The Current

Post-Brexit results: Is governing by referendum democratic?

A referendum may seem like grassroots in action. But detractors argue it lets elected officials off the hook. The Current looks at whether referendums are a clumsy, dangerous tool for deciding complex issues or fundamentally respectful of the people's will.
Protesters gather against the EU referendum result in Trafalgar Square, June 28, 2016, in London, England. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

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Since the results of the Brexit referendum were announced, there's been widespread alarm and dissatisfaction over the U.K.'s choice to leave the European Union.

A referendum may seem like grassroots in action but many question the value of a referendum as a democratic tool.

According to Jason Brennan, associate professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, public consultation is not the best way to solve crucial, complex issues.

"My main worry about referendums is that you're taking a very complicated, political question that requires knowledge of a bunch of background facts and the social sciences, and you are handing that question to people who don't know those facts," Brennan tells The Current's host Mike Finnerty.

A bar in Dublin has made a Brexit beer for the results of the British EU Referendum called 'Big Mistake.' (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

Eoin O'Malley of the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University agrees with Brennan in how complex issues get simplified and lose meaning.

O'Malley tells Finnerty how this played out in the Brexit referendum.

"It wasn't clear what the alternative was so you knew if you were voted to 'Remain' what 'Remain' meant because you have lived it, whereas 'Leave' was something that meant a lot of different things to different people," O'Malley said.

He believes that to voters, "Leave" meant "dreams were thrown into the basket."

University of Ottawa associate professor Michael Pal says referendums aren't used as often in Canada as other countries, "especially at the federal level." And as mentioned, reluctance has to do with voter knowledge of the issue.

Some protesters have urged the British Parliament to renounce the result of the vote saying the referendum was not binding legally. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)
"The evidence we have from provincial referendums, people were not that well informed about the options." Pal tells Mike Finnerty.

"If we are going to have a referendum, we should have voter education … building that into civics curriculum in schools to make sure people can make more informed choices," Pal said.

Brennan doesn't believe educating voters will make a difference.

"When we look at what people retain from high school, a year after they have graduated, they've forgotten almost everything about history and civics," says Brennan.

To O'Malley, emotions play a big role in the basis of a vote.

"It comes down to an emotional decision. Do you think there are too many immigrants in your country? Or are you annoyed that there aren't as many secure jobs as there were 30-40 years ago?" O'Malley said.

While Brennan says not all referendums are a mistake, he is skeptical they are the right tool to use to resolve complicated issues.

"Look at referenda as a hammer, as a tool, and then ask how frequently is it likely to arrive at the just or the correct answer."

This segment was produced by The Current's Idella Sturino, Julian Uzielli and Peggy Lam.