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2016: The franchise was fair enough
01 Nov, 2017

Michael Romberg argues that to have any purchase with Leave voters we have to start by accepting the 2016 referendum as valid. We should regard the result as provisional: there should be a referendum on the terms of Brexit. No-one takes a project from idea to implementation without reviewing the project plan. This is the fourth in a series of articles rejecting the arguments made by some Remainers for just setting aside the 2016 referendum result.

The referendum was conducted on the General Election franchise

The starting point is that the referendum was conducted on the standard Parliamentary election franchise. So even if some other franchise might have been better it was held using an accepted democratic franchise and the choice of franchise cannot invalidate the result.

Rules were different for the Scottish independence referendum, but not for the Alternative Vote referendum. There is no such thing as “the referendum franchise”. Rules are set de novo each time.

So let’s look at the main arguments for claiming that the franchise invalidated the referendum

16 & 17 year olds did not have the vote

There were two main reasons why people called for 16 & 17 year olds to have the vote: they had a great interest in the outcome as they would live with it for a long time; and they were more likely to vote Remain. 

It is easy to dismiss the second argument. We should not award individuals the franchise because of their voting intentions. It would be a little like asking people their voting intentions and only allowing them to proceed to the polling booth if they gave the “right” answer. 

Nor is the degree of age-related interest of itself compelling. If it was, we would give all children the vote, and take it away from or give only half a vote to the old and the dying. 

The issue is rather whether 16 & 17 year olds have the maturity to cast their vote well.  There does not seem to be any real weight of evidence to support or reject the proposition.

Few countries allow the vote at 16 for national elections: Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, Guernsey, Isle of Man, Jersey and Nicaragua. A few more allow the vote at 17 or in some local elections. So votes for 16/17 year olds should be seen as exceptional rather than as some obvious right.

In the UK, the only vote at 16 was the Scottish independence referendum. Future Scottish local government elections will allow the vote at 16.

UK citizens living abroad for more than 15 years did not have the vote

The reason for the ending of the right to vote is that people lose their connection with the home country after a long time abroad. Nonetheless, the main parties have pledged to allow UK citizens living abroad to have votes for life. But the pledge has not been acted on for past elections or the 2016 referendum.

The claim that the lack of a vote for non-resident citizens invalidates the referendum is that they have a particular interest in the outcome. But while about 1m UK citizens live in the EU, in total 5m UK citizens live abroad. So most of those who would benefit from an extension of the franchise would not be particularly affected by Brexit.

EU Citizens living in the UK did not have the vote

This call misunderstands the nature of the EU. We do not have the United States of Europe with nationality determined at the EU level. We have a Union of nation states. Nationality rests at the country level.

So a decision about whether the country should leave the EU – about the destiny of the UK - should be taken at the country level by the country’s citizens.

Conclusion

The franchise used for the 2016 referendum was the general election franchise. It was fair enough. Even if you think that some other franchise would have been better, the choice of franchise cannot invalidate the result.

What was wrong with 2016 was that Leave had no plan. So the referendum was a vote on an idea. Nothing wrong with that. But it cannot oblige us to go along with whatever plan is later produced. We should have a referendum on the terms.

  • Michael Romberg is a retired senior civil servant who has worked in the Home Office. He is a member of the Committee of London4Europe.