In a crippling blow to the gay rights movement in the United States, citizens of the state of Maine voted in a referendum to repeal a law passed by their own elected legislature granting marriage rights to same-sex couples. It was a reminder of the reality of referendums: easily manipulated by campaigns of misinformation, public votes rarely yield progressive results, and have historically voted against protecting the rights of minorities. Out of 31 public referendums held on the gay marriage issue in the United States, every single one has voted against allowing the unions.
The success of Maine’s ‘question 1’ follows the bitter disappointment of gay rights activists following the yes vote on California’s ‘proposition 8’ a year ago, which struck down the gay marriage rights that had been granted in that state only months earlier. Though the ‘no’ campaign in Maine was fought by the same anti-gay rights groups using almost identical advertising (warning that gay marriage would mean the teaching of homosexuality in public schools), there was one significant difference between the two referendums. While gay marriage was granted in California by a ruling of the state’s supreme court, marriage rights had been passed by an act of the legislature in Maine, endorsed by the state’s governor.
This is noteworthy because one of the main arguments of opponents of same-sex unions is that they keep being granted by “activist judges” in state courts “overriding the will of the people.” But while that argument could be made in California, that has largely not been the case in the states of New England, which have enacted same-sex unions through legislative action. So in Maine, the referendum actually overturned an act passed by legislators who had been elected to represent the voters. Maine's moderate governor even campaigned against question one. To me, this is an almost painful example of how absurd these large-scale referendums are.
In talking about this issue with British friends over the past few days, they’ve all been in agreement that this Maine marriage referendum is a disgrace. After all, what is the point of having a representative democracy if people can challenge anything they do just by rounding up a few thousand signatures? In a republic, citizens elect representatives and pay them to become educated on the issues and make responsible decisions in their stead. They choose these people to act on their behalf precisely because they do not have the time or, largely, the intellectual acumen to make these decisions for themselves. Having the public make these decisions by referendum results in a ‘tyranny of the majority’, as James Madison put it, which doesn’t have the foresight to make the best decisions for the country and will rarely protect the rights of minority groups. The Brits have nodded their heads in firm agreement.
Yet these are the same British friends who have been incensed by the fact that they have not been able to vote in a public referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, a complicated foreign policy document that was instead passed by their elected representatives in parliament. They’ve been outraged that after successive ‘no’ votes in referendums in France, Holland and Ireland, the treaty has still come to pass. Never once have they questioned the wisdom of having those referendums in the first place. Their assumption has seemed to be that public votes will always result in the best policy. Nevermind the fact that the Lisbon Treaty is a complicated and rather dull international agreement that tightens up the functioning of a union that already exists.
These British friends have tended to disregard the fact that every parliament that has voted on the issue, made up of representatives who have the time and capacity to educate themselves on what the treaty really is, has passed it (which must mean something, right?). They seem to have not thought about the near certainty that publics will cast referendum votes based on national issues (such as their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their national government), xenophobia or misinformation rather than on the realities of the actual question being put to a vote.
Favoured by Populists and Dictators
Referendums rarely result in progressive policy or well-informed decisions. Exit polling after the first Lisbon Treaty referendum in Ireland revealed that the majority of ‘no’ voters did so either based on the fact that they didn’t know enough about the treaty or based on misconceptions about it.
In Switzerland, where there is a referendum on just about everything since they are guaranteed by the Swiss constitution, women didn’t have the right to vote nationally until the 1970’s (referendums kept voting universal suffrage down). The country’s politics are well known for their near-glacial pace.
Besides Switzerland, referendums have also historically tended to be pursued vigorously by dictators such as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Both men frequently used plebiscites to disguise oppressive policies in a veneer of populism. Largely as a result of Hitler’s enthusiasm for them, Germany does not allow referendums to take place on a national level.
So where have referendums not been used? Well funny you should ask. They are not allowed in the handful of US states that still have gay marriage, such as my home state of Connecticut. If they were allowed in Connecticut, I think it’s likely that it could have been struck down there as well. And Connecticut is one of the most progressive states in the country.
The UK is one of the countries were referendums are specifically given no validity, and I would argue that's a good thing. Although Acts of Parliament may permit referendums to take place, they cannot be constitutionally binding and can be overturned by a subsequent act of parliament. The only referendum proposal to ever be put to the entire UK electorate was in 1975, asking the British if they wanted to continue membership in the European Economic Community, progenitor to the EU.
Whatever their opinion of Britain’s membership in the EU, I would urge my British friends to acknowledge that referendums are not a wise way to make policy. If they really want the UK to disengage with the European union, they’re free to vote for representatives who will reflect that stance. But they voted in Tony Blair’s New Labour three times on a moderately pro-European platform, so they can’t complain when this is the result of the parliamentary vote.
They should really ask themselves why it is that a majority of MPs, who have the time to educate themselves on these things, supported adoption of the Lisbon Treaty. Rejecting the treaty would have been a very radical move, especially after obtaining all of the opt-outs Britain negotiated. If the British public want to elect representatives who would make such radical decisions, they’re free to do so. But they should stop and ask themselves if this is really what they want.