On Saturday, Slovakia will vote on a six-question referendum, the seventh such vote in country history. In order for the referendum to be valid, more than half of all registered voters must turn out to the poll; a threshold most experts believe this vote will not meet. In fact, only one referendum in the country’s […]
Last week in Slovenia, voters rejected, via a national referendum, a new family law that would allow same-sex couples to adopt children. The new family code was passed by the then-governing center-left coalition in 2011 but a conservative religious group collected the signatures necessary to challenge the law in a referendum.With a low turnout of approximately 26 percent, around 55 percent of voters rejected the law, while about 45 percent supported it.
I’ve discussed several times my opposition to direct democracy without turnout thresholds. They allow a small, driven group of individuals to pass laws so long as the rest of the population isn’t as equally mobilized to stop them. This is a great example of that. Should Slovenia really be overturning such an important law based on the preferences of just over 14 percent of voters?
Croatians voted in favor of European Union membership in a referendum on Sunday, although turnout was officially placed at 43 percent. Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic stated that this was a result of an inaccurate and out-of-date voter registry. If the voter roll was accurate, Pusic claimed, then actual turnout may have been closer to 60 percent of voters.
I’ve previously discussed how I believe that most plebiscites should require some turnout threshold in order for a measure to pass. Thresholds can prevent a small, driven group of individuals from easily passing beneficial laws assuming the rest of the population isn’t as equally mobilized to stop them. EU membership is an important issue, so a turnout requirement would make sense here. When nobody even knows how many voters exist, however, such a rule is impossible.
It appears that Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou has decided to call a referendum on the European debt plan as opposed to working a solution through parliament. The politics of referendums aren’t discussed enough in my opinion but luckily, political science can help us predict voting behavior in direct democracy.
Vote choice in referendums is unique in advanced democracies because it allows voters to weigh an issue directly, sometimes without concern for party loyalties. The model of political parties described by Bawn et al. shows that voters primarily take cues on most issues from elite signalling within political parties. So should this method of issue support carry over into plebiscites? In Referendums on European Integration, Simon Hug and Pascal Sciarini, discuss how different variables about a referendum affect vote choice. Examining data from fourteen European integration referendums, the authors claim that issue saliency determines voting behavior. In important “first-tier” elections, voters make a decision by weighing the actual issue. On less important “second-tier” elections, voters may base their decision on their assessment of the ruling party. This comes in the form of voting against the wishes of the government if one is dissatisfied, and voting in favor if one is supportive. I think Hug and Sciarini would agree the Greek vote represents a “first-tier issue.” We should expect then, that confidence in the government should have minimal impact on voter preference.
Hug and Sciarini’s model has been tested recently, when Iceland faced a somewhat similar situation, twice in the past two years. You can read the details here, but the basic story is that twice the Icelandic government attempted to push a loan repayment deal through plebiscite, and twice voters rejected the deal, known as the “Icesave Bill.” In that situation, the ruling coalition of the Social Democratic Alliance (SDA) and the Left-Green Movement came to power after Iceland’s financial collapse that triggered the need for the referendum. While most voters approved of the new government, the public push by the SDA was not enough to convince voters to cast “yes” ballots.
Citizens of Malta on Saturday voted in a referendum on whether or not to legalize divorce. The heavily Catholic Malta is currently the only European country where divorce is still banned, and apparently one of the last in the world. Official results show that 53 percent of the Mediterranean island’s voters were in favor of the measure, which asked whether parliament should pass a law allowing couples to divorce after four years of separation. The referendum was non-binding; parliament is still required to pass a new law, but the prime minister has indicated he will respect the wishes of the people despite his personal opposition. One of my favorite arguments by the anti-legalization side was that legalizing divorce would not help deal with abusive husbands because that would just allow the man to move on to another women. Not sure how you make that argument with a straight face, but luckily it didn’t work. I imagine this is one case of direct democracy where a number of people’s lives will significantly improve in a observable and immediate fashion. Good for Malta.
One of the takeaway points for me is that voters have consistently voiced strong support for systems that are more proportional, but that support quickly evaporates once it is described to them what a proportional representation system is. This isn’t that surprising; traditional tradeoffs between fair and effective governance, although overstated, are easier to make when they are abstract. When you start to think about how they will impact your preferred party, however, things might be different.
This made me curious to see if there has been anything written about vote choice and direct democracy, with a particular interest in the impact of elite signaling. The best thing I found was this paper by Simon Hug and Pascal Sciarini, which discuss how different variables about a referendum affect vote choice. Examining data from fourteen European integration referendums, Hug and Sciarini essentially claim that issue saliency determines voting behavior. In important “first-tier” elections, voters make a decision by weighing the actual issue. On less important “second-tier” elections, voters may base their decision on their assessment of the ruling party. This comes in the form of voting against the wishes of the government if one is dissatisfied, and voting in favor if one is supportive. This makes sense but it only explains voting behavior using a rational choice/retrospective model, where voters retroactively form their opinions of parties after evaluating their performance in office.
