How people elect parliaments
The UK Brexit vote looks set to become one of the major world democratic events of the decade.
While the event has dramatically divided the nation along lines of geography and age, and looks likely to have done significant harm to the nation’s internal unity and international standing, it may ironically boost future public engagement with the political process.
The referendum saw the highest turnout of voters in a UK vote for a quarter of a century.
The decision saw 33.5 million Britons cast a vote – the highest number ever participating in a national UK electoral event.
On June 23 nearly 72.2% of enrolled Britons turned out to vote. The last national election to achieve a higher turnout was the 1992 election, which saw a 77.4% turnout.
The 1992 election also saw 33.5 million votes cast. That election’s nominal turnout has been beaten by the Brexit vote by just 40,000 votes.
In recent decades UK electoral registration has been growing at a very slow pace by world standards. The size of the registered electorate was at 43.2 million in 1987, and in nearly three decades since has grown by less than 8% to 46.5 million.
Major efforts have been undertaken in the past decade to improve registration systems and encourage more people to get on the rolls, but the effect has yet to be felt. The nation’s modest population growth is a factor.
Overall, 37.4% of registered British voters voted to leave the European Union last Thursday.
34.7% voted to stay in the union, while 27.8% did not turn out to participate in the decision.
Most media organisations are describing the 51.9%/48.1% vote as ‘decisive’, but some reports already indicate that the number of voters in the ‘Regrexit’ camp already exceeds the June 23 voting gap.
Despite the narrow win for Leave, Britain may yet remain in the EU.
Many possibilities remain: a second referendum overturning the result, a rejection of the vote by Parliament, or a delayed implementation by government which peters out into an eventual failure to leave.
The other EU nations, however, are demanding clarity from the UK and, if they are leaving, a prompt initiation of the process.
The public reaction to the vote, and to the major shocks to the nation’s financial and economic position and international relations, has engaged public opinion more than many elections have.
Whatever the final position on UK-European relations, the historic event may have a positive outcome in motivating the engagement of British voters with their political system.