The discussion over a possible second Brexit referendum has foundered on the shoals of complexity: If the public were only offered May’s deal or no deal, that wouldn’t be any kind of meaningful choice (and it’s absurd to imagine that a Parliament that wouldn’t approve May’s deal on its own would be willing to vote for the fate of Brexit to be decided by the public on those terms. So you’re left with needing an unconventional referendum with at least three options: No deal, May’s deal, No Brexit (plus possible additional alternatives, like, request more time to negotiate the Better Deal™).
A three-choice (or more) referendum strikes many people as crazy. There are reasonable concerns. Some members of the public will inevitably find it confusing, however it is formulated and adjudicated. And the impossibility of aggregating opinions consistent with basic principles of fairness, not even to say in a canonical way, is a foundational theorem of social-choice theory (due to Kenneth Arrow).
Suppose we followed the popular transferable vote procedure: People rank the options, and we look only at the first choices. Whichever option gets the smallest number of first-choice votes is dropped, and we proceed with the remaining options, until one option has a first-choice majority. The classic paradoxical situation is all too likely in this setting. Suppose the population consists of
- 25% hardened brexiteers. They prefer a no-deal Brexit, but the last thing they want is to be blamed for May’s deal, which leaves the UK taking orders from Brussels with no say in them. If they can’t have their clean break from Brussels, they’d rather go back to the status quo ante and moan about how their beautiful Brexit was betrayed.
- 35% principled democrats. They’re nervous about the consequences of Brexit, so they’d prefer May’s soft deal, whatever it’s problems. But if they can’t have that, they think the original referendum needs to be respected, so their second choice is no deal Brexit.
- 40% squishy europhiles. They want no Brexit, barring that they’d prefer the May deal. No-deal Brexit for them is the worst.
The result will be that no deal drops out, and we’re left with 65% favouring no Brexit. But if the PDs anticipated this, they could have ranked no deal first, producing a result that they would have preferred.
So, that seems like a problem with a three-choice referendum. But here’s a proposal that would be even worse: We combine choices 2 and 3 into a single choice, which we simply call “Leave”. Then those who wants to abandon the European project entirely will be voting for the same option as those who are concerned about the EU being dominated by moneyed interests, and they’ll jointly win the referendum and then have to fight among themselves after the fact, leaving them with the outcome — no-deal Brexit — that the smallest minority preferred.
Unfortunately, that’s the referendum we actually had.