By Peter Emerson.
Preferendum: The received wisdom
“The electorate might be bewildered”, declared Gerard Hogan, the lawyer (now judge), in the 1996 Whitaker Constitutional Review; “The referendum system”, he continued, “has worked well in practice”. This was written after the bitter divorce referendum of 1995, the vicious 1991/2 plebiscites in the Balkans, and the fractious 1973 Northern Ireland Border Poll.
“[Preferendums] would cause chaos”, exclaimed Garret FitzGerald, former Taoiseach (1999, in a UCD seminar on decision-making). Allowing the people to choose, he continued (I paraphrase), would bring back the rope, ban income tax… chaos.
“They would mean the end of party politics as we know it”, declared Rodney Rice, a journalist; (c. 2000, in private conversation).
“It is my moral responsibility to decide what the options should be”, confirmed Liz McManus, another politician; (meeting with the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution, in the runup to the 2002 abortion referendum).
“Problem is preferendum favours status quo”, tweeted Professor David Farrell, (responding to Conor O’Mahony’s Irish Times article on abortion polls, 30.8.2014).
Antipathy from both the media and academia prevails in the North too. Despite numerous presentations, workshops and publications by the de Borda Institute, the media do not even mention multi-option voting; and Lord Paul Bew for example, professor and adviser to the Belfast Agreement, once said. “I don’t understand the preferendum”.
Alas, many believe that, “democracy works on the basis of a decision by a majority” (per the Whitaker Report again); as if all decisions, if based on a ballot, must be subject to a – simple or weighted – majority vote. But…
“What has happened here today should be reported and repeated”, said Michael D Higgins, TD, now President (1991, in his key-note speech at a public meeting in Belfast where, with electronic voting, the preferendum was tried and tested).
One right, but a big one…
Politicians achieve their goals by first controlling the debate: they choose the question: it’s yes-or-no, and in most cases, the question is then the answer. Preferential voting would reduce that monopoly manipulation. People cast preferences when voting in elections; why not, then, when making decisions?
In multi-option decision-making:
• the electorate (or their representatives) formulate the options which, if need be, independent commissioners edit to a (short) list of up to six balanced options: (in an abortion debate, this could be two pro-choice, two pro-life and one or two compromises).
• when agreed to, this list forms the basis of a Modified Borda Count, MBC, a preferendum.
• those concerned then cast (one, some or all of) their preferences on the options listed; and the higher the preference, the more the points.
• the result is the option with the most points; if everyone casts a full list of preferences, the outcome is the option with the highest average preference, which of course involves every voter, not just a majority of them.
Some countries do use multi-option referendums: Australia, Sweden, Uruguay etc. In most, however, including Ireland and Britain, politicians reduce complex problems to a dichotomy.
Many fractious issues could have been, or still could be, resolved by MBC.
How it would work: the ongoing abortion conundrum in Ireland
Before the 2002 abortion referendum, the Government had outlined seven possible options but still, in the vote, it was yes-or-no. The motion was defeated by less than 1%: a combination of some who thought it too liberal and others who thought it not liberal enough. “The people have spoken!”, declared Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. “Well”, de Borda asked in a letter to the Irish Times, “what did they say?”
De Borda had suggested five options which it now reiterates for the evolved circumstances of 2014: (a) Absolute ban subject to indirect abortions; (b) Abortion permissible when necessary to save the life (but not to prevent the suicide) of the mother; (c) Abortion permissible when necessary to save the life of the mother, (and this includes the prevention of suicide); (d) Abortion permissible under (c) and also to protect the physical and/or mental health of the mother; and (e) liberal regime as in Sweden.
An MBC procedure for the abortion (or any other major) issue could be as follows. The Dáil would appoint an independent commission which then receives submissions from the public, allows all relevant proposals, and draws up a (short) list of 4 – 6 options. Next, the people cast their preferences. Then, subject perhaps to certain minima – e.g., in Denmark, the turnout must be 40% plus – the Government enacts the outcome, i.e., the Executive executes the will of the people. That’s their job. That’s democracy.
