Referendums have a way of turning everyone into a self-proclaimed political expert. On the cusp of Brexit, almost everybody—British or not—had an opinion about the country’s economy and ideology. But does giving a population the chance to directly weigh in on a specific issue lead to a more informed voting public?
French head of state Emmanuel Macron recently said that the U.K. government may have erred in the Brexit referendum’s execution. According to Macron, thorny national problems cannot be resolved with simple yes or no answers, and the public shouldn’t be asked to distill their opinion into that binary.
It’s a quandary with a long precedent. In the 1990s, scholars Matthew Mendelsohn and Fred Cutler set out to examine the precise effects of referendums in the British Journal of Political Science, citing their polarizing reputation. They write: “Proponents contend that referendum campaigns can increase politicization, political knowledge and efficacy, addressing, at least in a small way, the ‘democratic deficit’. On the other side, some worry that referendums might bring out intolerance in mass publics and undermine minority rights.”
The scholars carried out a study during Canada’s 1992 Charlottetown Constitutional Accord—a proposed set of amendments to the Canadian constitution. The amendments spanned aboriginal rights, division of powers over legislation, and parliamentary reform. The researchers posed three specific questions: do referendums increase politicization? Do referendums promote political efficacy? And do referendums encourage political intolerance?
The study found “a significant increase in voters’ sense of informedness…Despite the likelihood of a social desirability bias on this question, the result provides suggestive evidence that citizens felt more capable of participation.” What referendums do well is to make a population feel included, powerful, and consulted.
The study showed that the excitement leading up to a referendum does engage citizens more in political dialogue, but doesn’t necessarily make that dialogue meaningful. The authors wrote that although Canadians did seem more actively engaged in media and discourse, “the campaign did not transform an otherwise poorly-informed citizenry into a community of political junkies.”
The researchers point out that Canadians were more likely to challenge the idea that ordinary citizens had no say in government decisions in the 1990s, possibly as result of the referendum. But they also cautioned a darker implication of the finding, pointing out that that increased feeling of power and importance wasn’t matched by an equivalent increase in their real political knowledge.
There are other thorny issues with referendums, including the continued debate on whether they heighten social tensions and their use to manipulate populations to governments’ benefit. “…if referendums are to offer substantial increases in politicization, ” the study concludes, “efficacy and political knowledge, these consultations probably need to occur on a more regular basis, be more fully institutionalized, be part of a broader process of citizen participation, and occur in situations where there is a genuineness of purpose amongst political elites.”