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?
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?
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%:
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 🙂