In referendums people are often inclined to answer a different question
Electorate can see poll as being of lesser importance and use it simply to punish the Government
A weak campaign by mainstream parties can leave a vacuum ready for filling by interest groups from wider civil society. Photograph: Alan Betson
An outside observer could be forgiven for thinking that we like referendums. We certainly have had a lot of them (34 to date) and are about to have a few more. We already know that there will be at least four or five more in the lifetime of this Government. Referendums on Seanad abolition and the proposed court of appeal will take place this October, and sometime between now and late 2015 there will be plebiscites on reducing the voting age and the age requirement for presidential candidates, and possibly also on same-sex marriage. The Government has signalled that still more referendums could follow before the next election.
Whatever else we might criticise Irish politics for, there is no disputing the point that we get asked to vote on issues more regularly than most. Only Switzerland and Italy make more use of referendums. Of course, the principal reason for this is the requirement under Bunreacht na hÉireann that every constitutional amendment needs the consent of the people, so whether they like it or not Irish governments have to hold referendums on constitutional reform.
Referendums have their virtues but they also have their vices. Their main virtue is that they give a direct voice to the people in deciding on a matter, taking the decision out of the hands of elected politicians. But giving citizens the right to decide is not without its problems, four of which can be identified here.
First, there are cases where the issue being considered is complex or arcane. For instance, there are grounds for arguing that the ever more ambitious EU treaty reforms by their nature are so complex that it would be more appropriate for the details to be thrashed out in parliamentary debate, as happens in most other EU member states, rather than by the blunt instrument of a Yes/No vote in the polling station.
There is the related problem that voters may feel they have not been given sufficient information to form an opinion, many opting to play safe following the adage that “if you don’t know, vote no”.
This can also occur when there are reasons to doubt the accuracy of the information being presented. A recent example was the late entry into the 2011 Oireachtas inquiries referendum by eight former attorneys general casting doubts over the veracity of the government’s case. More dramatically, there was the successful Supreme Court challenge to the fairness of the government’s information campaign during the most recent Children’s Rights referendum.
A third problem relates to levels of interest in the issue at hand. Voters may simply not be interested enough in the issue to learn more about it or even to bother voting.
In the 1979 referendums to protect the adoption system and to extend voting rights in Seanad elections to graduates of all Irish universities, barely a quarter of citizens (28.6 per cent in each case) bothered to vote, while the 1996 referendum to allow courts under certain circumstances to refuse bail attracted a turnout of just over 29 per cent.
Of course, the problems of low levels of interest are not just confined to the voters, as shown by the revelation in the heat of the Lisbon 1 campaign that the Irish European commissioner Charlie McCreevy had not read the treaty!
Finally, there is the issue of what people are voting for. Their decision may have less to do with their views on the issue and more about their attitude towards the government of the day. Referendums are very different from elections. They are not generally seen by politicians, media or voters to be as important as general elections: they do not offer the possibility to change the government. Voters therefore often use the opportunity to signal their support, or lack of support, for the government of the day.
A lot hangs on the nature of the campaign in determining if voters are to vote and how they vote. The way the referendum was initiated can have an impact on turnout or vote choice: voters may object to being asked in the first place (something to consider, perhaps, in the impending vote on Seanad abolition).
The legal environment in which the campaign occurs can also be significant. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Ireland has one of the most heavily regulated campaign environments internationally.
The outcome of the Crotty, McKenna and Coughlan judgments impedes governments’ campaigns and reduces the ability of broadcasters to fairly cover both sides especially when all parties and most of civil society are on one side, as in the case of the Children’s Rights referendum.
How the parties choose to campaign can also be important. For instance, in cases where all the major parties are on the same side (as has happened in EU referendums), voters can find it difficult to form a coherent view on the issue. And then there are the cases where the parties simply don’t bother, mounting lacklustre efforts – notable examples being the Nice 1 and Lisbon 1 debacles.
A weak campaign by mainstream parties can leave a vacuum ready for filling by interest groups from wider civil society. There are prominent examples of where an effective campaign by interest groups can turn the result. A telling case was the first referendum on divorce in 1986, which to the surprise of many was resoundingly defeated with 63.5 per cent voting against – the exact opposite to the result consistently predicted by the opinion polls companies.
Subsequent research by Bob Darcy and Michael Laver pointed to the success of civil society opponents in raising sufficient doubts in the minds of voters by focusing their rhetoric on the plight of married women whom they claimed would be “cast aside” if divorce were introduced.
For proponents of direct democracy, referendums are crucial in providing citizens a direct say in important decisions of public policy. They go further in calling for citizens to have a right to petition for referendums. While there is a lot to be said for giving citizens greater “voice”, this does come with warning bells over how just informed that voice is and how citizens choose to use it.
David Farrell is professor of politics at UCD