One thing I've noticed is that people often speak favorably of referendums. I used to do so as well. My thinking was, what could be bad about an election that allows the people to directly vote on a particular issue? Whatever the majority wants, that's what'll happen. Isn't that what democracy is all about?

But recently, I've been thinking that referendums perhaps aren't a good idea at all. Because democracy isn't something as simple as a majority ruling. It's about a healthy system of collaborations and compromises which represents all agents of society, and especially including those who do not happen to belong to some majority group.

With that perspective, referendums seem to come off as inherently anti-democratic. After all, referendums are often binary, so imagine if 51 % of voters lean one way, and 49 % lean the other way (something we see quite often, see e.g. Brexit). Does it seem fair that 51 % get to dominate the other 49 %? How is that democratic?

These problems do not occur with ordinary political processes which are more inclusive and representative. Even if 51 % of voters manage to vote some party into taking the government, the other 49 % are still represented through various processes, be it a congress or a parliament or what have you.

So to end my question, what are the benefits of referendums that outweigh this inherent lack of democracy that they seem to promote?

  • 6
    A referendum is inherently democratic. What most countries have, right now, is representative democracy (so not strictly speaking "direct" democracy). There are indeed many caveats for the majority rule but the system itself is, by definition, more democratic than representation. The main issue today is not referendums but the information around that referendum, that is: are you adequately informed to make a decision?. It's much easier to complain about a fact than to present an alternative. Consequently phenomena like populism appears.
    – armatita
    Nov 26 '18 at 14:56
  • 2
    You have a basic flaw in your argument: (pure) democracy IS something as simple as a majority ruling. (Or as the old saying goes, democracy is two wolves and a lamb, voting on the lunch menu :-)) That's why most modern "democracies" are hedged about with all sorts of less than democratic limits, like the US Bill of Rights, and the need for super-majorities to make fundamental changes.
    – jamesqf
    Nov 26 '18 at 18:53
  • Hmm, define "various processes" (and perhaps look up "representative democracy").
    – Drux
    Nov 27 '18 at 5:45

Your argument is that referendums are anti-democratic because they suffer the flaw of "Oppression by the majority," a.k.a. "Tyranny of the majority." As it turns out, "Oppression by the majority" is among the most common criticisms of democracy itself, and it is an inherent feature of democracy. Referendums ARE democratic, and unfortunately suffer from multiple of the same pitfalls as democracy itself. However, referendums are contrary to liberal democracy, which prescribes "equal protection of human rights, civil rights, civil liberties and political freedoms for all people."

The tyranny of the majority (or tyranny of the masses) is an inherent weakness of majority rule in which the majority of an electorate can and does place its own interests above, and at the expense of, those in the minority. This results in oppression of minority groups comparable to that of a tyrant or despot, argued John Stuart Mill in his 1859 book On Liberty.
American founding father Alexander Hamilton, writing to Thomas Jefferson from the Constitutional Convention, argued the same fears regarding the use of pure direct democracy by the majority to elect a demagogue who, rather than work for the benefit of all citizens, set out to either harm those in the minority or work only for those of the upper echelon. The Electoral College mechanism present in the indirect United States presidential election system, and the phenomenon of faithless electors allowed for within it, was, in part, deliberately created as a safety measure not only to prevent such a scenario, but also to prevent the use of democracy to overthrow democracy for an authoritarian, dictatorial or other system of oppressive government.
Freedom and democracy are different. In words attributed to Scottish historian Alexander Tytler: 'A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until a majority of voters discover that they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury.' Democracy evolves into kleptocracy. A majority bullying a minority is just as bad as a dictator, communist or otherwise, doing so. Democracy is two coyotes and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.

My personal recommendation to overcome this particular pitfall is to combine democracy with strong limits on oppression by the majority. For instance, a referendum should never ask "Should the 49% be sold into slavery?" or "Should the 49% lose their right to vote?" There should be judicial review on all proposed referendums to ensure that none of the available choices infringe on civil rights or quality of life, either directly, or indirectly by creating or protecting economic institutions that promote inequality. This is a fundamental fix of Democracy, and should be built directly into a nation's Constitution.

  • The counterpoint is that if there is only one person in the minority, his interests are going to be overruled whatever the constitution says. Even if the system has the institutional integrity to protect its principles, it won't be able to enforce it in practice without becoming tyrannical. That creates a balancing point between tyranies of the majority and minority. The simplest solution is to require a supermajority to make major changes or to overrule particular rights. Apr 17 '19 at 4:02

Referendums are a way to poll the voting public for their views on specific issues. They can be useful tools for generating debate on an issue and determining the views of the public when they are unclear.

However, because democracy is not merely the rule of the majority and typically includes many checks and balances to limit the power of any individual, institution or instrument, referendums are often considered advisory or limited to very specific issues.

The Brexit referendum is an example of where these checks and balances broke down, producing an undemocratic result where the views of nearly half the population are being ignored.

One solution to this is to require a super majority. In that case a referendum is more like a stamp of approval for something that already has widespread support, and enhances democracy by introducing an additional check on the actions of elected officials.

