On Saturday, Slovakia will vote on a six-question referendum, the seventh such vote in country history. In order for the referendum to be valid, more than half of all registered voters must turn out to the poll; a threshold most experts believe this vote will not meet. In fact, only one referendum in the country’s history – the vote on EU accession – has actually been approved. Four referenda failed because less than 50 percent of registered voters cast ballots.
Slovakia, however, isn’t the only country with this threshold. Recently, a referendum to change the electoral system in Moldova failed due to low voter turnout. Before the election, the ruling Alliance for European Integration (AEI) lowered the requirements for a referendum to be deemed valid. Originally, the Moldovan Constitution stated that referendums that dealt with a revision to a constitutional law, as this one did, will only be considered valid if the measure obtains support from at least half of all registered voters. The AEI’s amendments altered this so the referendum would be considered valid if at least one third of eligible voters cast their ballots. This measure still wasn’t enough, however, as only 30 percent of voters turned out.
While the failure of the Moldovan referendum was disappointing to reformers, I think we can learn a lot from this method of direct democracy. I’m not a huge fan of the practice in general but if we are going to do it, we might as well make it work. Here in the United State we have a mess. States like California, for example, have a list of initiatives every election season, but with no requirements for voter turnout. This practice essentially allows a small, driven group of individuals to pass laws -many of them horrible – so long as the rest of the population isn’t as equally mobilized to stop them. Of course referendums aren’t the only way this phenomenon can happen, but we don’t need to make it easier. A perfect example of this was the recently passed Proposition 14, which moved California to a strange, blanket-primary system. The measure passed, but because it was held during a primary race, only 33 percent of eligible voters turned out. This “vote by the people” was really only supported by about 16 percent of the voting population, hardly a resounding measure of support, and not what should be considered adequate for a major change to the electoral code.
Direct democracy sounds like a people-driven process, but in reality, it is just as dominated by special interest groups as anything else. If we are really serious about making referendums a useful exercise in democracy, we should take a lesson from our Central European friends and ensure that they are actually expressing the will of the people, not a vocal minority.