Listening to the news on the morning of the 23rd of July 2016 was a surprise for many. In a public discussion the previous evening, Wolfgang Merkel and Michael Zürn, both directors at the WZB Social Science Research Center, had expected a vote for “remain”, not “leave,” in line with TV and other sources. What is worrisome is not that the prognoses were wrong but the outcome.
17.410.742 voted “leave”, 16.141.241 “remain”. This is a majority for “leave”. However, to be clear: this isn’t a decision of the majority at all. Only 34,4 percent of eligible voters voted for „leave“. This is little more than a third. About 91,6 percent registered to vote, which is 4.279.182 fewer than all eligible voters. This is lower than the Alternative Vote referendum of 2011 (93,0 %) and much lower than the European Community (Common Market) Membership Referendum of 1975 (99,5%).Turnout among registered voters was 72,2 percent. Even if we calculate solely on the basis of registered voters, only 37,4 of those registered voted for “leave”.
For a country that advertises its own majoritarian electoral system as democratically superior to proportional representation, it seems to be acceptable to execute a decision supported only by a minority. If we take majority decisions seriously, however, it follows that there should be a positive absolute majority of eligible voters. This certainly does not require that registration and turnout amount to 100 percent. In the Brexit referendum, it would have meant that about 25,39 million voters, or 75,7 percent of those registered, would have had to vote for “leave” in order to speak of a majority in a substantial sense. A majority of the entire membership is a requirement in many decision-bodies for changing the status quo. And leaving the EU is certainly a fundamental change of the situation of the UK.
Although a margin of almost 1,3 million votes for “leave” seems to be enough to conform to the classic British position of a majority victory, it seems problematic given the considerable opposition to the exit. There are at least three fundamental splits: a regional, a rural-urban, and a generational one.
Regionally, in Scotland all constituencies had a majority for “remain”; England, Wales, and Northern Ireland showed differences between constituencies. England and Wales voted in favor of exit, Northern Ireland for “remain”. A second split is between rural and urban areas. In most urban districts, in particular in and around the bigger cities above 250 thousand inhabitants, a majority voted for “remain”. The third split is between young and old. According to data from polls, 57 percent of voters of age 65 and higher voted for “leave”. They represent 17 percent of the population. Among the voters below 65, about 44 percent voted for “leave”. If the older voters had voted in the same proportion as the younger, “leave” votes would have been about 14,7 million instead of 17,4 million. That would not have been enough.
The UK now is facing a split between Scotland and the South, urban and rural areas, and young and old. The older citizens were decisive for a decision affecting a much longer future than they themselves will be affected by.
Against this background, making use of representative democracy would probably not be the worst solution. The Parliament can still decide. Whatever the decision will be, there is a clear lesson for direct democracy: get the rules right so that majority does not in fact mean minority.
Table: Turnout and Result of Brexit Referendum for Votes, Registered Voters, and Eligible Voting Population