Is to not vote to vote for the default position and should it be included in the results of a referendum?

…in more than 95% of areas in the United Kingdom, more than 50% of those eligible did not vote to leave the EU

This is a follow on to the previous post ‘What makes a majority?‘ looking at whether or not the result of a vote represents the majority. That ought to be a simple answer – the vote with the highest count is the majority. But voting systems are like surveys. Outcomes can be interpreted…

First a thought experiment. You are told that you can permanently change your hair colour (if you don’t have any hair, pretend 🙂 it’s a thought experiment) and are presented with two options.

Scenario 1: Option A happens to be your favourite colour and option B is unknown. Which would do you pick?

two options

Scenario 2: Option A is a colour you dislike and option B is unknown. Would this affect your choice?


These two scenarios highlight the challenge when asking people to decide between two choices. People have different baselines. Your feelings about option A will depend on whether or not you like the colour being proposed. If you love the colour, you probably won’t fancy taking a chance on the lucky dip. But if you hate the colour, well how bad could the lucky dip be? It’s a simple demonstration of risk-taking preferences affecting decisions.

In both of these scenarios, there is also the default option which is to do nothing and leave your hair just as it is. Let’s narrow it down to just two possible outcomes.

Scenario 3: Option A is keep your current hair colour and option B is unknown:


What would you do this time? Perhaps it would depend on how much you like your current hair colour. But the key difference is there is now no third option. To do nothing has the same outcome as selecting option A, it is the default.

In the recent EU Referendum in the UK there were only two possible outcomes – carry on ‘as is’ and remain in the EU or leave. It wasn’t compulsory to vote and no thresholds were set either for the vote or the turnout.  Could it be argued that choosing to not vote should have been considered the same as voting to do nothing? And if so, what effect would including the choice to not vote have had on the results?

EU referendum

EU referendum result incorporating number of people who chose not to vote.

in 95% of areas, more than 50% of those eligible did not vote to leave the EU*.

To show how close the votes were to 50%, here are the actual percentages by area. Blue indicates did not vote to leave the EU. Red indicates did vote to leave the EU. The more faded the colour, the closer to 50%:

EU referendum

EU referendum result showing percentage of people who did not vote to leave the EU

Referendums are like scenario 3 in our thought experiment. I’m all for more involvement in government decisions. But in future, perhaps voting should be made compulsory or it made clear that if you don’t vote, then you will be assumed to be supporting the default position, the status quo, to be certain that change is supported by the majority.

* I didn’t include spoiled ballot papers because, honestly, I didn’t know what to do with them. Who chooses to spoil a ballot paper that presents all possible options, i.e. do something or don’t do something? ‘All of the above’ or ‘none of the above’ are both pointless in such a scenario.

Related post: What makes a majority?

…and finally, any excuse to include that Yes, Minister clip on how to design a survey (or referendum campaign) to get the answer that you want 🙂

Featured image: ‘man casting his vote‘ – Getty images via Flickr, kindly shared under Creative Commons license, found via Photopin

Blog, Data Science

Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. Unless you are a completely politicially neutral mind reader, it is equally valid to assume that a failure to vote is a conscious decision to have no desire to endorse the status quo, whilst at the same time not wishing to endorse the alternative.
    Failure to vote can also be ignorance or complacency (or a complete lack of faith in the democratic process).
    I don’t think it’s appropriate to try and interpret failure to vote as anything other than no wish to endorse all parties in a vote. So by all means split the no vote equally between all sides. But that doesnt change the reusult. so…

    IMO the only way to address this is to make voting compulsory, but allow voters a “none of the above” option. In a yes/no referendum, parliament would have to agree what that “none of the above” vote would actually mean – but the voter would then (at least) know what their lack of endorsement means.

    PS many would also challenge the inference that a remain vote was a status quo – as was often pointed out the current EU setup is in permanent change, so “status quo” does not really cover it. The same many would argue that the vote was between two changing landscapes. If accepted, then a null vote would be exactly that.

  2. yes, there’s no easy way to assume what a decision to not vote means but I’m not sure it should be equally weighted between carrying on with the current system versus changing it. I agree, I think voting should be compulsory with a ‘none of the above’ option (else, in the case of referendums, make it clear that a non-vote will be counted as voting not to change) and, unless a decision has to be made (as in general elections), I think a threshold should be set higher than 50.00015%. Failure to meet the threshold should require some sort of parliamentary debate about what to do (similar to when a jury fails to reach a unanimous verdict and the judge can decide whether or not to accept a lower majority). Close votes, whichever way they fall, are always going to be problematic.

    thanks for the great comment!

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