Policy engagement at Queen’s

Brexit – a meaningful vote?

In light of the debate calling for a referendum on the Brexit deal, Peter Emerson from the de Borda Institute looks at some examples of referendums from across the world that were based around multi-option voting.

Brexit – a meaningful vote?

A decision has to be made.  OK, how?  Well, (give or take a few resignations), Theresa May’s cabinet has agreed the Chequers deal, and she now tries to persuade the 27 members of the EU to accept it.  Then parliament must decide.  And/or will there be a second referendum?

If the former, will the whip be used?  Will yet again the sick be stretchered in, because majority decisions can sometimes be won or lost by just one vote?[1]  Or will the people have the final say?  Either way, how best can the vote be ‘meaningful’.

It could be a two-option question, like “Chequers, yes or no?”  After all, David Cameron went to Europe, fixed up something, asked the Brexit question, and (52% of) the people said ‘no’; now that May has fixed up something else, then, if politics were logical, she could ask the above Chequers question.  But that could produce another ‘no’, and the process could drag on for years, ad nauseam.

So maybe the question should not be an “A, yes-or-no?” query, but of the “A or B?” variety: “Chequers or ‘remain’?”  But doubtless the Brexiteers would complain!  Likewise, if it were, “Chequers or the WTO?” the ‘remainers’ would object!

Hence, to be fair and full of meaning, the vote must be multi-optional!  So what will the options be?  In 1992, when New Zealand debated their electoral system, an independent commission produced a list of five options: one ‘thumb’, the then status quo of first-past-the-post, and four ‘fingers’, different electoral systems, some preferential, some proportional, etc..  In the first-round five-option referendum, more voted for a finger than for the thumb; and in the second-round majority vote, the most popular finger versus the thumb, New Zealand chose the German system, half FPTP and half PR-list.  All very fair.

Another good referendum was in Guam in 1982.  They discussed the constitution, produced a list of six options… and added a seventh, blank, so that anyone(s) else could concoct a different proposal, so to (campaign and) vote for that.[2]

So, back to Europe.  The government could task an independent commission to draw up a short list of, say, four to six options.  Quickly.  Then hold a Modified Borda Count (MBC)[3] referendum.  The mathematics of the count would encourage the voters to state their compromise option(s); and incentivise the protagonists to campaign for the 2nd and 3rd preferences of their erstwhile (majoritarian) opponents.

Thus the debates would be more nuanced, the campaigning more civilised, and the outcome a more accurate assessment of the will of the people: if not their consensus, then at least what the UK so desperately needs: their best possible compromise.


[1]           Some of the world’s crazy instances, in which decisions have been made ‘this’ way and not ‘that’ because one individual was bribed, threatened or seduced, are here:  http://www.deborda.org/won-by-one/

[2]           Multi-option referendums are discussed in Defining Democracy, Springer, 2012.

[3]           The mbc, invented by Jean-Charles de Borda in, was quickly corrupted into a bc.  In a bc of n-options, the voter may cast m preferences, where n ≥ m ≥ 1; points are awarded to (1st, 2nd … last) preferences cast according to the rule (n, n-1 … 1) or (n-1, n-2 … 0).  In an mbc, in contrast, the rule is (m, m-1 … 1).  The mbc, therefore, can cater with partial ballots.


The featured image in this article is used under a Creative Commons licence.

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Peter Emerson is Director of the de Borda Institute, whose focus is reform of voting procedures, enabling them to work for cohesion and compromise rather than division and confrontation.

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