Referendums and the Role of Missing Voters


Among many things that make Delhi infamous, fatal road accidents top the list. One fine day, four assembly constituencies, constituting about 7% of total electorates of Delhi come up with the magic answer- if only we drove on the right side of the road, accidents will disappear overnight (all those who have visited Delhi will understand that that most of us here drive on both sides of the road rather than the stipulated left)! All voters from these four assemblies undertook a signature campaign, call for referendum was made, animated debates follow and a date for voting was announced. The call to change the status quo by a few (7%) now has to be fought hard by all!

The above story is not too dissimilar from what unfolded with Brexit. Out of a total 47 million voters, Britain needed less than 7% (3 million) signatures to call for a change in status quo.

What will the typical electorate of Delhi do? Broadly, there are now two types of electorates-one that believes that changing the driving rules will eliminate accidents and the other that thinks fixing which side we drive does not reduce accidents, perhaps obeying traffic rules does. As with voting almost everywhere, only 70% of all the electorates in the city turn up to vote, right siders defeat the left siders by 52:48. Driving rules change, chaos follows. Perhaps accidents will indeed vanish overnight but the essential message is buried. Was this the best way to go about the referendum?

There is a fundamental difference between electing an official after every fixed term contract and voting to change the status quo. Electing an official implies that the status quo is ‘an office without a head’. In this scenario, even if the elected official does not have the majority support, it is a far desirable outcome than the alternative-office without the officials. However, with a referendum, the scenario is lot different. The status quo is what is prevailing, a functioning system which may indeed be far from being perfect. To change the status quo, significantly more votes should be towards the change and not just a mere majority. Some experts are already commenting a 75% (or at least a 66%) vote share for the change than the current scenario. I think it will yet again fall in the trap of over simplification. The failure will arise from our inability to treat the absentee voters correctly.

While voting for officials, the absentee voter can be treated to have similar responses as the ones who turned out implying that even if they turned up, the eventual result will not change the outcome. Unfortunately, the same argument can’t be extended in the case of changing constitutional laws or status quos. The onus is on the party who needs to change the status, not on the ones who believe in it. Thus, the ones who did not turn out to vote can’t simply be ignored from the denominator and the numerator. There is certainly a strong case of self-selection, as social scientists would put it. After all, why should the onus be on citizens of Delhi to go and prove their faith on driving on the left side of the road? If the right camp feels it is better, the onus is on them to get the numbers. This simplifies the arithmetic. The total votes that is needed to change the status quo is not at least 50% of those who turn up, but at least 50% of all eligible voters. This effectively means, that all those who believe that they must continue to drive on the left side of the road could even abstain from voting if they are confident that there are enough people like them. This is equivalent to saying that one’s faith in the current constitution should not be asked to proven. One can add layers to this arithmetic by possibly giving differential weights like more points for each votes cast either way than those which are not cast but nonetheless counted towards status quo. Such extensions can be refined further. However, it is imperative that determining referendum outcomes are treated differently than electing officials.

The design of an electoral system is fundamental to any democracy. The plurality rule is pervasive even though it is a flawed system. With economist Kenneth Arrow signing the death knell for any perfect system, we will have to choose from the world of imperfection. An electoral system has to balance multiple objectives: establishing legitimacy, encouraging participation, discouraging factionalism and allowing all preferences. However, one objective often omitted is stability. Any outcome that has been accepted by a democratic rule must also be stable. One must have unambiguously higher percentage of stake holders to overrule it to prevent chaos. Otherwise, the majoritarian voting outcomes may actually mean the minority scoring over the majority! The Brexit, I am afraid will pave way for many referendums both at a global scale as well as very local. While one can debate the need for it endlessly, for starters we can at least fix the mechanism.