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Sunday, July 10, 2016

The downside of referenda

Some U.K. citizens who fervently opposed Brexit are calling for a re-do. Others in the U.K. have called for an increase in the percentage required for a referendum to pass. Still others in the U.K. want Parliament to ignore the referendum, which everyone agrees is not legally binding. Meanwhile many Scots are asking for a re-do on the failed proposal of 2014 for Scotland to break from the U.K. What a mess! Worse, the U.K. has plunged into a crisis of political leadership.

Referenda, a form of direct democracy, are good and bad. They do allow a citizenry to bypass a government that, for whatever reason, consistently fails to do what the majority of the population want. But there are several problems with referenda:

  • They are a cowardly way out for office-holders too afraid to act themselves.
  • The margin of victory may be so slim that the losing side does not concede — even if the threshold is 60% or two-thirds instead of 50%.
  • Voters may be influenced by the precise wording of the question. We know this to be a problem in polling.
  • The majority, in a passionate moment, may take a direction that turns out to be ill-advised, counter to the culture and values of the nation, or abusive of a minority.
  • The issue may be so divisive that the nation has a difficult time after the referendum, whoever won.
The founders of the U.S. were quite aware of these dangers, and for that reason they stressed the republic as the primary form of government. The U.S. Constitution has no provision for a referendum. About half the states allow some form of referendum or comparable action ("initiative", "proposition", etc). North Carolina is not one, aside from amendments to the N.C. Constitution and some taxation proposals. I'm good with that.

In a similar manner, the original Constitution called for indirect election of the U.S. Senate as a way to elevate one house of Congress above the emotions of day-to-day politics. The Seventeenth Amendment went to direct election, and I think that was a mistake. Although indirect election had its disadvantages such as cronyism, direct election has its disadvantages too. The U.S. could use a more thoughtful Senate these days, one that subordinates partisanship to compromise and cooperation — an essential element of successful legislatures. Another reason for returning to indirect election of the U.S. Senate: as we have seen recently in North Carolina, citizens are sometimes surprised to see how much power a state legislature can exert on everyday life. If indirect election of the U.S. Senate had been retained, citizens and potential candidates might have been more interested in elections for state houses all along.