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Showing posts with label referendum ballot questions. Show all posts
Showing posts with label referendum ballot questions. Show all posts

Friday, 9 March 2012

Ask the bloody question(s)–Professor Curtice’s two questions

Professor Curtice is an eminent and respected academic, with a long honourable record of commenting on Scottish electoral matters. I am therefore astonished at his proposal for two questions in the independence referendum in 2014.

Assuming today’s Scotsman has reported him accurately in the little graphic (not shown in the online edition) at the head of Eddie Barnes’ article Expert offers three choice-vote in just two questions Professor Curtice has fallen into exactly the dangers and pitfalls of a two-question ballot paper that have been detailed by many, including myself at some length in previous blogs.

From Drop Box

Referendum ballot paper

Referendum ballot questions

Referendum ballot question - confusion?

The first question – Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country? – poses no problems. It envisages two possibilities only, and one answer only - YES or NO – gives a complete and unequivocal voter response.

But the second question – If Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom, do you agree it should have “devo max” or the status quo? – has several weaknesses in construction.

Since it is conditional on the answer to the first question, it assumes a NO answer to the first question. But by whom? The voter answering the question or the outcome of the total ballot? Since answering the second question is not prohibited by answering the first, a voter may answer both questions making either assumption.

For example, a voter may legitimately answer YES to the first question and YES to the second, in other words, have a fallback choice. As a supporter of independence, that is exactly what I would do, and have the right to do, since my assumption is that if the YES vote fails, and Scotland remains a part of the UK, then I want devo max.

My YES vote to the second question would then be aggregated with what could be a minority YES to the second question by those opposed to independence. While I am clearly happy with that, it is evident from the comments of those opposed to independence that they would not be, and confusing and contested outcomes could result.

Of course, the Electoral Commission could rule that the second question will only be counted if a YES vote fails. But have they the right to make such an assumption and decision if in fact many voters quite reasonably completed the ballot on different assumptions?

The second question itself is badly structured and worded. If I say YES to the question - If Scotland remains a part of the United Kingdom, do you agree it should have devo max or the status quo? - what am I saying YES or NO to?

YES I agree it should have devo max  or  YES I agree it should have the status quo?

If I say NO, am I saying NO I don’t it agree it should have devo max   or   NO I don’t agree it should have the status quo?

In my view, the Electoral Commission should look critically at these questions and tell Professor Curtice to go back and think again.


I gave Prof. Curtice the benefit of the doubt, thinking the Scotsman graphic might have been at fault. But I was wrong - list to John Curtuice state the question here.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

The Question(s) and the ballot paper

A series of comments I received from Holebender on my proposed ballot paper have proved a slow burn for me, and led me to review my ideas. But first, my ballot paper -

MY BALLOT PAPER ( Ballot blog )


Answer only one question - tick only one box.

If you answer more than one question, your ballot paper will be null and void. CHOOSE ONLY ONE OPTION - GIVE ONLY ONE ANSWER

I want a fully independent, sovereign Scotland.

I want Scotland to remain in the UK with no increased in current devolved powers to Scotland.

I want Scotland to remain in the UK with some additional powers devolved to Scotland.

I want Scotland to remain in the UK with all powers devolved to Scotland except defence and foreign policy.

N.B. If you have answered more than one question, i.e. ticked more than one box, your ballot paper will be null and void.


A reprise:

This is not the ballot paper I want - I want a single question on independence - but I believe that if the consultation exercise, plus perhaps the polls, shows a clear wish for other options to be presented, then as a democrat, I believe they must be offered in the referendum. I should add that I believe that devo max would be dangerous for the SNP, that it would be unlikely to be delivered after a NO vote on independence even though a majority of the Scottish electorate voted for it. Despite that, I still feel it must be offered if the electorate want it.

My ballot paper offers what I consider to be the maximum reasonable number of options, with only one option being selected. i.e. it is equivalent to a first past the post Westminster election ballot for an MP in a constituency - no proportionality, only one choice made, only one choice can win.

It has the following advantages, in my view -

1. It offers clean-cut choices.

2. It doesn’t allow double counting, resulting in a contested outcome, e.g. 51% vote for independence, 70% devo max.

How could double counting happen? Well, on a ballot paper that allows voting for one or both options, no voter who wants to retain the Union will vote for independence, but some independence voters might hedge their bets and also vote for devo max. For example, on a ballot of 100 voters: 51 vote independence, 49 anti-independence voters vote for devo max, but 21 of the independence voters also vote for devo max. Outcome = 51 indy, 70 devo max.

If all the independence voters also voted devo max, the risible outcome would be 100% for devo max, 51% for independence, and both sides would claim a win.

The various ways round this dilemma all involve some form of conditionality on the ballot paper voting instruction, all of which, despite strident assertions to the contrary by their proponents, involve potential problems of understanding, complexity, etc.

However, there is another argument (Holebender’s argument) against my methodology, and it deserves serious consideration. It involves a hypothetical outcome to the ballot - using my ballot paper - such as the following-

30% vote for independence, 20% to remain in UK with no further powers, 21% to remain in UK with some further powers, 29% for devo max, i.e all powers except defence and foreign policy.

On my methodology, independence would win, even though there is a combined 70% that want to remain in the UK. Such an outcome would clearly create a furore if independence was declared the winner, and it offends against all democratic instincts, including mine.

Yet this is the basis on which Westminster MPs are elected in a general election constituency election - it is called first past the post, and it was fought for in a bitter and divisive - and dirty - referendum campaign, with the ftp camp emerging as the winners.

Critics of my argument will point out that it is not, however, the basis on which governments are formed, where an ability to command an overall majority in the Commons must be achieved or demonstrated by a coalition agreement before the Queen gives her assent. Alex Salmond managed to form and successfully run a minority government by having the most seats, yet not having an overall majority in Holyrood.

But these are false parallels - a referendum is normally understood to be a choice between two options and is neither a constituency election for an MP, nor a Parliamentary election.

Is there an answer to the worm in my ballot apple? Yes, there is, but it is not one that I’m comfortable with it. It requires that the outcome must satisfy a minimum percentage vote for the winning outcome, e.g. 51% of all votes cast. While this is clearly required for a single question ballot paper, it takes us into dangerous areas when applied to multi-question papers - into the area of the rigged referendum, of requiring more than 51% of votes cast to qualify, or worse still, requiring a minimum percentage of the electorate to vote. In fact such dangers exist for a single question if more than a simple majority is required. The ghost of Gerry Mander stalks the scene …

But what if the above nightmare scenario - 30/20/21/29 - represents the actual balance of preferences of the electorate closer to the referendum period, as revealed by the polls at that time?

As a democrat first and a nationalist second, I must say that without a minimum percentage proviso, which would declare the referendum null and void, such an outcome could not be deemed acceptable and would be a recipe for conflict.

I wish I could say that I have confidence that somebody somewhere is coming up with the right answer, one that will be immediately acceptable as fair and workable and unbiased by all parties. At the moment, given the inane questions of the media and the politicised, polarised solutions of some nationalist and most unionists, that confidence has not yet been established.

And I have no answers, and must fall back on cutting the Gordian knot and returning to my instinctive first preference for a single question, and a simple 51% majority.

Democracy is a messy business, but what alternatives do we have except dictatorship and fascism?