Crawl Across the Ocean

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Supermajorities and Gray Areas

This is an interesting article on the upcoming (May 21) independence referendum in Montenegro (my brief earlier on the referendum is here).

More specifically it talks about the implications of the supermajority 55% threshold which the EU set in order for the independence vote to be considered passed.

"While only a very decisive result either way is likely to settle the matter of Montenegro's status, though perhaps not once and for all, such a result looks unlikely. In fact, a result falling into what is now often called the 'gray zone' - showing a pro-independence majority, but one short of the required 55 percent - looks rather more likely, according to polls.

"The pro-union camp and their supporters in Belgrade argue that such a result would simply close the matter and ensure the survival of the state union, even though it is blatantly obvious that a union rejected by a majority, no matter how tiny, will stand a very slim chance of becoming stable and meaningful.

Officials of Montenegro's pro-independence government have suggested that a victory short of the required 55 percent would still be a victory for their cause, even though the terms of the special law under which the referendum is taking place clearly state that this would be a defeat, and one which the pro-union bloc would certainly seize upon.

The EU, which more or less imposed that law on the government, seems also focused on the gray zone, even though the union's special envoy for Montenegro's referendum, Miroslav Lajcak, has repeatedly stressed the law makes no reference to such an outcome. Lajcak has also said, though, that a majority for independence short of 55 percent would mean fresh negotiations between Podgorica and Belgrade on redefining the current state union."

"once it had to accept that a referendum would be held in Montenegro as well, it was unclear what Brussels wanted to achieve by raising the bar to 55 percent. If the goal was to furnish the new state with a clear democratic legitimacy, the EU may find next week that it raised the bar just a bit too high. If it wanted to preserve the state union by bending the rules to suit the pro-unionists, it may yet find out that it has, in fact, only created an official proof that most Montenegrins are against the current state union."

It is an interesting question of what it means when a majority votes for something, but the minority is declared the victor. In theory, it seems logical that a need for a supermajority would be consistent with the level of volatility in support for a particular proposition. This starts from the assumption that the only reason to require a supermajority is to prevent a significant change being made when, most of the time, the population is against that change. For example, a pro-independence movement could hold votes at odd intervals over an indefinite timespan hoping that at some point and under some circumstance, their vote total will exceed 50%.

If, on the other hand, we were to assume that support for some proposition was going to remain the same for the rest of time, I don't see much of a case for denying the majority view. For example, if we know that 53% of Quebecers will support independence for the rest of time, it seem undemocratic to me to insist that this majority must cede to a combination of a minority and historical circumstance.

Small 'c' conservatives might argue that the risk implicit in any kind of change requires a supermajority, but this doesn't really make sense to me. For one thing, what can be changed by referendum can be changed back by referendum. For another, it is inconsistent with small 'c' conservative support for an electoral system which a) transforms minority popular support for parties into a majority of seats and b) magnifies changes in popular opinion - but of these traits working against the preservation of the status quo. But more than anything, I just think that there is a distrust of the popular will implicit in denying the consistent will of the majority due to a belief that the majority does not understand the negative impact of the change it is voting for.

One of the reasons often given for a supermajority requirement, and indeed cited in the article I linked to, is that, "It would indeed look quite bad and would possibly be destabilizing if Montenegro's future status was decided by just a handful of votes." But of course, regardless of the threshold set, there will be a threshold and it will be possible for the vote to end up a few votes either side of that threshold.

For example, you may have noted that May 21 was this Sunday, so the vote in Montenegro is not actually upcoming, it is just past. Early reports
"An unofficial count of all ballots by a referendum monitoring group gave Yes forces 55.5 per cent of the vote - slightly above the 55 per cent minimum set by the European Union for the sovereignty vote to be recognized."


"But tensions rose when Predrag Bulatovic, leader of the anti-independence faction, said the rejoicing was premature and accused sovereignists of "tredding a very dangerous path."

"The result is only final when every vote has been counted," Bulatovic told a news conference, adding that a partial count conducted by his supporters put the Yes vote at 54 per cent and the No at 46 per cent."

Ironically, if the EU had set a 50% threshold, the outcome would not be in any doubt tonight. Anyway, I wish the people of Montenegro luck, no matter what happens.

Fruits and Votes has some commentary on the referendum as well.

Update: It appears to be confirmed that the independence vote has carried the day.


  • I think you may have passed over two of the more common justifiations of requiring a supermajority on a particular vote.

    1. the greater difficulty of reversing particular propositions once enacted (eg. independence referendums)

    2. The scale of the impact a proposition would have on the minority

    In the case of #1, as you say, "what can be changed by referendum can be changed back," however reversing some propositions, once enacted, would not be as easy as reversing others - an independence referendum for example. If a Quebec sovereignty referendum were to succeed, it would be highly unlikely that even those opposed to it would want to throw the new country back into such an uncertain position by trying to a chieve a re-partriation referendum.

    In the case of #2, some propisitions are recognized to have such significant and lasting effects on a population, that supermajorities are requried in order to maintain the legitimacy of new proposals and to protect large minorities who may be opposed. In this case I'm thinking specifically of the process required for constitutional ammendments in both Canada and the U.S which require some type of super majority.

    By Blogger Matthew, at 10:26 AM  

  • Fair points Matthew. I thought about clarifying in my post that I wasn't referring to questions relating to minorities and minority rights (I didn't address these in my post because I don't think it is appropriate to subject these to a referendum, regardless of the % of the vote required. But I could have been clearer about this).

