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In the News

Swiss same sex marriage vote

Mike McCartney

30th September 2021

An example of the advantages of referendums?

As I've said before on this site (as recently as last week, in fact), I feel that referendums are no way to run a democracy. In a close vote, there is a very real chance that a decision will be based on misinformation. Britain already has a system of democracy, and it's a representative one. Sporadic referendums designed as a means for parties to overcome intra or inter party difficulties should, therefore, be best avoided. If referendums are to be used, then at least have some sort of minimum threshold, say 40% of qualified voters - as was the case in the late 1970s devolution referendums.

As a recap, here is a brief overview of the traditional arguments for and against their usage.

Advantages of using referendums to determine political issues

  • It is the most direct, purest form of democracy.
  • The fact that the people have made the decision grants it a great deal of legitimacy.
  • Referendums are useful in securing the consent of the people for important constitutional and governmental change.
  • There is a citizenship issue in that referendums give people the opportunity to participate directly in politics and so may increase their attachment to political institutions.
  • They have an educational function, raising citizens’ awareness of issues
  • It can help to entrench constitutional change in a system which has an uncodified, flexible constitution.
  • Sometimes referendums can solve a problem for government itself when there is a good deal of internal conflict.

Disadvantages of using referendums to determine political issues

  • If referendums become too frequent there will be a danger of ‘voter fatigue’, resulting in low turnouts and apathy.
  • Referendums may have the effect of undermining respect and authority for elected institutions.
  • There is Rousseau’s and John Stuart Mill’s argument that referendums represent the ‘tyranny of the majority’. Minority interest would be swamped by the power of the democratic majority.
  • Many issues may be too complex for the average voter to understand. Perhaps these decisions are best left to those who have knowledge and the means to reflect of the various complexities.
  • Similarly voters may respond to emotional, rather than rational arguments.
  • There is a danger with referendums that voters would be swayed by campaigns of newspapers, notably tabloids, or by wealthy vested interests who can afford to spend large amounts of money on the campaign.
  • Similarly voters might make illogical choices in referendums, for example voting for tax cuts which might result in the collapse of public services that they want to see funded.

But in Switzerland, a country that has a long history of using referendums to settle political issues, they recently voted by a wide margin in favour of same sex marriage.

Even here, however, 'pure democracy' still had its problems.

As the Guardian reported: "The campaign has been rife with allegations of unfair tactics, with opposing sides decrying the ripping down of posters, LGBT hotlines getting flooded with complaints, hostile emails and shouted insults against campaigners, and efforts to silence opposing views."

Source: Swiss vote overwhelmingly for same-sex marriage in referendum | Switzerland | The Guardian

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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