When looking at daily news, a few topics have been constantly appearing in the last two years. The most frequent of them all: the Brexit Referendum and its fallout in the British parliament. It isconcerned with the legitimacy of the results of voting and how to implement Brexit. From the results of the 2016 Brexit referendum it was clear, although only by a small margin of votes, that the British public wanted the nation to leave the European Union. The question on the ballot was simple: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” However, the simplicity of the question has resulted in the rise of complex problems about the process of capturing public opinion in a representative democracy.
The Brexit ballot only asked whether the people of the United Kingdom wanted to leave the European Union, omitting all kinds of details about how to leave and on what terms. As pointed by Max Fisher in “How a Strange Massachusetts Election Helps Explain Britain’s Brexit Chaos,” the people were asked whether to leave, but not how to leave. Fisher focused on another similar case of confusion about the assessment of public opinion in Massachusetts. After Jasiel Correia, the mayor of Fall River, was arrested on charges of investor finance fraud, he decided to contest the charges and remain the mayor. A recall election was held and “about 61 percent voted to remove him from office.” This showed that there was a clear mandate from the people: remove Jasiel Correia. However, the second question on the ballot asked who should replace him. The question provided four options – and Correia was one of them. The responses were split but Correia was reelected, having gotten the most votes. The same ballot that removed Correia got him reelected, even though it was clear that an overwhelming majority of those who voted wanted him removed. Like the Brexit ballot, the outcome in Fall River shows the shortcomings of the process of public opinion assessment. Because of the limitations on what can be asked on a ballot, it can never completely capture what the public supports. Fisher points this out but the article did not suggest a solution.
Hence the question: How well can a ballot capture the public opinion and what can be done about the current Brexit situation, or any other vote that ends in a similar manner? In a democracy, public opinion is vitally important. A ballot is used to record what the citizens support, whether it is an election where voters are asked to choose a candidate or a referendum where they are asked to choose the fate of a policy. The reality is that no ballot can provide enough options for the citizens to fully express their support. In her book The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker, Katherine Cramer argues that surveys, like ballots, record what people think but they are unable to capture why that is the case. She argues that to really understand the public opinion, a combination of techniques must be used. Further, Cramer suggests that local politicians do not need surveys because they understand the people by having a dialogue with them. Instead of relying on surveys, she visits groups of rural Wisconsinites to understand how they form their opinions, what she calls “rural consciousness”. Cramer is not the only one to use this technique of dialogue. Arlie Hochschild, in her book Strangers in Their Own Land, explains that her understanding of the rural communities of Louisiana was changed after her firsthand interactions with the people. This suggests that understanding the public opinion requires more than just survey data or the results of a referendum.
Clearly a combination of dialogue with the people and election data is a better indicator of public opinion than just one on its own. It is possible for local politicians to have conversations with their constituents because of a relatively small number of people that make up the constituency. However, when it comes to the United States or the United Kingdom as a whole, it is impossible for the president or the prime minister to go around talking to the public. Because of the large scale of a nation, managing dialogue with the people while working on policy issues is impossible. One could argue that to make the voting process more efficient, it could be conducted online. This would make the voting process more accessible, potentially increasing voter turnout while cutting the costs of maintaining voting booths and machines. It would also make it possible to conduct votes more frequently.
However, there are two main problems with that. First, with the current doubts around the election process in the United States and how it might have been influenced by foreign hackers, going fully online would make it even more vulnerable. With the available security resources, it is best to keep the voting process offline. Second, even if it was possible to legitimately conduct online voting, too frequent votes would make democracy too unstable. In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydites recorded a debate between Cleon and Diodotus. The Athenians had decided to punish the rebelling state of Mytilene by killing the men and selling the women and children. The next day, they decided to reconsider the decision. Cleon and Diodotus debated, and according to Thucydites, Cleon argued that if decisions changed on a day to day basis, democracy would never be able to implement a policy. Too frequent polls would make it impossible to enforce a decision in the long term.
The current system is far from perfect, but it is the best that is available. Although a ballot is not capable of recording the support of the whole population, the options on the ballot can be expanded. In both the cases, Brexit and Fall River, the people were given very few options. On the Brexit referendum, there was only one question. On the Fall River recall, there were only two questions. Even though a ballot cannot have all the options listed on it, it can have more than one question. In the context of Brexit, the ballot could have asked whether the United Kingdom should leave, and if yes, on what terms. The terms for the exit could have been sorted into multiple options, like “soft Brexit, hard Brexit, Norway-style Brexit, Canada-style Brexit,” as pointed out by Fisher. While it is hard to sort out the options on the ballot, it would have made the ballot relatively more representative of the public opinion. The relative simplicity of the ballot used for the Brexit referendum has resulted in an extremely complex debate in the parliament. A ballot with a few broad options for Brexit would have given the parliament a better indication of how the British people want the process to be carried out. As for the Fall River case, the question should have been whether Correia should be removed and if yes, who should replace him. His name should not have appeared in the second part of the question. If a clear majority wanted him removed, there should not have been a loophole that allowed him to get reelected. The blunder at Fall River could have avoided, like Brexit, if the ballot was designed in a way that captures a clear public opinion.
Max Fisher’s article can be accessed at: