Why turnout matters in a referendum – a simple guide for anyone who doesn’t understand why 52% is actually only 37.4%

Let’s do this thought experiment.

Ten best friends have known each other for years since childhood. They’ve generally had happy times together in the UK but in recent years some problems have come up and the question is asked: shall we emigrate to Australia?

They give it some thought and take a vote:

3 say yes, 2 say no, and 5 can’t make up their mind.

There’s an active majority for leaving but what’s the overall answer? It’s very clearly to stay.  The 3 enthusiasts for leaving can’t force the other 7 to go.  2 have said no, and the 5 who couldn’t make up their minds have indicated that whatever their discomfort with life in the UK, it’s not been overwhelming enough to make them vote decisively to leave for Australia.  So their abstention automatically means they vote to stay.

You can vary these numbers in any way you like, but bear in mind: if you hold a binding referendum about a long-term status quo, you have to take into account all the voters who don’t take part – the ones who can’t make up their minds, who abstain, who don’t think leaving is any better or any worse than staying, who can’t be bothered to vote, or who fall sick on the day and can’t take part.  And you have to class all these cases automatically as a vote for status quo, not change.

In our case, 13 million people, or 28% of UK nationals eligible to vote, didn’t vote on 23 June 2016.  No democratic government can say to them: sorry mate, you had your chance.  Why?  Because in a referendum, unlike in a general election, turnout matters.  The decision is for a lifetime.  It’s irrelevant that general elections are often won by a minority of the popular vote and on low turnout.  Referendums are “for ever” and every single vote counts, even when a voter doesn’t actually vote – not just the biggest number of votes for an MP in a given constituency.

The true result of our referendum, if it is to be binding by itself rather than simply a non-binding opinion poll for MPs to decide upon as they see fit, is this:

37.4% voted to Leave.

62.6% did not vote to Leave.

The 52% of votes cast for Leave is only 37.4% of the total number of UK nationals who had the right to vote in the referendum. The 48% of votes cast for Remain is 34.7% of the electorate, and 28% is the proportion that didn’t vote. So there was and is NO majority vote of the electorate to Leave – only a minority.


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