Brexit postmortem: Vote highlights the danger of referendums

Governments that embark on national referendums have an obligation to support voters by providing plentiful and detailed information on the referendum question

Exaggerations, allegations, insinuations and outright lies or mendacity, to put it politely, seem to have been the order of the day during the recent Brexit referendum campaign. As Professor Mathew Flinders has argued 'it was a dismal debate but the central defining characteristic was its rejection of basic facts, cold analysis, objective assessments or expert projections.'

The widespread concern about the essential truthfulness of the publicly funded information on both sides, has implications not just for the legitimacy of the result, but for future UK and indeed Irish referendums and campaigns. While the UK authorities could have paid more attention to the Irish experience there are also lessons we might do well to learn.

As many have argued democratic legitimacy rests on informed choice. In countries that hold regular referendums, it is normal practice for voters to receive detailed impartial information about the referendum from a public agency that is independent of the government, political parties and campaign groups. The information is provided to ensure that there isn’t an excessive burden placed on voters to source and evaluate information on what are frequently very complex and technical issues.

In Ireland, the Referendum Commission sends a referendum booklet to every household. It encourages the voter to participate and assists by providing information on the date of the referendum and the times that the polling stations will be open. It also includes detailed information on the referendum question. In California, voters get a leaflet with all of the details on each of the propositions which are to be decided on polling day. Switzerland is the most frequent user of referendums and there, a voting booklet is provided for voters, again with details on the referendum questions and fact based arguments on either side of the debate.


The UK Electoral Commission issued a voting booklet with information on when and where to vote and it included content from the Yes and the No campaigns. The booklet did not provide any independent factual information and specifically said that the Commission did not regulate the content of what was said by the campaign umbrella groups. The guide listed some of the most controversial campaign claims including the assertion that if the UK left the EU, an additional £350 million could be invested in the NHS.

There is a considerable body of academic research, which demonstrates that voters rely heavily on the impartial information from bodies like the Referendum Commission when they are making their decisions. Voters who read the leaflets report feeling more informed about the referendum question and more confident about their final decision. Several studies at Irish referendums have provided evidence that some voters vote No to referendum questions because they do not feel they have sufficient information to make an informed choice. Voting No usually means that the current position prevails so there is some logic to this approach. However, the same research has also often shown that this can mean voters make decisions which are not in line with their beliefs or preferences. We saw this most particularly in research on the Oireachtas Inquiries referendum where many No voters indicated that they did agree with the Oireachtas having the power to hold inquiries, it was just that they didn’t know enough about the decision they were being asked to make. We have seen the same dynamic but in the other direction since the Brexit result as voters have begun to publicly express remorse about their decisions often explaining that they did not fully understand the consequences of the UK deciding to leave the EU.

Governments that embark on national referendums have an obligation to support voters by providing plentiful and detailed information on the referendum question. But it is also vital that they ensure strategies are in place to communicate this information to voters throughout the campaign. In Ireland this can be rather hit and miss. While the Referendum Commission in Ireland does a good job providing information to voters and all of the research conducted demonstrates that voters trust it, the extent to which the Commission Chairperson engages in on-going debate is open and sometimes limited.

In the UK the Electoral Commission’s inexperience at running referendums became obvious as the campaign progressed. It often appeared to be a marginal participant as the campaign intensified and the information it provided was inadequate in assisting voters make an informed decision. Other agencies such as the UK Statistics Authority entered the debate challenging the “potentially misleading” statement of Nigel Farage about the “independence dividend” but it did not have a specific statutory position in the referendum.

What is needed is for the Commission (in Ireland and the UK) to be given a remit to call out misleading information, which can in turn be utilised by broadcasters and others when mediating debates. Without this many broadcasters are left with the option allowing one side to argue white and the other to shout black. The viewer is of course left confused.

The current government has again committed to establishing an electoral commission and it is essential that the Referendum Commission becomes a permanent part of this new architecture (if it ever happens). Referendums are likely to be a regular part of our political future and in particular, any government considering putting another question on abortion to voters would be well advised to bolster the independent and trusted role that the Commission plays. They might consider specifying an addition function of fact-checking for the Commission. Fact checking the statements of politicians is standard practice in the US at elections and civil society organisations and newspapers frequently engage in the practice. It would be useful for voters if it was a clear function of an independent referendum agency.

Voters would be able to rely on the Commission to assess the veracity of some of the wild assertions that are a regular feature of our campaigns. It would also formally provide a role for the Commission throughout the campaign allowing it to address issues that might not have been anticipated when the information booklet was being put together. If there is one take away lesson from the Brexit campaign from Ireland, it is that the Commission is invaluable and that its role in campaigns should be enhanced.

Theresa Reidy is a lecturer in goverment at UCC and and Jane Suiter is Director of the Institute for Future Media and Journalism at DCU