This week Hungary had a referendum on whether or not to accept migrant quotas from the rest of the EU. The result of the referendum was strongly in favour of rejection, with a massive 98% of votes cast going that way. However the referendum itself was declared to be invalid, as only 40.4% of the population cast valid votes, short of the 50% legal requirement. Putting aside the actual issue being debated here (migration), this throws up some very interesting political and moral questions, and in particular how best to conduct referendums to stop them being manipulated.
So what was actually going on here? In this vote it was very clear from the outset that the ‘No’ camp would win, particularly as it was vehemently supported by the government. The ‘Yes’ camp’s response, rather than trying to persuade people to vote the other way, was simply to urge all its supporters to boycott the referendum – not because they thought the vote was fraudulent in any way, but purely to stop it reaching the required threshold of legitimacy. Very clever, and in the end very effective – but is that democracy? In this age of mass popular political engagement, is it acceptable to boycott a vote and subvert it, simply because you don’t think you’re going to like the outcome?
Most people agree that for a referendum to be valid it needs to reach some minimum level of popular agreement, but it would now appear that requiring minimum participation levels is open to abuse. Better therefore would be simply to set an absolute minimum level of support for the proposal, regardless of whether those on the other side express their displeasure by voting the other way or not voting at all.
In most general elections a 60% turnout is usually deemed to be fairly acceptable, though many feel that for a referendum of national significance a 70% turnout would be better. Taking the higher figure as a benchmark, an absolute vote for a particular course of action would therefore require just over 35% of the population voting that way to confer legitimacy.
On that basis, the Hungarian vote would have been legitimate as the winning side secured support from 39.5% of the population. Interestingly, on a similar line of thinking, the Brexit vote (which in fact specified no minimum turnout for validity) would have also passed as 37% of the electorate voted to Leave.
In this new era of participative democracy, and referendums, we need to work out how to make these things work, and we all need to get used to the idea that, no matter how sure we are that we are in the right, being in the minority position means we are on the losing side.