Referendum versus a Citizens’ Assembly

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

We know that democracy is in crisis. The crisis is created on one hand by the power of the ever-present media applying sophisticated socio-political tools in support of the policies and politicians favoured by a given newspaper or a TV channel, to achieve crowd manipulation on an unprecedented scale, as we have seen in the 2016 election in the USA. We live in the world, which no longer changes linearly, but almost at an exponential pace, as I have mentioned several times in this book. The inadequacy and unsuitability of the electoral system has also contributed to the crisis creating the so-called democracy deficit. Are then the referenda the right democratic tool for making critical decisions?

Let’s take 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. In my view, the Catalans had the moral right to conduct the referendum, based on the “natural law”, but did not have a legal right. Was then the referendum the right way to make a decision on independence? Such questions would be of concern not only to making a decision on independence but also in a more general sense. Are then the referenda the best way to make complex decisions on vital matters of a nation?

The main problem with referenda and elections in every democratic country is that they are not well suited to 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, so that they can be re-elected at the next election, especially if there is no limit on the number of terms they can stand for a parliament. Therefore, selling rational arguments to voters, who as human beings act primarily using their emotions rather than cold reasonable judgment, is almost impossible, 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 can twist any fact to their advantage and sell people the solutions they want, although the politicians themselves may know, those solutions may never work. Had the voters known all the relevant facts they might have considered the proposal 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 up to 10 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 I would make is that in Switzerland referenda make sense because of direct democracy, 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.

In a representative democracy such as Spain or the UK, referendum as a voting instrument should be used extremely rarely, if at all. 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. I would agree with this view. This is 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 emotional approach, which may seem right at the time of making such a decision but a potential catastrophe when people see clearly the multifaceted impact of their decisions, as it was the case with Brexit.

Therefore, I would not abolish the referenda as such, but rather replace them with a Citizens’ Assembly, provided that its members are coached for months before a decision on a specific issue is decided, like in the Irish referendum on abortion and gay rights. I believe, a Citizens’ Assembly instead of a referendum, should be applied even in decisions that are fundamental to nationhood, such as splitting from the current state and becoming an independent country.

However, if a Citizens’ Assembly is used instead of a referendum, the key problem of how to avoid bias by inappropriate formulation of a question, will still remain. The next issue regards the number of options in a Citizens’ Assembly replacing a referendum. 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 in my view is 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;

  1. Do you want the United Kingdom to leave the European Union even if the outcome of the trade negotiations may severely reduce the growth of our economy for a decade or more?
  2. Do you want the United Kingdom to leave the European Union but retain the membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union?
  3. 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 should 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, if the Catalans themselves decide they want to do it
  4. I want Catalonia to be part of Spain on the current basis.

Another question regarding a Citizens’ Assembly, which would replace a referendum, is what kind of majority should be required for the 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”. Therefore, for such an important issue there should always be a requirement for a super majority of the sortition i.e. 2/3 support for the motion.