Referendum campaigns are not like election campaigns

This post is based on a brief talk I gave on October 10 at a post-mortem on the referendum organized by the Voters, Parties and Elections section of the Political Studies Association of Ireland.


The more recent referendums on Seanad abolition and the Court of Appeal should give political parties – and particularly their back room strategists – some cause to reflect on how referendums are run in this country. Ireland is third to Switzerland and Italy in terms of the number of referendums held, and yet how we administer referendums and how the parties fight them are still in the Stone Age. With the promise of more referendums to come, this is a problem that needs urgent attention.

It may seem obvious, but a good starting point is to recognize that referendums are not the same as elections (for more, see here). We can see this in three main respects:

  • The nature of the choice being offered
  • The timing of the event
  • The communication environment

In each case there are important lessons to be learned by our political leaders and/or their campaign strategists.

Nature of the Choice
A general election offers voters a wide and rich set of choices over a range of national issues, different party leaders and their images, local candidates and local issues. By contrast, a referendum revolves around a single issue, involving a simple binary choice: status quo vs. change.

This suggests a number of important lessons that campaign strategists should think about. First, they need to think hard about the question that is being asked in the referendum and how it should be framed. In relation to what we were voting on last week, rather than having a bald question on Seanad abolition, they could have set out an ambitious proposal for Oireachtas reform, with Seanad abolition as part of this wider process. The government might counter that this is what they did, but they know as well as the rest of us that their proposed Oireachtas reforms are for the most part a smokescreen, and certainly don’t address the serious lack of government accountability in our system.

Second, the party strategists need to give more thought to how they sell (or message) their campaign. Unlike a general election where momentum can be maintained by devices such as ‘theme of the day’, given the simple yes/no choice being offered in a referendum momentum is harder to maintain. The simplistic pared-down-to-bare-bones messaging of Fine Gael focusing almost exclusively on the (highly contested) €20m saving and killing off of a class of politicians showed just how important this point is. There was little else for the party to talk about; most of their time was spent defending themselves from – all to be expected – attacks on the accuracy of their figures. They should have planned a more extensive debate – e.g. focus far, far more than they did on the plain fact that it is unusual for a small unitary state such as ours to have a bicameral parliament; bringing in key figures from other unicameral systems and particularly from countries that have changed to unicameralism. And, again, if they had fought the campaign on a broader question, there certainly would have been a lot more to talk about.

Third, the strategists need to think more about their tactics. When planning for a referendum campaign, focus groups just don’t cut it. Operating as they do in an antiseptic environment – a small room with a flip chart, yellow stickies and copious cups of coffee – they are no match for the heat of a campaign. They do not and cannot allow for the inevitable push back that the campaign is likely to face – a particular problem for the government side seeking to attack the status quo. Hence the blindsiding of Fine Gael over the €20m figure.

Timing of the Event
A general election is a ‘first-order’ event. At issue is the governing of the country and the direction of policy for the next four years or so. This concentrates the minds and ensures maximum attention by parties, media and voters. By contrast, referendums are ‘second-order’ events, occurring as they do in-between elections. It is a real challenge for the government – responsible for calling the referendum – to get voters to pay sufficient attention to it.

Again this is another reason to think hard about how to design, frame and communicate the referendum question. But it also speaks to the need to try and maximize the ‘splash’ surrounding the referendum – perhaps therefore grounds for giving serious consideration to the idea of a ‘Constitution Day’ involving a number of referendums held together on the same day. Having citizens vote on a package of issues (ideally some of these linked) would excite a lot more interest by parties, civil society groups, media and voters. A lot more would be riding on the vote on polling day: there would be more to play for and therefore a lot more reason to pay attention.

Other points in support of a Constitution Day include the following:

  • Voters can handle the complexity of voting on more than one issue at the same time (as witnessed by the different results last weekend);
  • It would help to reduce the dangers of voter fatigue that a steady drip feed of referendums would produce;
  • It would save costs. According to some estimates last week’s referendums costs €12-14 million.

Communication Environment
Referendums also differ from elections in terms of the communication environment (for more see here). There are two main points here. First, there is the ‘stop watch’ culture that both share in common but which produces perverse outcomes in a referendum context. It is one thing to apply a stop watch in a general election to ensure that all parties are given a fair hearing on the broadcasting media, but quite different in a referendum. In the former we’re dealing with clearly defined, registered political parties of varying sizes (so that larger parties receive more coverage than small parties). However, in a referendum – particularly an Irish referendum – the rigid application of a 50:50 rule means that both sides are given equal coverage even when the balance of opinion is clearly skewed to one side. One reason for virtually no coverage of the Courts of Appeal referendum is because few groups were opposed making it hard for the broadcasters to cover it without flouting the 50:50 rule.

A second (peculiarly Irish) problem is the practice of handing over prime responsibility for managing the communication of the referendum question to an ad hoc referendum commission, generally established a few weeks before polling day and led by an esteemed judge. As a consequence, the communication tends to be legalistic and clinical – undoubtedly fair and objective but hardly inspiring or stirring. A worthy enough (if dry) referendum booklet is circulated, insipid ads are broadcast and the chair of the referendum commission does the rounds of TV and radio studies to answer a series of rather stilted questions. None of this offers much hope for drumming up any interest on the part of the citizenry.

The lesson to be learned in this instance is for the policy makers. We need a professional, well-resourced and permanent electoral commission with a brief to do more than merely inform. We need public funding to be spent on resourcing the campaigns of both sides of the referendum issue. And we need support for research to be carried out so as to facilitate further improvements in the Irish referendum process.

The most important lesson for this government to learn from last week’s referendums is to not lose the bottle! Real, sustained and meaningful political and constitutional reform is no less urgent today than it was last week. The issue at hand is not whether to have more referendums, but rather how to better manage them.

2 thoughts on “Referendum campaigns are not like election campaigns

  1. We have too many referendums here … the ideal constitution is one that enunciates a number of simple precepts and principles that confer basic rights and determine the mechanisms of governance. It is absurd, for example, that a whole series of EU Treaties are inbuilt into the Constitution. The Constitution confers a Parliamentary Democracy – we ought to make better use of that.

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