in a survey may have big consequences.


  5. I like your blog! I did also like your presentation last Thursday. You gave a new insight to a quite controversial topic: the Brexit. The way questions are framed can be indeed very misleading, you grasped that concept really well in your blog. You write in a very pleasant manner, as if you do this professionally.

    Furthermore, I agree with your statement, multiple answers could have led to a different outcome, however the solution posed in the lecture of last thursday was a good one as well: be sure to announce the question and the answer options on forehand to the public. This way people could form earlier an idea of the question and what it entailes. Let’s hope there will be another referendum before March 2019!


  6. I never really thought about a referendum as if it is a questionnaire. But I guess you are right, it is in fact a small one that can have great consequences.
    Regarding your final statement I think having the option for multiple choices may make the referendum more democratic… However, I’m not sure how this will work exactly since it could result in people acknowledging multiple answers. If multiple-choice questions are used in future referendums I think it would be beneficial to focus the answers on possible solutions that are possible to work out, this way letting the public decide which solution deserves and needs priority.


  7. Really nice post and very accurately written. I always get a bit surprised when I get aware of how many ‘numbers’, advertisements, surveys, etc, are misleading around us. As Robin stated above, I think that it would be more democratic, and fair to have the option of the multiple choices. But, I wonder what kind of result that would give? We saw that many factors influence people answers so I think this discussions and ideas should be a brought further. If individuals and smaller groups take small steps toward a change many problems as acknowledging the possible answers may be resolved.


  8. Interesting blog! I have never looked at the Brexit topic from this point of view. Regarding your statement, I am not sure if a multiple-choice question would be the solution. If people are not informed well and a lot of misleading information is going around before the referendum, it will still be very difficult for people to make a choice and their choice will still be very much influenced. I am of the opinion that people should be informed correctly before a referendum and that this information should be monitored better. And off course that people should be stimulated to do research themselves. If the referendum about the Brexit would be redone but than with multiple-choice questions, I do not think that the outcome would be very different. Probably it would be even more confusing.


  9. I like how you show your own opinion and thoughts in your blog. Interesting to think about misleading data in important cases such as the Brexit. I agree that, for example, a multiple-choice question would better suit a complex question such as this one. However, I also think that it can be confusing and may deter people from voting. The solution is unfortunately not so obvious. Maybe it can be explored the next time a complex referendum is held?


  10. Really enjoyed reading your blog, and the presentation! I think it is an interesting subject, because in my fair opinion a binding referendum is alway critical, because as was discussed in class a lot of people do not know what they are voting for. So i am not sure that if one already does not know what he/she is voting for, multiple question in a referendum would work.. I think it is interesting if the referendum is not binding, what the outcome what say and what the voters care/concern most about. But if its binding, I think you need to stick to yes/no question, because otherwise you can discuss about the outcome and it the case of yes/no it is fixed. So, yes interesting topic choice and nice food for thought!


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