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Why Didn’t The Brexit Vote Require A Supermajority For ‘Leave’ To Win?

Brexit Puzzle Pieces

It’s been roughly three days since the Brexit referendum was narrowly approved by voters in the United Kingdom, and people across Europe and the United Kingdom are beginning to recognize the implications of what was approved and what it means for the U.K., the E.U. and the future. Young Britons, who largely supported the ‘Remain’ campaign and are strong supporters of the European Union itself are expressing no small degree of resentment toward the older and more rural voters in England who were the strongest supporters of the ‘Leave’ campaign. The European Union itself is finding itself under renewed attack from Euroskeptics outside the United Kingdom, many of whom are already saying they intend to campaign for a similar campaign to leave the E.U. in their own countries. The United Kingdom itself is looking ahead and seeing political conflict in both the Conservative and Labour parties that will need to be resolved before the Brexit process even begins, as well as a potential existential crisis that could reduce the “United Kingdom” to a size it hasn’t seen since before the British and Scottish crowns were merged in 1707. The rest of the world, meanwhile, is left to wonder what Brexit and the potential future threats to European unity could mean for the world economy. All of this has already prompted some seemingly desperate maneuvering, including more than three million Britons signing a petition calling for a do-over referendum and some suggesting that Parliament can simply ignore the results of a referendum that was, admittedly non-binding.

In reality, the idea that British leaders can simply ignore the outcome of the referendum and hope that they can satisfy the Euroskeptics by negotiating a new deal with the European Union that addresses many of the complaints that led E.U. opponents to vote for ‘Leave’ in the first place seems far-fetched. The inevitable outcome of such maneuvering would seem to be continued political instability in the U.K. that would just lead voters in the ‘Leave’ camp to push for more rebellion against London. At the same time, though, the fact that we’ve seen this kind of reaction to the outcome of the vote suggests that the entire referendum should have been conducted differently and that steps should have been taken to ensure that if Britain were to leave the E.U. it was because it reflected the opinion of a broad swath of public opinion.

Consider these facts: (Source)

  • There w-ere a total of 33,577,342 votes cast in the Brexit vote last Thursday. That constitutes roughly  72.2% of the registered voters in the country and roughly 52.82% of the population of the United Kingdom
  • Of that, 17,410,742 votes cast for ‘Leave’ and 16,141,24 241 cast for ‘Remain.’ The remaining 25,359 ballots were classified as invalid for some reason, or blank;
  • The difference between ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ came down to 1,269,501 votes. This constitutes roughly 3.8% of the total ballots cast, roughly 2.7% of the voting age population, and 1.98% of the total population.

Looking at these numbers, and just how close the final outcome of this momentous vote led me to wonder why the Brexit vote wasn’t set up to require a supermajority in order to have been successful. Given the consequences likely to ensue from a decision to leave the European Union, both domestically and internationally, it strikes me that it would have been wise to structure the vote in such a way as to ensure that it not only reflected public opinion, but that it reflected, in some sense overwhelming public opinion on an issue that is likely to have political, economic and social ramifications for decades to come. The importance of requiring some sort of reflection of national unity on this issue should seem obvious, and manifests itself most starkly in the tremendous regional variations in the outcome of Thursday’s vote. While England voted largely in favor of ‘Leave,’ Scotland and Northern Ireland were strongly in favor of remaining in the European Union. Additionally, inside England there were regional differences of opinion as well, with London and its surrounding area going heavily for ‘Remain’ while the more rural and industrial parts of England voted heavily to ‘Leave.’ The fact that England outnumbers the other regions of the United Kingdom, though, means that in a referendum decided by a simple majority, ‘Leave’ would have a slight advantage as long as voter turnout in the areas that favored it was high enough. The result is a United Kingdom that isn’t so united anymore, and an England that finds itself divided and facing the prospect of losing power and influence as a result of a hasty decision that is only supported by a narrow majority of voters. What if, for example, ‘Leave’ had won by 120,000 votes instead of 1.2 million? What if the margin had been 12,000? Or 1,200? Or 120? Does it really make sense to implement something that could have a fundamental, historic impact on the British Isles and Europe based on such a small majority?

