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‘Preferendums’ could deliver better decisions in divided societies

Published on: 14 October 2019

Referendums that use a preferential ballot system can potentially lead to better public deliberation and allow voters on all sides to feel that their views have been taken into account.

Expression of popular consent

When analysing referendums that have taken place in deeply divided societies around the world, a team from Newcastle University, and the Australian National University, found that referendums that offer a binary choice do not promote deliberation and, as a consequence, may actually harden existing attitudes.

Such votes also fail to capture the complexity of constitutional issues and almost always discount important aspects of popular opinion, the experts argue.

The use of referendums has increased in recent years around the world. Although they allow for a direct expression of popular consent, they are often seen as problematic because they do not always take into account the views of smaller groups.

Unless the process is carefully designed to encourage people to take a broader, more deliberative view of the issue, it is unlikely to be successful at bringing divided societies together.

To date, little research has been conducted into the prospects for public deliberation in deeply divided societies. This is believed to be the first time that the potential for deliberative referendums to generate popular consent for a major constitutional change in the context of these societies has been specifically explored.

Dr Ian O’Flynn, Senior Lecturer in Political Theory, Newcastle University, said: “Referendums are not a panacea and can’t solve all the problems that deeply divided societies face, but if well designed they can play a crucial role in helping a divided society move on.

“History gives us plenty of examples where referendums that offer a binary choice have been disastrous. If a referendum is not sensitively designed to encourage deliberation, people may end up feeling that their views and opinions count for nothing and may withhold their consent – with all the ramifications for democracy that might have.”

Improving the quality of deliberation

Although the success of referendums depends on many factors, such as the strength of civil society and media diversity, the research team point to three specific areas that they say could improve the quality of the deliberation that takes place during a referendum campaign, including the use of a preferential voting system rather than a simple majority.

A ‘preferendum’ that allows voters to select a range of different options in order of their preference, with the least popular option dropping out of the running in each round, could encourage greater attention to the complexity of the issues and open up space for improved deliberation. While winning option would still need to cross the majority threshold, crude majoritarianism would be avoided.

Such preferential or ‘run-off’ votes are already widely used around the world for elections to public office and the research team believe could also be used for referendums in deeply divided societies.

Another important factor is that of timing. If people are not given enough time to discuss and debate a major constitutional event, such as the introduction of a new peace agreement, divisions could deepen and greater inflexibility may be likely to result.

One way to avoid this could be to introduce new constitutional provisions sequentially. Alternatively, a new constitution could be implemented on a transitional basis, subject to a further referendum. This could allow one side to see that their views are being acted on and encourage sustained deliberation that gives voters time to take a broader, more flexible view.    

An encompassing view

The third area that the research suggests should be considered is inclusion. In recent years, some countries have chosen to hold deliberative forums that bring together people randomly chosen from diverse backgrounds to discuss a proposed policy issue. The diversity of these forums is intended to overcome the risk that views could become more polarised or entrenched if people only ever interact with or talk to others ‘on their side’.

Although careful thought needs to be given to the timing of this type of ‘mini-public’, they can be useful for capturing the diversity of people’s concerns and for framing the options on the ballot. Publicising the work of a deliberative forum and its findings has been shown to improve the quality of debate in the run up to a referendum.

Dr O’Flynn added: “In any referendum, the quality of public deliberation matters hugely.  In societies that are already deeply divided, it is even more important that there is a genuine and transparent attempt to encourage public deliberation and for all sides to show that they’re taking a more encompassing point of view in order to build trust and avoid deepening division further.”

The research was presented on 20 September at the ‘Democractic renewal in times of polarisation: the case of Belgium’ conference, at Leuven University, Belgium. 


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