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The latest Brexit referendum passed with barely a couple percent over the 50% threshold, despite being a major constitutional change with significant consequences for many generations to come. Likewise the referendum for Scotland to leave the UK also had a mere 50% for threshold for something that would be extremely hard to reverse.

Why is the 50% threshold considered to be the standard for such major decisions? Are there countries where the threshold is higher?

  • There are no laws governing how referenda shall be conducted in the UK. There have only ever been three. They are by their very nature ad hoc events. The fact that such requirements, (e.g. for a majority of the entire electorate in order to prevail), were not built in to the specific legislation is a damning indictment of the Cameron government. Especially this is so given that the Conservatives have long held that this principle should apply to Trade Union ballots. The fact is Cameron never remotely considered that he would fail to gain a simple majority. – WS2 May 3 '17 at 22:52
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Referendum with higher thresholds are not unheard of. Swiss referendums have a double majority requirement (50% of the popular vote and succeeding in at least half of the provinces). The Montenegro independence referendum had a 55% threshold. The South Sudan independence referendum had a 51% majority and 60% turnout threshold and I think the East Timor referendum might have had something like that too.

One reason that's not that common is that a supermajority requirement also implies that a minority gets to decide the result and force its choice on the majority. It's a logical consequence and potentially a defensible procedure when you are talking about major, irreversible changes but if you state it like that it does not sit well with democratic sentiment.

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    Ultimately the tradeoff is between democracy and stability; though arguably if you get to a point where an important decision is strictly 50-50 in a given jurisdiction you have a problem that short term stability does not address. – Alexandre Cassagne Jul 14 '18 at 22:50

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