Requiring supermajorities in certain situation is not a new idea, of course. Here in the United States, we require them to ratify treaties in the Senate, to convict a Federal official who has been impeached by the House of Representatives, and, of course, to amend the Constitution itself. The reasons why the Founding Fathers chose to require more than just a simple majority in these situations. Given the potential consequences of a British exit from the European Union, one could make the case that approval of the question should have required something more than just 50% plus one to pass. Perhaps it could have been 60%, or even two-thirds, of the vote cast. That last number, by the way, would have been consistent with the percentage of the voters who supported a 1975 referendum that asked voters to approve British membership in the European Economic Community, the organization that eventually became the European Union. In that case, ‘Yes’ won the day with 67.2% of the vote, while ‘No’ received 32.8% of the vote. While this referendum also did not require a supermajority, one could make the case that the fact that initial entry into the union was approved by two-thirds of the voters in 1975 it should have required at least that level of support for a referendum seeking to end those ties to pass.

It’s too late to go back and change the rules now, of course, but it does seem likely that under supermajority rules ‘Brexit’ would have failed to pass. While that would disappoint the ‘Leave’ forces, having a supermajority rule in place would have emphasized the importance of caution in making decisions like this.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Because they’re Brits and they can do any blame fool thing with their own country that they want to.

    Why is this any of our business?

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  2. Davebo says:

    Because it was an election year stunt from the beginning.

    @Dave Schuler:

    Not holding any Euros or Pounds? Good for you!

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  3. Mu says:

    I love the wining of the youth part. Only 1/3 of the young voters could be bothered to actually go vote. That’s the problem with democracy, you actually have to play to win.

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  4. Dave Schuler says:

    @Mu:

    As Woody Allen observed 90% of life is showing up.

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  5. barbintheboonies says:

    I myself do not like super majority votes that said I’m not sure how I would have voted in this election. We have all had buyers remorse at one time or another, now we’ll just have to wait and see how this all plays out.

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  6. James Pearce says:

    While that would disappoint the ‘Leave’ forces, having a supermajority rule in place would have emphasized the importance of caution in making decisions like this.

    Seems like this –emphasizing the importance of caution– is a function that conservatives used to perform.

    Maybe we need a supermajority rule. Maybe we just need fewer radicals.

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  7. MarkedMan says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Why is this any of our business?

    Because it’s literally our business. On the private sector side many billions of dollars worth of business with Europe as a whole go through London and that is now in jeopardy. Without free travel US companies who set up in the UK for time zone, language and geographical reasons will now need to move those headquarters at huge expense. On the government side we will need to renegotiate hundreds of different treaties. And given that the State Dept is unlikely to grow, England and whoever stays with them is far down on the negotiating priority list.

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  8. al-Alameda says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Because they’re Brits and they can do any blame fool thing with their own country that they want to.
    Why is this any of our business?

    For one thing, I, like many other Americans, directly and indirectly, have a fair amount of money invested in the equities markets and on Friday my holdings lost 4% of value. So, in that sense, I am forced to pay attention.

    For another thing, America has important business and commercial interests within the European community, so it’s incumbent upon each of us as citizens to be as aware and informed about the state of affairs in Europe as we can reasonably be.

    I also understand that many Americans find appealing the notion that we can extricate ourselves from the rest of the nations of the World (and live a free, unregulated and bucolic Fifites life) to be appealing, but those days ended in 1941.

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  9. CSK says:

    Supermajority or no, I finally found out the real reason Brexit won: The EU was going to outlaw electric teakettles.

    You just don’t do this to the Brits.

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  10. Rafer Janders says:

    They didn’t need a supermajority. What they needed, though, was a rule that it should have required an affirmative vote in each of the four constituents parts of the UK, so that England and Wales could not have dragged Scotland and Northern Ireland out of the EU without their consent.

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  11. Pch101 says:

    why the Brexit vote wasn’t set up to require a supermajority in order to have been successful.

    Cameron et. al. were focusing on the party, not on Brexit. The Tories were kicking the proverbial can down the road, making promises to the voters in order to keep them in line without thinking through the possible blowback when it came time to fulfill those promises.

