There is an interesting report on Referenda in Europe by Pierre Garrone, Head of the Division of Elections and Referenda Secretariat of the Venice Commission (Council of Europe).
A distinction is made between what Garrone calls a "quorum of participation" or a "quorum of approval".
"The quorum of participation (minimum turnout) means that the vote is valid only if a certain percentage of registered voters take part in the vote. The quorum of approval makes the validity of the results dependent on the approval, or perhaps rejection, of a certain percentage of the electorate."
He then lists those countries which have these limits:
"A quorum of participation of the majority of the electorate is required in the following states: Bulgaria, Croatia, Italy and Malta (abrogative referendum), Lithuania, Russia and "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" (decision-making referendum). In Latvia, the quorum is half the voters who participated in the last Parliamentary election (except for constitutional revisions, see below), and, in Azerbaijan, it is only 25% of the registered voters. In Poland and Portugal, if the turnout is lower than 50%, the referendum is consultative and non-binding."
"A quorum of approval is laid down in Hungary (a quarter of the electorate); in Albania and Armenia (one-third). In Denmark, a constitutional amendment must be approved by 40% of the electorate; in other cases, the text put to the vote is rejected only if not simply the majority of voters vote against it, but also 30% of the registered electorate."
"Moreover, a particularly high quorum is sometimes required for fundamental decisions. In Latvia, when a constitutional amendment is submitted to referendum, it must be approved by more than 50% of registered voters. In Lithuania, certain particularly important rules relating to sovereignty can only be decided by a majority of three-quarters of the electorate. In Croatia, a "yes" vote by the majority of the electorate is required in the case of an association with other states."
To summarise, in a participation quorum, also known as a minimum turn-out quorum, there is a predetermined turnout threshold of registered voters which must be reached in order to validate the result. With an approval quorum, the validity of the vote depends on the approval of a certain predetermined percentage of the electorate. So the turnout is not important, what does matter is that the choice made gets above a certain threshold.
So there is a wide diversity of thresholds in use, but what is clear is that there are a number of democratic countries in which thresholds are in use, especially if there is a constitutional amendment.
The Venice Commission doesn't really like thresholds, but they have no substantive arguments against thresholds, except that they can make it difficult for change to come about. The Referendum in Sudan for independence for Southern Sudan had a threshold of 60% and was easily exceeded.
Jeremy Macon's proposition is one relating to voter turnout. He has put it at 40%, which is a turnout of voters needed for approval. Obviously there is a degree of commonsense in this. A voter turnout of around 15 - 20% of the electorate might well indicate that 80-85% of the voting public did not want the choices on offer.
One argument against this is the "activist" one - "they had their chance, they could have voted". It seems particularly perverse when it comes to a major constitutional change to make that argument, as part of democracy is to involve all the people, not just those who live and breathe politics. If they have failed to get enough people out to vote, should they be rewarded for this failure? It will not do to say "They had their chance, and they didn't take it." That is an expression of contempt for ordinary people.
The point of democracy is to bring people in, to get them to participate, and to ensure that those ordinary people who often have no voice have a chance to have their voice heard. It is not for activists to drown out that silent voice because they did not participate but to try and listen and make sure that voice is heard. Unfortunately, the activist often speaks a lot but does not listen. To listen, you have to shut up and be quiet, and that is very hard for the political activist.
As a guide to Buddhism notes: "Some people combine their rhetorical skills with clever arguments and a loud voice to dominate every conversation and stifle every point of view but their own." That's not going to draw people in to participate; it is going to send them away.
Another argument is being made that Deputies may well have been elected on a lower threshold. True, but this is an Island wide referendum. The fair comparison, which Jeremy Macon makes - and why he chose 40% - is to look at the overall turnout Islandwide on the Senatorial elections. So we can forget the cheap shots against Jeremy Macon on the basis of his own turnout.
Why is there so much fear about a threshold? Might it be because it means that change can only come about not through the activists mustering their supporters out there, but because those who are politically active will have to change their game; and get people to participate.
Instead of appealing to arguments, and browbeating the ordinary person, they'll have to listen before they speak, and then may have earned the right to be heard. But that must be genuine, and not just political politeness. Here is some Buddhist wisdom on the subject:
"For communication to take place it is not just enough to let others talk, we have to genuinely listen to them when they do. Sometimes, when others are talking, we affect an expression of interest although we are not really listening to them but only waiting for an opportunity to interrupt them so we can say what we want. To genuinely listen, we have to close our mouths and open our minds so that the other person's words are not just heard but comprehended." (Bhante Dhammika)
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