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
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