If Brexit ever happens, it will not be until at least March of 2019, which is 2.5 years after the vote. Since the old were more likely to vote Leave than the young (e.g. here), the passage of time between the day of the vote and the actual enforcement of the result means that the old (including many of whom will be, at the time of Brexit, dead), are imposing a situation to many new young that were likely to have voted Remain. This seems a bit unfair.

I know there is necessarily a time difference between an election and the enforcement of its result (e.g. a political election). But we are talking about a 2.5 years, and perhaps even longer (transition deal?). Is there a political theory, school of thought, or author that formalises this position? This is, if one wants to build an argument against Brexit based on the concept of representativeness of a vote and replacement of population, which would be the political theory/theorist to invoke?

I have searched for this on google but I probably do not have the correct terminology, so my result so far has been fruitless.

Note: this is not a question to discuss whether Brexit should or should not be enforced. The question is instead strictly focused on a particular line of argument against Brexit (that of a given population in time T imposing its will on another population in time T+1). The question asks for references and not opinion-based answers.

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    Can you clarify what specifically you want answered? The fairness of non-voters having policy 'imposed' on them that doesn't take effect until they would have hypothetically been able to vote? The fairness of guessing how future voters might have voted? Dec 1, 2017 at 14:36
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    this isn't at all specific to Brexit. A large chunk of economic rules in current Western societies are basically old people using their voting power to make themselves better off at the expense of future generations.
    – user4012
    Dec 1, 2017 at 15:07
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    I've wondered similar things about most elections. For example, US Senators are elected for six years. So someone can win with 50.001% of the votes cast (or less in a three-way race), but then have a lot of the people supporting them die or move out of state over the next six years. By that point their claim to legitimately represent the will of the people of the state is really questionable. The broader point, I think, is that deciding long-term policy by a single majority/plurality result of a single election on a single arbitrary date has serious flaws. Dec 1, 2017 at 15:49
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    @StephenCollings - arguably, LOTS of presidents would have lost elections if they were held by the end of their terms (most certainly GWB, likely Obama); so you can argue that they no longer legitimately represent the will of the people by the end of their term :)
    – user4012
    Dec 1, 2017 at 17:31
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    I'd say what you are searching for is basically anti-democratic political theory. Any vote applies long after the vote. So your best chance is to search for people that simply oppose the right to vote.
    – Distic
    Dec 2, 2017 at 15:41

5 Answers 5


Brexit is a more defined example of this phenom, but it's pretty true with any vote. Most elected officials have multiple year terms (given a mandate for multiple years) and the electorate that put that official in is not the same as the electorate at the end of the term (a 17 year old doesn't get to vote, and the next chance he/she will have 4 years later means there is a 3 year gap where the persons voice isn't heard). Are you suggesting that the 2.5 year mandate of Brexit is any different than the standard 4 year mandate many elected officials receive?

Youth voting patterns varying heavily from elderly is true in many cases. https://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2016/11/09/the-2016-elections-generation-gap-infographic/#7ae2488e497b This shows that youth heavily favored Clinton over Trump (actually they preferred Bernie and didn't vote at all after he was out, Clinton losing the youth vote was her downfall). A youth that turned 18 in December of 2016 gets 4 years of Trump regardless of their political views...how is that any different than 2.5 years for Brexit?

I do feel the need to point out the obvious disconnect here though...this movement (especially in regards to Brexit) fits into the 'Non-Voters' remorse category. Ultimately if these youth actually cared about Brexit, they should have voted in the first place instead of complaining afterwards. http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/eu-referendum-brexit-young-people-upset-by-the-outcome-of-the-eu-referendum-why-didnt-you-vote-a7105396.html

It has been estimated that only 36 per cent of people in the 18 – 24 year old category voted in the EU referendum.

I honestly can't find any other term here beyond 'thats the way this works'...the vote is done at the time of the vote and people of the required age get to vote. The status at the time the mandate was given via the vote matters, not the time frame in which it's enacted

  • Thanks, but are you aware of a particular political theory or school of thought talking about this?
    – luchonacho
    Dec 2, 2017 at 11:24
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    @luchonacho unfortunately no...did several searches and the closest i could come was 'just the way it works' and variations of voter and non voter remorse. Nothing that fits what youre asking for.
    – Twelfth
    Dec 2, 2017 at 19:43

In politics, this is called a Mandate. This is the authority of a representative to act in the name of the constituency. Under the definition of the Mandate, a representative only has a mandate to what was discussed during the election (broadly defined, voting for a member of a particular party informs a lot about what that candidate wants to do) and anything not in compliance with the previous election is not a mandate. In theory, a politician elected to introduce a new policy or implement an existing one can not ignore introduction or implementation. The concept of such blocks on power such as the term and the limits on terms are meant to make periodic returns to the constituency to seek a new mandate, which could change as the population and opinions shift among the populous. If the candidate loses the election, he has lost the mandate to continue in his authority to represent the people. The burden to keep the mandate means that the representative needs to listen to the minority and the demographic shifts in order to gain continued support and thus continue the mandate.


I do not know of any school of though or author that approached the problem from the same angle you did (representativeness timeline in between decision and implementation of a referendum). However the problem is known. This is the reason why doing a referendum is actually a multiple stage process.

