U.S. votes, Brexit reveal problems from overuse of referendums

The 2016 presidential vote and Brexit have something in common.  In both cases, many voters found the result was much different than their expectations.

In recent months, the British Parliament has been grappling with putting into effect the closely decided referendum vote to leave the European Union.  It proved easier to say “Leave” than finding a way to do it.

The main problem is Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom.  Leaving the E.U. means either it will have a new border with the country of Ireland or one with the rest of the U.K.  It has neither now.  Nobody has come up with a solution to avoid one or the other.

This issue has disastrously complicated the “Leave” decision.  Faced with uncertainty, major parts of the U.K. economy are departing for the E.U.  They cannot accept the situation and assume the worst.  Confusion reigns.

Resolving the issues created by the “Leave” vote has been left to Parliament, which cannot agree on any course of action except delay.  The result is political chaos.

The Brexit crisis is the result of using a popular referendum in a country having little experience with direct democracy – decision-making by the people rather than by their legislative representatives.  Perhaps the most national voting experience many people had was the Eurovision Song Contest.

In the U.S., Donald Trump’s election was the American version of a national referendum, and he got four years at the helm.  Not only did he win the presidency without a majority of the popular vote, but he has stirred deep concerns about his leadership on matters ranging from race to trade.

The safety valve on this national vote has always been the election of the House of Representatives.  The people get to express their political opinion midway through a presidential term.  If they dislike the results of the presidential election, they may elect an opposition House.

That’s why the entire House is elected every two years while senators, members of a body designed to slow change, are elected for six-year terms.  The House can become the short-term monitor of the president.  The Democrats, newly in control, are trying to slow Trump down.

There are two solutions for dealing with the complicated consequences of a referendum.

One is used in Switzerland where voters participate in national referendums as often as four times a year.  The issues are usually narrow and specific, and their votes make laws that can be immediately applied.

The other approach is to allow the legislative body to complete or even modify referendum results.  There are 23 states, including Maine, that authorize referendums initiated by voters, while 49 allow legislatures to put questions before the voters.

State legislatures can deal with trying the fulfill voters’ decisions that cannot go directly into law.  In Maine, when a vote authorizes action without providing necessary funding, the Legislature regains control.  The 2004 vote on school funding has not gone into effect, because it might force an increase in state taxes.

A possible reform proposed for referendums would be to require a super-majority for passage.  If, say, 60 percent of voters were needed, legislatures would be more likely to find ways of fulfilling the will of the people.  Another suggestion is that the number of signatures to initiate a referendum could be increased.

The problem in the U.K. undoubtedly arose out of the lack of familiarity with direct democracy.  The error was using a referendum.  After the vote, the British Government mistakenly tried to keep Parliament out of the “Leave” process.  It did not succeed.

In the U.S., Trump won in one of the four presidential elections since 1824 in which another candidate got more votes.  Despite having won only a minority popular victory, he has sought to make huge changes in American policy.  The House can block some of his moves, but Congress has given presidents great, unchecked powers.

Some House members propose impeachment, implying that it can be used for policy reasons, as in the past.  Both of the earlier times it was tried amounted to a pure politics, and it failed.

Direct democracy works on a small scale, as in Switzerland.  The New England town meeting system succeeds, though with low participation.  But referendums are beginning to show defects, especially in mass democracies like the U.S. and the U.K.

Elected legislators need to exercise their powers.  The British Parliament could have dealt better with E.U. issues by itself without first holding a referendum.  Congress should cease delegating its powers to presidents and recover its constitutional authority.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and newspaper columnist.