July 17, 2004

Referendum: Pros and Cons

MABB is a registered TM.
A couple of days ago, I was watching the debate between candidate Ralph Nader and former Governor Howard Dean. According to some news reports, Dean was trying to convince Nader to drop off the race and stop taking away votes that otherwise would go to the Democrats. Of course, Nader argues that his candidacy will actually take away votes from the Republican side. But, that is not the point of this article. The point is that in one of their exchanges about democracy and participatory democracy, they came somehow to talk about referenda. Dean said he was not in favor of such mechanism because referenda tended to impose the opinion of the majority on the minority. He further spoke of the 'tyranny of the majority' and that usually referenda do not watch out for the rights of minorities.
After hearing these comments, I thought, what would happen if in Bolivia a significant majority of the people decide to boycott the referendum. Then we would have a minority participating in the referendum and thus making the decision. This situation would create, if we follow Deans reasoning, the 'tyranny of the minority.' But this would not be the case in this instance, because the Bolivian Referendum Law dictates that the outcome of the referendum would be accepted, if and only if, at least 50% of the voters who are properly registered participate. So if only 49% of the electorate votes, then the referendum would be considered invalid.
Well, that resolved, I thought that was that. But not. After another little bit of thinking I thought to myself. Will the referendum be beneficial to Bolivia? Can a referendum, in any way, not be beneficial? After all, it is, according to some people, the ultimate expression of democracy. I mean, what more than having the people directly making the decisions? Can anything go wrong?
Well, after some reading I was able to gather some thoughts about the problems of a referendum. One problem cited was that it induces demagoguery, but that just assumes too much. Besides, there was enough demagoguery in Bolivia even before the possibility of a referendum. Moving on, the next problem cited was that it is plain inefficient and costly to organize and hold the referendum. The costs would rise the more referenda the country would have to hold. Logistically it would be very difficult to hold a referendum for multiple issues, much less for every issue, if the democracy is really participatory. Also, voters would get tired if they have to vote every so often on issues. Perhaps voter turnout would decrease over time. A last interesting argument is that since the questions have to be in the form of Yes or No, what if thre results to two questions come out to be incoherent. Like on one side, yes lower taxes and on the other side increase government expenses (sounds familiar?).
I don't cite the pros because they are well known and I just found the cons more interesting, anyhow. Of all the above problems, I found the last two most reasonable. Perhaps, voter turn-out would decrease over time is people would have to vote, say, every month. I can only picture myself having to vote every month and more over having to endure the info campaign of every issue at stake. Hm, I don't know if I would survive. Additionally, what if there are two issues to consider and the results are incoherent? Ok, that happens also in other kinds of democracies (representative democracy, etc.). But it would be sort of, ..................well, dumb if that happens.