I’m not against looking at things this way, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for every type of referendum. The UK AV referendum, in particular, doesn’t fit any existing model. I’m not sure if the election would count as “first or second tier” in importance – the 40 percent turnout leads me to believe second – but I don’t think it matters. Even if it was first tier, voters would not be able to punish the ruling government as it was made up of a coalition divided on the issue. To me, it’s very difficult for a voter to not weigh the issue through a partisan filter because the referendum is essentially a vote on future partisan performance. Yet, as we’ve previously discussed here, there still seemed – at least according to one earlier survey – that a decent amount of partisans were going against their party. I would like to see more written about this by people who know more and have more data to play with. I’m guessing that committed Tory and LibDem partisans took cues from their party leaders. Labour partisans, having been sent such mixed signals from thier elites, would be interesting to examine. Did Labour voters have a clear idea over whether AV would help or hurt them? I think you could make arguments either way but I’m not sure what they heard. Also, how did those with weak identification vote, if they even turned out?
With almost all constituencies counted it looks like the AV referendum will, as predicted, fail miserably. There were some hopes that suppressed turnout would allow AV to squeak out a victory but that was probably quite wishful thinking. The Guardian has a good article providing ten reasons AV failed. Not being the expert on British politics that I would like to be I can’t evaluate most of them critically, but they generally sound plausible.
The talk of weak turnout benefiting the “Yes” camp surprised me, because I would have thought that a referendum like this would require an absolute majority of registered voters to turnout in order to be valid. Extra stipulations like this are quite common in plebiscites worldwide and I think they are generally a better option. There is a lot of evidence that direct democracy, far from giving more power to the people, is just another channel for elites to push for their interests. California is the easiest example of this, as the state’s propositions have more special interest money spent on them than campaigns for elected office. Given how easy it is for a small group of intense policy demanders to get their way, I think requiring an absolute majority of voters to turnout is a good idea. This will ensure those groups can’t push through harmful changes based on the apathy of the general public (Yes I realize this still happens all the time in legislatures but we shouldn’t make it easier). The extra hurdle does matter; Moldova recently failed to alter its method for electing the president – despite 87 percent of voters approving the change – due to insufficient turnout. Like in the UK, voting reform was highly political in Moldova, and I think major changes to a country’s institutions should be based on broad legitimacy.
On April 9, Icelanders will head to the polls for a special referendum regarding a loan guarantee to Britain and the Netherlands. This is the second time Iceland will vote on the issue; last year, voters overwhelmingly rejected a similar ballot initiative.
In October 2008, the Icelandic bank, Landsbanki, collapsed, and with it its online Icesave branch, and the investments of 400,000 British and Dutch savors. Iceland’s Depositors’ and Investors’ Guarantee Fund lacked the funds to compensate its investors and the Icelandic government initially refused to take responsibility for the failure of a private bank. After consdierable negotiations, Iceland agreed to insure the liabilities of Icesave, while the British and Dutch governments provided a 3.8 billion Euro loan to cover the deposit insurance obligations for their citizens. In August 2009, the Icelandic parliament, the Althing, passed a bill setting out terms of repayment to the two countries for the loan. President Olafur Grimsson, however, refused to sign the bill, forcing a nationwide referendum on the issue. In March 2011, Icelandic voters overwhelmingly voted against the measure, with 93 percent casting “no” votes. The rejection resulted in severe diplomatic tension between Iceland and both Britain and the Netherlands. It also caused a downgrading of Iceland’s bond ratings.
On February 16, 2011, the Althing passed a new Icesave bill, with terms considered more favorable for Iceland. The new terms were the result of negotiations with the British and Dutch, and included lower interest rates on repayment as well as a revaluing of the debt. Once again, however, President Grimsson refused to sign the bill, meaning voters will once again be given the chance to weigh in on the issue. While initial support for the referendum started out strong, recent polls have shown the gap narrowing. A survey taken on March 17 revealed that a bare majority, 52 percent, were planning on voting “yes”, while 48 percent planned to once again reject the proposal. The most recent poll, taken on April 5-6, shows that 55 percent of respondents planned on rejecting the referendum, while 45 percent would approve it.
It’s easy to criticize Icelanders (and indeed I am right now!) for not insuring their own banks, but I understand where they are coming from. Think of the uproar over our bank bailout several years ago. Now imagine if we were being asked to bail out AIG so we could pay back the bad investments of a bunch of British and Dutch! Different scenario yes, but the politics are similar. Furthermore, unlike our bailout, Iceland basically knows how much this will cost the average citizen. Given the relative small size of the country, coupled with the high price tag for the loan, the average Icelander is expected to shell out – not all at once of course – around 6,000 dollars. Of course saying “no” will downgrade Iceland’s debt to junk bond status, and cripple EU membership talks. It’s a bad situation to be in and the average Icelander is not to blame. Rich bankers in their country over-expanded, bad investors in other countries weren’t careful with their investments. Now they have to share the loss.