Lucky Jack, one of the failed Scottish Labour politicians who are now unelected Lords, in between fighting over coal sheds with his neighbours in Stirling, has offered his twopence worth on the referendum question. Despite his chaotic style and strange thought processes, he is in fact saying something similar to what I proposed some many blogs ago on the referendum questions. He thinks he is the first to offer this. Naw, yer no’, Jack. But judge for yourselves …
THE ‘EXPERTS’ AGAIN
I thought that experts couldn’t muddy the pool further in the referendum debate – I was wrong. Today’s Scotsman has an article titled - Lets be clear about this - by five – yes, five – “academic experts on devolution” from the University of Edinburgh grandly-titled Institute of Governance. Anyone who emerges blinking into the light after wading through this article has greater powers of understanding than I have.
Let me attempt a precis of the turgid academic prose and see if there is anything of value to be teased out of it -
After a motherhood and apple pie opener about the desirability of this and that in the referendum, a signal of disagreement with the Scottish Office. Good! Points of disagreement?
Using the Scotland Act to confer legality would be useful to avoid a contested referendum outcome, but in the light of the SNP mandate, political legitimacy matters more. UK Government has a role to play, but has no mandate to legislate.
2. Perceived legitimacy of process and outcome.
In the absence of a Scottish electoral Commission, the UK Electoral Commission is the best bet.
3. The Question(s)
After repeating what everybody has known for some time, the authors get to the nub of it – fears that the voters might be prevented from making “a fully informed choice”.
They then make the same points that I, and indeed anyone who has thought about it, have made about the potential for confusion, and say again that the Electoral Commission are best placed to avoid the dangers.
But then, a statement which can only be described as hopeful, rather than purposeful -
“But having an additional option in the referendum ballot need not compromise the clarity of the question or the decisiveness of the outcome.”
How do the authors propose that such clarity be achieved? We are bounced across to referendums outside of the UK – New Zealand and Puerto Rico – “which have delivered unambiguous and intelligible outcomes from multiple options.”
As most experts do in such popularised analyses, they avoid actually giving specific examples to the people who might read them, i.e. the electorate, who will actually do the voting. All of this is to be done behind closed doors by experts and the Electoral Commission. Such caution is understandable, since when experts do offer a specific example, they tend to wind up with the Curtice/Scotsman-type of second question. I refer you to my recent blog on this, (see below) and to the relevant video clip.
Neither the Scotsman nor Prof. Curtice have offered any comment, far less a correction on this, nor do the authors of this paper touch upon it. None of the explanations the authors offer come close to clarifying essential questions – they dismiss the difficulties airily with -
“We do not agree that such a system, or other alternatives drawn from international practice, if given sufficient public explanation by the Electoral Commission, would be too difficult for Scottish voters to understand or unable to produce a clear and legitimate referendum outcome.”
A ballot paper that needs public explanation by the Electoral Commission is likely to be in trouble before it starts. The essence of any ballot paper is that it should be self-explanatory, and the options immediately evident to the voter in the ballot booth. The choices should be clear and unambiguous, and the voter’s intentions should not be subject to interpretation when the votes are counted.
Without a doubt, the simplest, most-straightforward ballot question is a single, unambiguous question requiring a simple, unambiguous YES/NO answer. The wording of the question may be argued over, but once decided, the choice is clear.
Second questions always imply problems of conditionality, of sequencing, of interpretation, as the nonsense of the Curtice/Scotsman question clearly demonstrated – or should have …
A multiple choice ballot paper increases the possibilities of contested outcomes, however sequenced and structured, and any analysis that purports to claim simplicity and robustness that does not specify ballot paper examples or consider a range of possible outcomes and their implications is simply a blind faith assertion – and there are a lot of those around.
A multiple choice ballot that requires extensive pre-ballot education and explanation, and worse still, post-ballot assumptions about what was in the mind of the electorate when they cast their votes, is by definition flawed and dangerously undemocratic. Professional elites, whether political, academic, social or commercial, have always shown a tendency to want to influence, circumvent and blunt democratic processes.
The Scottish people are going to have to keep a very beady eye on this ballot, the most important of their lifetimes.
Friday, 9 March 2012
Ask the bloody question(s)–Professor Curtice’s two questions
Professor Curtice is an eminent and respected academic, with a long honourable record of commenting on Scottish electoral matters. I am therefore astonished at his proposal for two questions in the independence referendum in 2014.
Assuming today’s Scotsman has reported him accurately in the little graphic (not shown in the online edition) at the head of Eddie Barnes’ article Expert offers three choice-vote in just two questions Professor Curtice has fallen into exactly the dangers and pitfalls of a two-question ballot paper that have been detailed by many, including myself at some length in previous blogs.
From Drop BoxThe only fair referendum paper?Problems with percentages?
The Stephen Noon blog
The first question – Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country? – poses no problems. It envisages two possibilities only, and one answer only - YES or NO – gives a complete and unequivocal voter response.
But the second question – If Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom, do you agree it should have “devo max” or the status quo? – has several weaknesses in construction.
Since it is conditional on the answer to the first question, it assumes a NO answer to the first question. But by whom? The voter answering the question or the outcome of the total ballot? Since answering the second question is not prohibited by answering the first, a voter may answer both questions making either assumption.
For example, a voter may legitimately answer YES to the first question and YES to the second, in other words, have a fallback choice. As a supporter of independence, that is exactly what I would do, and have the right to do, since my assumption is that if the YES vote fails, and Scotland remains a part of the UK, then I want devo max.
My YES vote to the second question would then be aggregated with what could be a minority YES to the second question by those opposed to independence. While I am clearly happy with that, it is evident from the comments of those opposed to independence that they would not be, and confusing and contested outcomes could result.
Of course, the Electoral Commission could rule that the second question will only be counted if a YES vote fails. But have they the right to make such an assumption and decision if in fact many voters quite reasonably completed the ballot on different assumptions?
The second question itself is badly structured and worded. If I say YES to the question - If Scotland remains a part of the United Kingdom, do you agree it should have devo max or the status quo? - what am I saying YES or NO to?
YES I agree it should have devo max or YES I agree it should have the status quo?
If I say NO, am I saying NO I don’t it agree it should have devo max or NO I don’t agree it should have the status quo?
In my view, the Electoral Commission should look critically at these questions and tell Professor Curtice to go back and think again.
I gave Prof. Curtice the benefit of the doubt, thinking the Scotsman graphic might have been at fault. But I was wrong - list to John Curtice state the question here.