    In reality, the idea that British leaders can simply ignore the outcome of the referendum and hope that they can satisfy the Euroskeptics by negotiating a new deal with the European Union that addresses many of the complaints that led E.U. opponents to vote for ‘Leave’ in the first place seems far-fetched.

    A majority of the parliament is not inclined to cast the votes needed to follow the result.

    In any case, the vote was a non-binding referendum and the guy who promised the vote has quit so you can’t punish him by having him quit twice.

    What could happen is that the government dissolves and the next election ends up handing more seats to the UKIP (probably at the Tories’ expense.) If the Conservatives end up being the first party but there is no majority, then the question is who will be part of the coalition; if the Tories were smart in that situation, then they would form the government with parties other than the UKIP in an effort to isolate them. (Obviously, trying to placate their supporters didn’t work.)

    The UKIP has been around for some time, but it’s only recently that it has made inroads. Presumably, the Tory leadership figured that the shift was temporary and throwing a bone to the Little England populist voters would be enough to calm them down. It just goes to show that trying to win over populists is a fool’s errand; give them some of what they want, and they only get worse.

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  12. grumpy realist says:

    Because the damn thing was a political stunt in the first place. It was a dick-measuring contest between Cameron and Johnson and the idiots managed to pull the pin on the grenade, dump it under their own feet, and blow their own legs off.

    I don’t know who to be more disgusted with, the large number of Brits who went ahead and voted “OUT” as a protest vote to “stick it to the man”, or the clown in the U.K. government–nobody in the government expected that the “Leave” contingent would actually win in spite of the number of polls that showed a 50-50 split.

    So both the drivers of the cart and the passengers played a rousing game of “look ma, no hands!” while ambulating right along the edge of the cliff and and are now surprised that they’ve silly-walked their way off the edge.

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  13. Gustopher says:

    It’s too late to go back and change the rules now, of course,

    Well… Kind of.

    Someone has to implement the results of the vote, and I don’t think any politicians are really going to want to stake their careers on implementing the increasingly unpopular process of actually leaving the EU. I expect them to go slow. I expect them to be watching the polls very carefully, looking for a way out of this scenario. Maybe there will be a confirmation referendum. Maybe they will weasel out some other way. Maybe they will actually do it. I have no idea.

    A 50%+1 referendum is a really, really stupid way to make decisions like this. But, I pretty much hate referendums.

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  14. michael reynolds says:
  15. Tillman says:

    @CSK: Ah, life. You think someone is joking, search to make sure it’s a joke, and learn it isn’t a joke at all.

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  16. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Rafer Janders: Your point is where political courage comes in. The “adult in charge” of the government is expected to be able to say “since the vote is close and two of the component countries of the Union are clearly opposed, I cannot in good conscience go forward.” The ability and the right to make that statement is inherent in the “advisory” quality of the referendum.

    Instead, Cameron said “I quit.”

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  17. Modulo Myself says:

    It was a terrible idea to have the referendum but doubling down and trying to keep the terrible idea under wraps by making it less democratic would have been an admission that it was a stunt.

    Also, I suspect that the majority of people who voted to Leave will probably end up being content to be betrayed if/when the exit doesn’t happen, and politicians will be happy to try to make this happen. The ‘elite’ who voted to remain constitute 48% of the population, and many of them have good reason to believe an exit will cause problems for their lives. Whereas the working age people who voted to exit aren’t going to see anything positive if Britain exits the EU, barring the fact that maybe some uppity city-types might lose a job and get theirs.

    It’s pure poison, and that doesn’t even take into account the racism that motivated many of the Leave voters.

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  18. Jenos Idanian says:

    If a political alliance can’t muster 50% of the votes to support it, then it should be dissolved. And it’s been noted that the turnout for this referendum was significantly higher than the last Parliamentary elections.

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  19. CSK says:

    @Tillman:

    I am not given to fortuitous invention. 😀

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  20. charon says:

    @Gustopher:

    http://www.princeton.edu/~amoravcs/library/Brexit.FT.pdf

    just Kabuki says this guy – na ga hoppen.