    Also, you are definitely right that some decisions are harder to reverese than others, independenace being an obvious choice. But my feeling is that this is only relevant when there is volatility of opinion. My line that you quote was only in reference to a theoretical population which has constant support for some propostion.

    In that case the decision will only need to be reversed because it was tried and found to be a failure by some part of the population which previously supported it. But there will be no way of ever knowing this without actually trying it.

    But I can certainly see your point, I'm kind of borderline on that particular question (does a bigger change require a bigger majority, simply due to switching costs), which is smewhat moot in real life anyway, because there will always be at least some volatility on the views of the electorate.

    By Blogger Declan, at 11:07 AM  

  • Thinking about, say, the Quebec referenda[1], there are issues with bare majorities. First of all, the support isn't static -- and it depends on all sorts of things, including -- perhaps mostly including -- which party made the last really stupid comment.

    But a change like that shouldn't depend on the weather, which a 50%+1 majority does. (This does give the minority extra power, yes, but there is no real impediment to referendum after fucking referendum.)

    My separatist friend and I do actually agree on this: the decision needs to be clear, which means (a) a very clear question and (b) a clear majority. (Actually, he supports a higher majority than I do.)

    What I find more interesting are ideas that depend on some majority of eligible voters to have voted for, so if there are 1 million eligible voters in Quebec, then 600,000 people need to vote yes (or whatever the threshhold is) -- though this was done in the municipal demergers to very poor effect, since the voting lists are so crappy. (NB: municipal mergers needed a minimum turnout and a supermajority, not some majority of all eligible voters.)

    [1] This is the only way I can find them slightly amusing.

    By Blogger wolfa, at 6:06 AM  

  • (NB: municipal mergers needed a minimum turnout and a supermajority, not some majority of all eligible voters.)

    Sorry to nitpick and diverge a bit, but unless I'm parsing that incorrectly, that's wrong. For the demergers to happen, 35% of eligible voters had to vote yes and of the people who voted, more had to vote yes than no. So if 60% of eligible voters cast ballots and 32% of eligible voters cast "Yes" ballots (28% "No") it would have failed, while if 37% of eligible voters cast ballots and 36% of eligible voters cast "Yes" ballots (1% "no"), it would have passed. So although the minimum turnout technically was 35% (if everyone voted "Yes"), the turnout condition is best described as proportion of eligible voters needing to say "Yes". (And no, it wasn't a supermajority: 35% "Yes" v. 34% "No" would pass.)

    And yes, they were a mess, because things like 35% "Yes" v. 34% "No" would pass while 34% "Yes" v. 1% "No" wouldn't (bad cases: Masson-Angers, Roxboro, L'Île-Bizard, Mont-Tremblant, etc.). And yes, this was just made worse by low turnout in municipal politics and voter rolls containing tons of dead and moved people (on the western tip of Montreal Island, I think in Baie-d'Urfé, >10% of registered voters had moved or died (or, you know, were pets, or, worse, dead pets)). This is why I don't like turnout requirements (e.g. 50% of eligible voters must cast ballots for the result to be legitimate) because either it encourages people to vote strategically by not voting (although this argument doesn't apply in this case) and credits the opposing side when the voter rolls are incorrect (and considering how both my mom and I got two voter cards last election, it probably happens reasonably often). (Oh, and of course the whole hypocracy of 50%+1 applying for sovereignty referendums but not others.)

    There's something to be said for supermajorities to protect minorities (and this includes independence referenda; cf. anglophones and allophones in Quebec, and I'd bet Serbs in Montenegro), but if you don't show up, that's your own fault (unless there's intimidation (cf. heightened document checking in 1995 referendum for allophones/immigrants/etc., plus all those dictatorships), but this comment's unweildly enough, so I'll leave that for another day (or comment)).

    By Anonymous Nicholas, at 2:39 PM  

  • "First of all, the support isn't static"

    Indeed, this is the volatility I was referring to in my post.

    Also, I was going to note that a lot of the mergers I recall from Ontario were imposed by a provincial government that got less than 50% of the vote. For the ones that weren't imposed, I don't recall exactly, but I don't remember any supermajority requirements.

    I don't know much about what happened in Quebec so I can't comment on that. Like Nicholas, I'm not big on turnout requirements - apathy shouldn't get a vote.

    By Blogger Declan, at 7:25 PM  

  • Sorry, misrecalled the majority requirements in the demerger votes -- I thought it was 60% for on some minimum turnout. (I was still resident somewhere that it wasn't going to make a difference -- we were one of the highest demerger support votes.) And, as you pointed out, the trouble was never getting the majority, it was getting the turnout, especially given the problems with the voting list. (My sister, not a citizen, was -- and still is -- on the list. We cannot get her off.)

    I continue to be for turnout requirements: if some high %age of the people cannot be bothered to show up to have something happen, then, generally, a change shouldn't be made. The problem with them is the problem with voting in general: the lists are crappy, and voting is really inconvenient, and little is done to make it more convenient. If you have different standards of ID-ship, easy multiple voting, and crappy electoral rolls, you've got a problem with the system in general, not a problem with turnout requirements. (I don't think that a flat x% must turnout is the best set of turnout requirements, though, because, as you said, it pushes for people to stay home and not vote. Other modified systems make more sense, but are possibly not workable.)

    By Blogger wolfa, at 9:05 PM  

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