Referendum versus a Citizens’ Assembly

This is an extract from Tony Czarnecki’s book: ‘Democracy for a Human Federation’

Could frequent referenda be a solution to the current crisis of democracy?

It seems that frequent referenda might be a potential solution, especially if the voting process becomes fully digitized. After all, participating in decision making is everybody’s natural need. People care deeply about their communities and want their voice to be heard. But are they really the right tool for that? Let’s take the Brexit referendum as an example. Against the predictions of the pollsters, on 23 June 2016 Britain voted in a referendum to make a decision on ceasing the membership of the European Union. The question was: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” A year later, on 1st October 2017 the government of Catalonia carried out a referendum on Independence that had not been previously agreed with the Spanish central government and which has led to serious political crisis in that region. The central Spanish government’s legal right quashed the legis naturalis of the Catalan people. How in the 21st century can it happen in a democratic country?

One of the key challenges of holding referenda is how to avoid bias by inappropriate formulation of the question on the referendum ballot paper. Some argue against having more than two options in a referendum, since the result may not be supported by the majority of the population taking part in the voting. The solution might be to apply the principles of Alternative Voting System (also known as a preferential system), where a voter scores the options from best to worst. If none of the options has more than 50% than the second preference from the least favoured option would be added to the remaining options until one of the options gets 50% +1 vote. For example, in the Brexit referendum there could have been three options given, such as;

  • Do you want the United Kingdom to leave the European Union even if the outcome of trade negotiations may severely reduce the growth of the British economy for a decade or more?
  • Do you want the United Kingdom to leave the European Union but retain the membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union?
  • Do you want the United Kingdom to leave the European Union and instead join the European Economic Area?

Similarly, the referendum on the independence of Catalonia could have also had several options, e.g.:

  1. I want Catalonia to become a fully independent state
  2. I want Catalonia to become an independent state, which will immediately become part of the Spanish Federation
  3. I want Catalonia to be part of Spain but with a higher degree of autonomy and retain the constitutional right to separate in the future into an independent nation
  4. I want Catalonia to be part of Spain on the current basis.

Another important issue to be decided before holding a referendum is what kind of majority should be required for a decision taken to be valid. In the Brexit referendum, 52% of the voters expressed the will to end Britain’s membership in the EU. However, the overall turnout was only 72 percent. Had everyone voted (i.e. had the voting been compulsory), then according to the polls for those that had not voted, the “Remainers” would have won with 66.03% of the votes to 33.97% for the “Leavers”[1]. Therefore, for such an important issue there should always be a requirement for a super majority i.e. 2/3 support for the motion.

However, notwithstanding these improvements to the way in which referenda are conducted, a problem which still remains unsolved is that they are not well suited to a human nature. We act primarily using our emotions rather than cold reasonable judgment. People voting in referenda and elections have a similar experience like going to a shop. Quite often we support a certain decision because it answers our immediate emotional need. People in general choose black or white, easy to understand, easy to implement, short-term solutions. Politicians know that and that is why they play for the short-term gain by manipulating the public opinion. In that way they can be re-elected at the next election, especially if there is no limit of the number of terms they can stand for a parliament.

Therefore, selling rational arguments to voters is very difficult indeed, which was so clearly shown during the Brexit referendum. Any politician that proposes necessary, complex, and sometimes painful solutions will almost never be elected. Populism flourishes because politicians like Donald Trump could twist any fact to their advantage and sell people the solutions they want, although they themselves may know, those solutions would never work. Had the voters known all the relevant facts they might have considered a proposed solution unattractive, and many might have not supported the option they had chosen in a referendum or during an election. With referenda, the added difficulty is that their impact is quite often long-term (like voting for a new constitution) and can be very difficult to amend.

To reduce the risk of making the wrong decision in a referendum, the voters should really be quite familiar with the issue under consideration. That was impossible in a referendum like Brexit because it required a lot of very specialist knowledge. However, with issues that deal with more straightforward matters, like changing the funding of the health service, referenda could have their role but rather in countries with a direct democracy system, such as Switzerland, where there are several referenda every year. There, direct democracy allows any citizen to challenge any law approved by the parliament or propose a modification of the federal Constitution at any time. The most frequent themes are healthcare, taxes, welfare, drug policy, public transport, immigration, asylum, and education.

The key conclusion is that in Switzerland referenda make sense because direct democracy is executed at the lowest possible level (e.g. municipality). Therefore, people get very interested in politics, know the subject matter well, could arrive at a rational decision, and accept solutions that can sometimes be painful. However, even there such a system is prone to corruption or to abuse as in the representative democracy because voters can be influenced by biased media in a very similar way. So, the Swiss may think that they are better off with a direct democracy rather than a representative democracy, but an objective analysis may not confirm that.

In 2017 the Dutch Council of State warned that the thoughtless use of referenda and other forms of “people’s democracy” sooner or later will undermine the functioning of the Dutch representative democracy and the rule of law. That’s why the Dutch government decided in February 2018 to abolish the referenda[2].

Referenda are indeed not the right instrument for making complex political or economic choices because of the rising complexity of the issues, which predominately require a rational judgement rather than an emotional approach. Decisions, which may seem right at the time of taking them, may lead to potentially disastrous consequences in the longer term.

In summary, it seems that in a representative democracy referendum should not be used as a voting instrument at all. Therefore, we need something else, which would substitute the referenda as a form of “people’s democracy”.

[1]Harold Clarke, Matthem Goodwin, Paul Whiteley: ‘What would have happened if everyone had voted in the EU Referendum?’,  The Conversation, 28/7/2016,

[2] NL Times, 6/4/2017, ‘Referendums a threat to democracy: Dutch Council of State’,