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  21. James Joyner says:

    The answer to the question of “why the Brexit vote wasn’t set up to require a supermajority” was answered correctly by @Dave Schuler in the first comment in the thread: “Because they’re Brits.”

    Our Constitution was set up to be the antithesis of the British system. Whereas they have unity of powers, where the executive and legislature operate in tandem, we have separation of powers, where the two policy branches act to check and balance each other’s powers. Whereas we have all manner of anti-majoritarian measures in our system (the Electoral College, a Senate by states vice population, the filibuster, and all manner of supermajority requirements) they operate on majority rule pretty much across the board. Atop all that, we have a Bill of Rights and judicial review to ensure that policy is made within the boundaries of the Constitution. The Brits have no written constitution, merely centuries of tradition, and anything that Parliament passes is presumed constitutional by default.

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  22. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker: Having read further down the column thread–and without changing my stand above–I note the strategy involved with stepping down in the Guardian comment linked by Mr. Reynolds, and note the shrewdness of Mr. Cameron forcing someone else to be the “adult in the room.” Well played, sir!

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  23. Pch101 says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    The “adult in charge” of the government is expected to be able to say “since the vote is close and two of the component countries of the Union are clearly opposed, I cannot in good conscience go forward.” The ability and the right to make that statement is inherent in the “advisory” quality of the referendum.

    Instead, Cameron said “I quit.”

    A prime minister is not a US president. A PM would be expected to fall on his or sword after something like this. (As I noted elsewhere, it would seem that Boris Johnson has been setting himself up for such an outcome.)

    Given the circumstances, the likely outcome would be for the government to be dissolved and another election held. This differs from the US with its set terms of office that are never altered.

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  24. grumpy realist says:

    Well, the problem with backing away from Brexit is even if the U.K. government can make peace with the UKIP rabble-rousers, the EU may have had enough.

    After you stand on the ledge and threaten to splat yourself enough times as a negotiating technique, don’t be surprised if you find yourself getting pushed…..

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  25. @Dave Schuler:

    Yes they can do anything they want with their political system, but the decision that a small majority of voters made here is going to have an impact far beyond their borders. Besides that, I have offered no commentary on whether or not the voters were right or wrong, I was simply prompted by the unrest and apparent regret that the outcome has already set off in the United Kingdom itself to ask the question.

    @James Joyner:

    The Brits have no written constitution, merely centuries of tradition, and anything that Parliament passes is presumed constitutional by default.

    And technically this referendum is merely advisory and Parliament could ignore it if it chooses, although that would likely set off a crisis all its own. That wasn’t my point. My point was, given what was at stake, it arguably would have been wise to require more than a 50% plus 1 majority to pass. I made a similar point in connection with the outcome of the Scottish independence vote.

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  26. Kari Q says:

    As a rule, i do not support supermajority requirements. Why should a no vote count twice as much as a yes?

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  27. James Joyner says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Yeah, I get that. I’m just saying that, while requiring supermajorities for major policy moves is natural in our political culture, it isn’t in theirs. They’re accustomed to elections having massive impacts, in that the difference between a Tory and Labour PM is substantially bigger than between a Republican and a Democrat and there’s little in the way of checks and balances to mitigate the swing.

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  28. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Joyner:

    Yes, but also unlike many other nations, they are not just one country, but a union of four distinct countries, each with varying degrees of autonomy. They could have set it up so that each of the four constituent parts of the UK would have had to approve an exit.

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  29. David M says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    Yes, it’s probably reasonable to think of it as equivalent to the United States passing a constitutional amendment, where it requires the state legislatures to cooperate as well.

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  30. gVOR08 says:

    @MarkedMan:

    And given that the State Dept is unlikely to grow, England and whoever stays with them is far down on the negotiating priority list.

    I read somewhere that as a result of EU membership and large budget cuts, there are no trade agreement staff in the UK government.

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  31. David M says:

    @gVOR08:

    Why would people negotiate with the United Kingdom before they’ve negotiated the terms to leave the EU…for that matter, why would people negotiate with the UK before it’s actually expected to exist for longer than the negotiations themselves will take?

