Why Didn’t The Brexit Vote Require A Supermajority For ‘Leave’ To Win?
Given the consequences of a Brexit, one wonders why the referendum didn't require more than just a simple majority to pass.
It’s been roughly three days since the Brexit referendum was narrowly approved by voters in the United Kingdom, and people across Europe and the United Kingdom are beginning to recognize the implications of what was approved and what it means for the U.K., the E.U. and the future. Young Britons, who largely supported the ‘Remain’ campaign and are strong supporters of the European Union itself are expressing no small degree of resentment toward the older and more rural voters in England who were the strongest supporters of the ‘Leave’ campaign. The European Union itself is finding itself under renewed attack from Euroskeptics outside the United Kingdom, many of whom are already saying they intend to campaign for a similar campaign to leave the E.U. in their own countries. The United Kingdom itself is looking ahead and seeing political conflict in both the Conservative and Labour parties that will need to be resolved before the Brexit process even begins, as well as a potential existential crisis that could reduce the “United Kingdom” to a size it hasn’t seen since before the British and Scottish crowns were merged in 1707. The rest of the world, meanwhile, is left to wonder what Brexit and the potential future threats to European unity could mean for the world economy. All of this has already prompted some seemingly desperate maneuvering, including more than three million Britons signing a petition calling for a do-over referendum and some suggesting that Parliament can simply ignore the results of a referendum that was, admittedly non-binding.
In reality, the idea that British leaders can simply ignore the outcome of the referendum and hope that they can satisfy the Euroskeptics by negotiating a new deal with the European Union that addresses many of the complaints that led E.U. opponents to vote for ‘Leave’ in the first place seems far-fetched. The inevitable outcome of such maneuvering would seem to be continued political instability in the U.K. that would just lead voters in the ‘Leave’ camp to push for more rebellion against London. At the same time, though, the fact that we’ve seen this kind of reaction to the outcome of the vote suggests that the entire referendum should have been conducted differently and that steps should have been taken to ensure that if Britain were to leave the E.U. it was because it reflected the opinion of a broad swath of public opinion.
Consider these facts: (Source)
- There w-ere a total of 33,577,342 votes cast in the Brexit vote last Thursday. That constitutes roughly 72.2% of the registered voters in the country and roughly 52.82% of the population of the United Kingdom
- Of that, 17,410,742 votes cast for ‘Leave’ and 16,141,24 241 cast for ‘Remain.’ The remaining 25,359 ballots were classified as invalid for some reason, or blank;
- The difference between ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ came down to 1,269,501 votes. This constitutes roughly 3.8% of the total ballots cast, roughly 2.7% of the voting age population, and 1.98% of the total population.
Looking at these numbers, and just how close the final outcome of this momentous vote led me to wonder why the Brexit vote wasn’t set up to require a supermajority in order to have been successful. Given the consequences likely to ensue from a decision to leave the European Union, both domestically and internationally, it strikes me that it would have been wise to structure the vote in such a way as to ensure that it not only reflected public opinion, but that it reflected, in some sense overwhelming public opinion on an issue that is likely to have political, economic and social ramifications for decades to come. The importance of requiring some sort of reflection of national unity on this issue should seem obvious, and manifests itself most starkly in the tremendous regional variations in the outcome of Thursday’s vote. While England voted largely in favor of ‘Leave,’ Scotland and Northern Ireland were strongly in favor of remaining in the European Union. Additionally, inside England there were regional differences of opinion as well, with London and its surrounding area going heavily for ‘Remain’ while the more rural and industrial parts of England voted heavily to ‘Leave.’ The fact that England outnumbers the other regions of the United Kingdom, though, means that in a referendum decided by a simple majority, ‘Leave’ would have a slight advantage as long as voter turnout in the areas that favored it was high enough. The result is a United Kingdom that isn’t so united anymore, and an England that finds itself divided and facing the prospect of losing power and influence as a result of a hasty decision that is only supported by a narrow majority of voters. What if, for example, ‘Leave’ had won by 120,000 votes instead of 1.2 million? What if the margin had been 12,000? Or 1,200? Or 120? Does it really make sense to implement something that could have a fundamental, historic impact on the British Isles and Europe based on such a small majority?
Requiring supermajorities in certain situation is not a new idea, of course. Here in the United States, we require them to ratify treaties in the Senate, to convict a Federal official who has been impeached by the House of Representatives, and, of course, to amend the Constitution itself. The reasons why the Founding Fathers chose to require more than just a simple majority in these situations. Given the potential consequences of a British exit from the European Union, one could make the case that approval of the question should have required something more than just 50% plus one to pass. Perhaps it could have been 60%, or even two-thirds, of the vote cast. That last number, by the way, would have been consistent with the percentage of the voters who supported a 1975 referendum that asked voters to approve British membership in the European Economic Community, the organization that eventually became the European Union. In that case, ‘Yes’ won the day with 67.2% of the vote, while ‘No’ received 32.8% of the vote. While this referendum also did not require a supermajority, one could make the case that the fact that initial entry into the union was approved by two-thirds of the voters in 1975 it should have required at least that level of support for a referendum seeking to end those ties to pass.
It’s too late to go back and change the rules now, of course, but it does seem likely that under supermajority rules ‘Brexit’ would have failed to pass. While that would disappoint the ‘Leave’ forces, having a supermajority rule in place would have emphasized the importance of caution in making decisions like this.