  • 4
    The Brexit referendum is an example of where these checks and balances broke down, I am not a big fan of Brexit, but: A) the referendum was not binding, it was the Parliament that decided to act on it and B) in this particular case, either option was equally legitimate, so both possible outcomes meant that the views of nearly half the population are being ignored. I bet that there are better examples of referendums that break checks and balances out there.
    – SJuan76
    Nov 26 '18 at 16:30
  • 1
    What I mean is that the supposedly "advisory" referendum is being treated as if it was a mandate and absolute requirement, with people talking about not having a hard brexit as a "betrayal" and "anti-democratic". And a compromise that respects the views of both sides is possible - in fact many brexiteers promoted the "Norway model" before the referendum which would leave the EU but retain single market access and the customs union.
    – user
    Nov 26 '18 at 16:40

Democracy is from the Greek “demos” (people) “kraita” (power/rule).

A referendum is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is invited to vote on a particular proposal.

So your position that a referendum “is not democratic” is unsupported. It meets the definition of democracy. As with everything in life, it is flawed. But that does not make it “inherently anti-democratic.”

And in the case of Brexit, the referendum was used as a democratic device of last resort. So even if you agree that referendums are not ideal, this was the only remaining democratic device left to try to resolve the issue.

On 9th June 2015, when other means to reach consensus on the EU had failed, our democratically elected representatives voted to hold a referendum. 544 to 53.

The people we elect to make decisions on our behalf voted amongst themselves to delegate the decision for Brexit to the people. Again, this is hardly undemocratic.

You mention inclusive processes and compromise. Brexit was the endpoint of a multi-decadal failure to compromise. For example: UK/EU migration policy moved against popular opinion for nearly two decades. You are entitled to disagree with the popular opinion, but if you are as concerned about democracy as your question implies you will quickly see my point here.

At any point before Brexit policy (in any number of areas, not just in migration) could have been changed to better represent the views of the people, but it wasn’t. Partly this is due to the design of the EU, but there are other reasons too outside the scope of this answer.

Finally, enough democratic pressure was exerted via UKIP winning the European Elections in 2014 such that a referendum had to be offered by the Conservatives to avoid losing the democratic General Election in 2015.

This would be the first time the UK had ever had a direct say over UK membership of the EU since its creation in 1992. The conversion of the EC to the EU was not put to a vote in the UK. It could easily be argued that if there had been a failure of democracy it happened well before 2016.

Furthermore, on some issues, at their base, there is no compromise. You either have nuclear weapons, or you do not. You either have gay marriage or you do not. You are either a member of the EU, or you are not. So the lack of compromise in the 2016 vote is a characteristic of the burning question, and not indicative of a lack of democracy: Leave or Remain? Pick one.

And these problems do occur with “ordinary political processes” (your phrase). I might disagree with numerous policies the Government has in place. My view is not represented in those areas. Just like your view is not represented to your satisfaction in this area.

As to the benefits of referenda? They are simple, clear and unambiguous. The result is about as unarguable as we ever get if we believe in “people power” (aka democracy, aka the wisdom of crowds). But they can be disruptive. So they are typically reserved for big questions.

So in answer to your question: I reject the premise. Referenda are not anti-democratic. And Brexit wasn’t a failure of democracy: on the contrary it was democracy winning out after elected representatives had studiously ignored and neglected popular opinion since 1992.

  • Good information. Some sources would be useful. One point in particular is that you intimate that the will of the people was ignored in 1992. Perhaps no referendum was held, but you can't claim that such a referendum would have went against joining the EU unless you have polls or other documentation that shows that popular opinion was in fact ignored in 1992 (and at any point prior to the 2016 referendum). At 52-48, it is close enough to be a statistical fluctuation, or a recent change from one preference to another, and in no way indicative of the will of the people a quarter century ago.
    – cpcodes
    Nov 26 '18 at 18:15
  • I never made a claim that Maastricht would have been voted down in 1992. Let’s stick to what I said. The people weren’t ignored in 1992. They weren’t even asked. And you misunderstand my thesis: I am not talking about a historical net opinion on EU membership, but a refusal to address popular opinion in a number of different policy areas related to EU membership (I used the example of immigration, sovereignty might be another.) Finally, on your point of 52-48 being “close”. The French voted on Maastricht in 1992. The EU won there with 50.8% of the vote.
    – 52d6c6af
    Nov 26 '18 at 18:39
  • I’ll add references when I find more time.
    – 52d6c6af
    Nov 27 '18 at 0:34
  • @cpcodes The Eurobarometer polls (conducted for the EEC/EC/EU, so if there were any bias it would be expected to be pro-EU) showed 27% opposition to Maastricht and 20% opposition in Britain. Similarly, for Lisbon the polls showed an absolute majority against the treaty and more "undecided"s than supporters. An important difference though was that those surveys asked whether to increase integration or preserve the status quo of a known looser affiliation, and refusing integration would have blocked it for the whole of the EU because unanimity was required. Apr 17 '19 at 12:26

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