How the issue of representativeness is dealt with in Referendums (EURA 2015)

Let's analyze specifically the one you've mentioned: European Union Referendum Act 2015 (EURA2015, i.e. Brexit Referendum). The EURA2015 is what is known as a Consultative Referendum. This implies that the referendum is non-binding (it does not automatically translate to law or implementation):

(emphasis is mine)

... [EURA2015] is a type of referendum known as pre-legislative or consultative, which enables the electorate to voice an opinion which then influences the Government in its policy decisions. The referendums held in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1997 and 1998 are examples of this type, where opinion was tested before legislation was introduced. The UK does not have constitutional provisions which would require the results of a referendum to be implemented, unlike, for example, the Republic of Ireland, where the circumstances in which a binding referendum should be held are set out in its constitution.

This means that it is the government and parliament role to ensure that the Referendum decision has proper representativeness at the time of implementation (or decision) and decide whether to go forth or not with the decision.

A strict interpretation of the rules seems to show that the current government/parliament does approve of the representativeness of the Referendum result and agrees with it (although this is a complex subject in itself). The issue you've mentioned is being dealt with (in theory) at this stage.

Precedents for contentious results in Referendums

You did not ask this but the reported association of the leave field with Post Truth Politics has been dealt with extensively both in media and academia. The circumstances were quite different but this situation is not without precedent (other referendums regarding the EU have had negative responses in other countries). This is the case Denmark (Maastricht Treaty) and Ireland (Nice and Lisbon Treaty) where two referendums where made with a negative response in the first and a positive in the second.

"The answer lies in the specific dynamics of referendum campaigns. In a referendum, the typical No campaign strategy aimed at rejecting the treaty on offer is to associate the proposal with unpopular themes and thereby drive down public support for it. The No campaigners therefore have a structural advantage, as they need only to raise doubts in the minds of voters. This state of play, however, typically only holds for the first referendum held on a treaty, not for the second." (Atikcan, 2015; see also The Puzzle of Double Referendums in the European Union)

"Voters in a referendum obtain information and derive voting cues from a variety of sources. Some of these, such as political parties or ideological orientations, are similar to those also found to be influential in elections. Others can be quite different. In some referendums, the issue may be entirely new and unfamiliar to many voters, initiating a ‘learning’ or ‘cue–taking’ process specific to the campaign itself. In referendum campaigns, parties may be internally divided and sometimes send conflicting signals to their electorates. As a result, voting behaviour in referendums often exhibits greater volatility than is found in elections." (Leduc, 2002)

Alternative models for Referendums

There are some academics that have proposed some differences or alternatives to the current models. An example is Tsebelis " Veto Players " or Referendums that take into account the notion of Willingness_to_pay (Haab, et al, 1997). In some referendums the multiple choice model is used providing greater flexibility in voting (like in an election).


I am not aware of any existing political theory on this topic. However, there are definite similarities in electrical engineering, with digital sampling of analog signals. The collective will of the electorate is a continuously changing and continuously valued input, which is sampled at set intervals to give a quantized output. Sampling at a rate slower than the rate at which the input can change violates the Nyquist criterion, one of the fundamental laws of digitizing an analog signal. This results in aliasing effects: rapidly changing inputs can be misinterpreted and misexpressed as long term trends in the outputs.

In short, by this analogy, holding elections as infrequently as we do is fundamentally mathematically invalid.

Extending the analogy and backporting ideas from digital signal processing, the solution would be to hold a series of elections at a rate that can track public preference more closely, and in some way average the results over time, with a fixed supermajority threshold to implement any change.

(I cannot provide references for any such system in the political literature. To my knowledge applying these techniques to elections is original to me. Though brexit did inspire me to do it!)

  • "Holding elections as infrequently as we do is fundamentally mathematically invalid" only as long as your hypothesis are true. They aren't. - the MPs can only know what people think through votes (no, they can speak, read letters, etc.). - the opinion is some kind of signal that keeps a value independently from the vote (no, the campaign before the vote modifies and sometimes makes the opinion). - There are other flaws like the effect of the result itself (people know they are a majority, but they have no right to change the law... it does not seems wise).
    – Distic
    Dec 6, 2017 at 12:25
  • Oh, sure, if you formally modeled the whole system as a series of feedback loops it would be much more complicated. Dec 6, 2017 at 13:09
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    So, rather than using a first-past-the-post or proportional representation system, we should calculate the representation using a windowed sinc function? Nice idea, everyone will understand that! :-) Apr 2, 2019 at 9:20
  • Well, a single pole IIR filter might be easier to understand... but then you have people who died 200 years ago still having non-zero effect on electoral outcomes... Apr 2, 2019 at 12:56

The campaign to have a referendum on the outcome of the Brexit negotiation makes this argument. They argue that an important part of democracy is the right of the electorate to charge its mind, especially when circumstances change too. In this case, the outcome of the negotiations inevitably failing to meet the expectations of the leave campaign seems to meet that criteria.

  • Thanks. Do you know of a political theory or author making a formal analysis or argument about this?
    – luchonacho
    Dec 2, 2017 at 15:03

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