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  32. gVOR08 says:

    @James Joyner:

    the difference between a Tory and Labour PM is substantially bigger than between a Republican and a Democrat

    I think that’s historically true. Is it still? I ask in the context of Trump v Clinton and of a Labour Party that appears to be trying to dump their current leader because he’s too far from center.

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  33. Steve Hynd says:

    The simple answer is the Scottish independence referendum of 1979, which generated such animosity against super-majority votes in the UK that they’ll never happen again. Sheesh, learn some UK recent history before writing from the other side of the pond, folks. Or ask someone. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_devolution_referendum,_1979

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  34. JohnMcC says:

    @James Joyner: Well I can see that you and I studied at the same school, so to speak; I was going to make an attempt at answering the question pretty much exactly as you did, sir.

    A small and somewhat off-topic caveat: I believe the Founders did in significant ways try to duplicate in our written Constitution many of the aspects of the British system. The unity of the Head of State with the Executive that we are stuck with reflects the Monarchy. Our bicameral legislature was to some degree a duplicate of the Houses of Commons/Lords. The lack of a British equivalent to our Judicial Review resulted not from the Constitution as written but because John Marshall was such a great jurist.

    The colonial experience as the Founders experienced it (and a lot of enlightenment political thinking) led to the proliferation of ‘veto points’ in our system. It is the American reliance on ‘checks and balances’ that makes supermajorities so characteristic of our government.

    Because ours is a written Constitution, we have essentially been frozen in place with these features whereas they have been more free to evolve. In some ways I’ve thought they had an advantage because of that freedom but I’m changing my mind as they seem unable to keep their government together.

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  35. JohnMcC says:

    @michael reynolds: Related to that story, I saw that Boris Johnson wrote an op-ed in the Telegraph of (I think) Monday morning with the headline “I Cannot Stress Too Much That Britain is Part of Europe — And Always Will Be.”

    But no one seems to have sent the memo to Ms Merkel and friends. If Article 50 is never invoked are we to think that the continental/Euro zone nations will just pretend that the past few days never happened? Stupidity has consequences. (Possibly Brussels will outlaw electric kettles in retribution, as Mr Tillman suggests.)

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  36. MBunge says:

    1. The fantasy that support for the EU among British youth somehow repudiates the Leave vote is ridiculous. I’ve worked with 20somethings. They are perfectly smart and they know jack squat about the world. How many of those Remain kids understand that one of the main reasons Britain’s economy has recovered so much better than Europe’s is because of the many ways Britain is exempt from EU rules?

    2. The doom and gloom over Britain’s economy will brighten considerably when a US/Canada/Britain free trade deal starts to materialize.

    3. I am absolutely fascinated that a bunch of people who would have been happy to excoriate the EU for its idiotic and irrational austerity policies, which have caused real hardship for millions, have become such staunch defenders of Brussels’ divine right to rule.

    4. What’s underlying the panic and animosity over Brexit is that it disproves one of the fundamental myths of the post-Cold War world. There has been an “End of History” fanaticism that there are no longer any real choices or decisions to be made, that all the questions have been answered and the only thing anyone can do, politically or economically, is blindly obey the revealed truth. Which is, of course, balderdash. The world is largely what we make it, but admitting that means admitting that the world is the way it is because we value some things over others.

    Mike

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  37. David M says:

    @MBunge:

    1. That seems to an argument for maintaining the status quo, rather than leaving the EU.

    2. The real world is actually more complicated: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-britain-eu-trade-idUSKCN0YZ1S1

    3. Austerity in the UK had nothing to do with the EU, and was the pushed by the same conservatives who led them into the Brexit disaster.

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  38. MarkedMan says:

    @MBunge: I work for a company with better than 50% revenue from outside the US. Having a free trade pact with Britain seperately from Europe is… not helpful. We already have a free trade pact with Canada and there is no reason to think we would give Britian seperately a better deal than they get as part of the EU. So we negotiate for a couple of years to return a country that absorbs as much US sales as a large state to the status quo ante.

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