Why not voting can be democratic

Last weekend I was approached by a young woman who was campaigning for a ‘No’ in the upcoming Dutch referendum on the EU-Ukraine association agreement. Although her flyer contained mostly flawed arguments, she did tell me something sensible: “Whether you’re for or against, you should go out and vote.” At first, it was difficult to disagree with her. However, after I’ve seen all the cards on the table, it has become clear to me that I should not vote at all tomorrow.

To be honest, I was quite surprised by my own conclusion. I have always been critical of people who deliberately stay at home during elections. If you complain about politicians (as most Dutch people do) then you should use the most effective tool to make things better: your vote. Going one step further, I would say we have a duty towards past generations who fought and died for having this opportunity. Anyway, voting an sich seemed to be a predetermined choice, irrespective of for whom or what I should vote.

However, with the introduction of this particular consultative referendum things have changed. What is different about this referendum is that it’s actually not very democratic. This might sound contradictory but it’s true, in the following two ways. First, the technicalities of this referendum do not properly reflect ‘the will of the people’. Let’s assume precisely 30% of the eligible population will cast their vote (this is not a too unrealistic assumption since voter turnout predictions are low), and that just over half of them votes against the association agreement. Then about 15% of ‘the people’ will have decided to ditch something they know, presumably, very little about. Luckily we have national and European representatives who do, and will be able to make a more informed and less emotionally-charged decision.

Neither can I claim to know enough about the agreement to make a well-considered decision, which is the second reason why I will not vote in this case. Since it reduces the complex issue of EU-Ukraine cooperation to a simple yes-or-no-question, this referendum is an ill-chosen tool to formulate a proper decision. In fact, this referendum is not really about Ukraine anyway! The initiators of the referendum explicitly said they do not care about the association agreement with Ukraine. Instead, they want the Netherlands to leave the EU. If this is your real aim, fair enough, but don’t confuse people with dubious arguments about some specific geopolitical issue – and waste €40 million in the process.


I’m curious whether you agree with me and, if not, what you are planning to vote. Ironically, the intention of this blog is to encourage people to do something. Yet just for tomorrow, take a break.

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2 thoughts on “Why not voting can be democratic”

  1. You say “Let’s assume precisely 30% of the eligible population will cast their vote (this is not a too unrealistic assumption since voter turnout predictions are low), and that just over half of them votes against the association agreement.”

    First of all: the predictions of voter turnout are estimated at a very wide range by diverse researches and allegedly even used to (de)motivate the public to, or not to go vote. At the latest referendum the voter turnout was 63.3%

    Secondly: We are given the chance to speak out, as a public, about a serious isue on which much controversy exists. Why would you spoil such an oppertunity on forehand with arguments like a small voter turnout. With debaters guessing the degree of acceptance and rejection among the public, why are we not aiming for a large voter turnout? A large turnout could clear up what the opinion of the dutch public is on this matter. If this turns out to be positive towards current policy it could take away a lot of grudge against the government and their foreign policy. If it turns out to be negative, this could result in a wake up call to politicians on the stance of the public.
    In both ways a democratic government would benefit from a clear and significant result. What is created with a deliberately low voter turnout at the referendum is an easy way out for a government that is not comfortable with the potential result.

    I very much anticipate your views on the matter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for you comment. With respect to the actual voter turnout, it is clear the level of the last referendum (about the EU constitution) has not been met. It seems the expectations of low voter turnout were justified after all.

      Regarding your more general point about the benefits of high voter turnout during referenda, I remain skeptical. Even if voter turnout would have been high, the results (either a clear ‘Yes’ or ‘No’) are less fruitful then you sketch. In case of a loud and clear ‘Yes’, controversy around the EU-Ukraine agreement might be taken away, but the underlying cynicism towards the EU is left unaddressed. Let me remind you that the initiators of this referendum did not want to consult the Dutch people about whether we should set up close relations with Ukraine; no, instead they wanted to use this issue as a way to undermine the legitimacy of European cooperation at large. Although the two issues are related, it is not clear that a ‘Yes’ for Ukraine actually translates into a more pro-European public attitude.

      In case of a strong ‘No’, the latter argument applies as well. Does a rejection of an association agreement with one specific country lead to a “democratic” revision of the EU? Hard to tell, which is precisely the reason why the presumed democratic power of referenda should be questioned. In my opinion, referenda only work when the issue is straightforward and “close” to the people who are being consulted. Sure, politicians should be woken up, but then it should at least be clear in what sense they are asleep.

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