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).
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).
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.
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: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2017/05/17/the-brexit-referendum-question-was-flawed-in-its-design/
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: https://www.fraserinstitute.org/sites/default/files/designing-a-referendum-question-for-british-columbia.pdf
Rosulek, P. (2016). “Secession, Referendum and Legitimacy of a Ballot Text – Scholarly Reflection 1”. Politické Vedy. (4), 93. Retrieved from: https://www.academia.edu/30498114/Secession_Referendum_and_Legitimacy_of_a_Ballot_Text_-_Scholarly_Reflection
Shehab, K. (2018, 28th of July). “Final Say: The misinformation that was told about Brexit during and after the referendum”. Retrieved from: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/final-say-brexit-referendum-lies-boris-johnson-leave-campaign-remain-a8466751.html#explainer-question-4