Briefing on the use of turnout thresholds in referendums
Although often well intentioned, turnout thresholds are ill-advised and undemocratic. The question of thresholds was considered in 1996 by the Independent Commission on the
Conduct of Referendums chaired by Sir Patrick Nairne. It noted:
“The main difficulty in specifying a threshold lies in determining what figure is sufficient to confer legitimacy e.g. 60%, 65% or 75% and whether the threshold should relate to the total registered electorate or those who choose to vote. Requiring a proportion of the total registered population to vote 'Yes' creates further problems because the register can be so inaccurate. Some of the electorate may believe that abstention is equal to a 'No' vote. Thus the establishment of a threshold may be confusing for voters and produce results which do not reflect their intentions. A turnout threshold may make extraneous factors, such as the weather on polling day, more important.”
Turnout thresholds artificially inflate the number of votes needed to win the referendum and international experience shows that they just stifle debate as supporters of the status quo don’t have to win the argument; they just have to convince people to stay at home.
People should feel confident when casting their vote that their opinion is being listened to and that their ballot counts. Public distrust of politicians is already at an all time high. Nothing could be worse for restoring trust than the perception that parliamentarians had rigged the result of the referendum.