In an MBC of, let us assume, six options:
• he who casts only one preference gives his favourite option just 1 point;
• she who casts, say, three options gives her favourite 3 points, (her 2nd preference 2 points and her 3rd preference 1 point);
• while those who cast all six preferences give their favourite 6 points, (their 2nd preference 5 points, their 3rd preference 4 points, and so on).
Success therefore depends on a good number of high preferences, a few middle ones perhaps, but very few low ones. So the wise protagonist will try to persuade her erstwhile opponents to give her option not a fifth or fourth, but a third or even higher preference. In other words, the MBC encourages dialogue.
No-one votes against. They vote only for, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Furthermore, as implied above, voters are (not forced but) encouraged to submit full ballots. Those who do thus recognise the validity of all the various options.
The MBC is indeed inclusive. What’s more, as recognised in the science, it is more accurate than any majority vote.
A multi-option abortion debate would almost certainly be more civilised and sophisticated than any polarising two-option contest. Secondly, because the outcome would probably be the 1st preference of many, the 2nd preference of some, and maybe the 3rd preference of a few as well, it would enjoy more widespread support. Most importantly of all, of course, everyone would know what the people actually said.
Bunreacht na héireann stipulates that a referendum outcome can be enacted if it has the support of “a majority of the votes [cast]” (Article 47). This might mean the ballot could be a majority vote, which is what normally happens; but it could also mean a two-round vote (like the five-option ballot held in New Zealand in 1992); or, best of all, a preferential vote.
Matters of policy, not least abortion, are controversial; debates are complex; subjects should therefore not be distorted into simple dichotomies. Not only the electorate at large but also politicians in the Dáil, should use rational, multi-option voting. In this computer age, it is high time political scientists considered, and journalists discussed, preferential decision-making. Democracy, after all, is for everybody, not just a majority; and the human race will not be able to tackle those huge problems, like global warming, which affect us all, if they do not use sophisticated, inclusive and accurate decision-making procedures. •
Peter Emerson, The de Borda Institute
1947 KASHMIR, NIGERIA, XINJIANG
The UN called for a referendum on whether Kashmir should be in India or Pakistan; if such a ballot were to be held, there would almost certainly be war. Similarly polarised scenarios could easily occur in the northern states of Nigeria, in Xinjiang in China, and so on. Lessons from around the world, the latest being South Sudan, are crying out for a more sophisticated decision-making process.
(2015?) EU REFERENDUM UK
In any “EU, in-or-out?” referendum in the UK, mooted for 2015, the outcome will probably be ‘out’, just like in France in 2005. At the very least the ballot should consist of two positive questions, something like this: (a) would you like the UK to stay in the EU? or (b) the UK to have trading links with the EU, like Norway? A better multi-optional process would add some other options, like these: (c) the UK to have a looser arrangement, like Switzerland? or (d) to be independent of the EU, with no formal links.
2014 SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE REFERENDUM
The Scottish National Party wanted a three-option ballot on independence, devo-max (i.e., maximum devolution) or status quo. David Cameron, however, chose just two options – independence or status quo? – thinking the latter would win. Then, however, the opinion polls suggested independence might succeed. Panic. The status quo morphed into devo-max… which then won. But it wasn’t on the ballot paper! It is probably what most people want, but no-one knows for sure!
2005 FRENCH LISBON TREATY REFERENDUM
Those in favour supported the new arrangement and/or the EU in general. Those against opposed the treaty and/or the EU per se and/or Jacques Chirac and/or Mcdonalds and/or je ne sais quoi! No wonder it lost.
1992 BOSNIAN INDEPENDENCE REFERENDUM There were three options ‘on the table’ – independence, a Serbian/Bosnian confederation, and the then status quo of a truncated Yugoslavia of Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosova. But the question was stark: independence, yes-or-no? Those who wanted compromise were, in effect, disenfranchised.
In all of these cases – as too in Northern Ireland, Croatia, Kosova, Abhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, East Timor, etc, the minority/ies abstained, boycotted or fought. Bosnia was in the last category: the referendum started the war.
When asked earlier this year if referendums could be a catalyst for violence or even genocide, Samantha Power, current US Ambassador to the UN, replied, “to be honest, I had never drawn the links among referendums… Fascinating and worrying”. •