The #Regrexit hashtag encapsulates Britain’s morning-after regrets since a referendum in which nearly 52 percent of voters opted to leave the European Union. A Daily Mail poll estimates that more than a million of those who voted to leave now wish they could change their vote. That amounts to seven percent of the electorate.
“Even though I voted to leave,” said one regretful voter, “This morning I woke up and the reality hit me … If I had the opportunity to vote again, it would be to stay.”
Had Britain refrained from holding a referendum, it would not have experienced #Regrexit. But referenda, initiatives, and ballot measures are a permanent part of many modern democracies. These processes have a powerful appeal to voters, who want a direct say, and to public officials, who sometimes want to duck difficult decisions.
Fortunately, a system has been developed that can improve direct democratic elections. This electoral reform helps a small body of citizens think through complex issues on the ballot, then share their findings with their peers before they take a momentous vote. Before the next ballot gets printed, Britain and other nations would be wise to study this process, which has been practiced in the western United States since 2010.
Consider the experience of a voter my research team interviewed in Colorado. After voting early in that state’s 2014 election, this individual read a neutral statement about a statewide proposition. She was surprised to discover numerous exemptions to the proposed genetically modified food labeling law. She frowned and said, “I wish I would have read this before I voted. Wow!” When the interviewer asked her to explain, she replied, “Because I would have voted differently.”
What this Colorado voter held in her hands was a one-page statement written by fellow state residents. The model for this experiment was the Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review, which began in 2010.
Every even-numbered year, the Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review Commission convenes a panel of 20 to 24 randomly selected citizens to deliberate on a ballot measure. After three to five days of hearing from expert witnesses, meeting in small groups, and weighing rival claims about a proposed policy, the panel writes a citizens’ statement. This page appears in the official voters’ pamphlet, which the Oregon Secretary of State distributes to every registered voter.
With support from the National Science Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and others, my colleagues and I have studied this process for six years. Through 17 reports and articles, we have shown what the review commission can add to direct democracy—and how that could alter the character of referenda like Brexit.
Review panels have performed quite well as critical readers of ballot measures. Citizens who take part in reviews have the luxury of time. Over several days, review panels sift through the arguments for and against a proposal. Participants often have the chance to select additional expert witnesses from a list provided by staff, and their small group discussions delve into details campaigns often hope to avoid.
Consider any topic on which you have strong preferences. Perhaps you view yourself as “tough on crime.” Does that mean you support any legislation that aims to improve public safety? What if the law was so poorly written that it could have disastrous unintended consequences?
A 2010 review panel in Oregon asked itself that question when weighing an initiative that would have imposed tough minimum sentences on repeat sex offenders. On closer inspection, it became clear that the law could put older teenagers behind bars for 20 years if they “sexted” underage peers more than once. This and other flaws swayed even the most conservative review panelists, and they wrote a scathing critique of the proposed law. A survey experiment showed that those who read the review panel’s statements turned sharply against the proposal. Cross-sectional statewide polling showed a similar result. The net effect was insufficient to defeat what had been a wildly popular measure, but the initiative’s support took a steep decline after the review was published.
Would British voters have bothered to read a review if one had been conducted before the Brexit vote? If so, would it have altered the result? One can’t know the answer to such hypotheticals, but the most likely result hinges on how the review’s statement would have been distributed. The key to Oregon’s success is the Secretary of State including the citizens’ statement in the official voter guide, which every registered voter receives by mail. In effect, Oregon has a well-advertised mass mailing sent to each voter on behalf of the review.
Survey evidence in Oregon suggests that in a typical election, a majority of voters become familiar with the review before they vote. Most of those aware of the citizens’ statement choose to read it, and doing so dramatically increases their knowledge on the factual issues relevant to the ballot propositions. Reading the statement also can cause voters to reconsider the values at stake for such a vote, and it can shift the end result of the election by a few percentage points. In elections as close as Brexit, a review can change the outcome.
Oregon voters turn to the review statements in search of reliable information and argument. Here, the fact that the review statements are written by fellow citizens is the key. As with the citizens’ assemblies held in Canada and, more recently, in the UK, small random samples can do what the larger public cannot. These “minipublics” act as a kind of trustee that deliberates on behalf of a wider public, then shares what it learns.
What happens when policy advocates disagree? Review panels haven’t always been able to resolve such disputes, but they often do. A 2012 Oregon Review panel weighed a proposal to remove a corporate tax loophole and provide funding for schools. Review panelists were sympathetic to this idea, but they heard testimony explaining that the promised result might not come to pass. After getting clarification from experts inside and outside government, they unanimously found that new tax revenues “are not guaranteed” to increase primary education funding because the state legislature retains discretion over how it spends the state’s funds. In other words, “this ballot measure earmarks” a new revenue stream for education, but it doesn’t “prevent the redirecting of current funding resources to other non-education budgets.”
Imagine how, in Brexit, this kind of clarification might have helped refute the Vote Leave’s deceptive claim that Britain spends £350 million in public funds per week on the European Union that could flow back into the National Health Service. As the Oregon panel did in 2012, a Brexit review would have affirmed that the removal of money from one bucket does not mean it goes into a preferred second bucket. One can only speculate as to how such insight might have factored into a citizens’ statement on Brexit, but the one certainty is that a well-distributed review would have made for more informed decisions, which probably means less regret.
In the long term, more deliberative democratic elections could have a profound indirect effect. If the review and similar reforms help voters reject bad choices at the ballot box, they may force governments to act directly on questions they would rather avoid. A more reflective public might come to recognize that good governments can make what are initially unpopular choices, so long as leaders can provide strong justifications in the course of a vigorous public debate. After all, direct democratic processes were designed not to replace governments, but to improve them.