Romania’s referendum and the problem with asking people what they want

What was the question?
What was the question?
Image: Reuters/Mihai Barbu
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This weekend, a referendum in Romania failed in its attempt to place a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

It’s a moderate triumph for LGBTQ rights. But the narrow escape should also be a reminder that referendums can be a bad way to govern in general. That’s because, in life as well as politics, the very act of asking a yes-or-no question can often produce strange results.

The Romanian referendum was forced by a civil society group with a clear agenda, the Coalition for the Family, which wanted a constitutional change that would stop future governments legalizing same-sex marriage. Voter turnout of just 20.4% fell below the required level of 30% for the decision to be binding. Civil rights groups had actively encouraged a boycott: In one example, a library chain offered a discount over the referendum weekend for people who wanted to stay in and read rather than vote.

In most elections, low voter turnout is seen as a problem. Time and money is spent trying to get people into polling stations on election day to cast their votes and engage in the democratic process. But are referendums truly a part of that process?

While posing a simple yes/no question to the public sounds like a great way to get a clear view of what the majority wants, there are problems with this approach. In the case of the UK’s Brexit referendum, an extremely complex issue was distilled into a binary (leave or stay). Those two options couldn’t hope to express the many complicated sentiments people held about immigration, jobs, identity, and everything else connected with EU membership.

Psychologists call this kind of quandary a “false dichotomy.” In a false dichotomy, people start to believe that only two positions are possible, when the reality might be more multifaceted or nuanced. Parents use it—for the most part benignly—as a way to persuade toddlers who can’t yet reason: Do you want to eat the peas, or the carrots? (With no option of “the cake.”)

Referendums are having a moment. Before the Brexit vote, Scotland narrowly opted not to separate from the rest of the UK in 2014. A 2017 referendum in Turkey allowed a change to the constitution to give the ruling party more power. A deeply contentious independence referendum in Catalonia the same year returned a massive vote in favor of seceding from Spain, but was declared illegal by the Spanish authorities.

Romania’s same-sex marriage referendum was another kind of manufactured situation. In presenting the question of whether the constitution should ban same-sex unions, it presumed that most Romanians were invested in the issue in the first place. The turnout suggests they weren’t.

A referendum doesn’t always lead to a bad result. Arguably, Ireland used the referendum structure well in 2015, when 62% of voters opted to legalize gay marriage, and in 2018 when it voted to legalize abortion. Both issues are politically contentious, making it hard for a government to get elected while promising such a change, or to enact it without bringing down the ire of powerful lobbies. In this case, a public referendum sidesteps the political system in a way that may be necessary to bring about progressive change.

But the problem with most referendums is that the decision of whether to put a question to the people—and what question to put—is in the hands of politicians.“It doesn’t have a lot to do with whether this should be decided by the people,” Alexandra Cirone, a fellow at the London School of Economics, told the New York Times. “It has to do with whether a politician can gain an advantage from putting a question to the people.”