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Dublin: 21 °C Monday 22 July, 2019
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What effect might the turnout have on the Fiscal Compact referendum?

Voting started slowly today… but does it ultimately matter? Here are the lessons learned from our previous referendums…

Met Éireann's rainfall radar at 1pm showed quite a bit of wet weather -
Met Éireann's rainfall radar at 1pm showed quite a bit of wet weather -
Image: Met Eireann

IT SEEMS the wet morning may have resulted in a lower-than-expected early turnout in the Fiscal Compact referendum – but in some areas where the wet weather was clearing, it seemed like people were a little more enthusiastic about getting out and having their say.

The focus on the turnout – and the fact that it’s pretty much the only referendum-related matter that broadcasters are able to cover today – prompts the question: what effect, if any, would it have on the outcome of the vote?

There’s two conflicting ways of thinking about it – that a low turnout either means those who feel compelled to block something may not be sufficiently motivated to cast their votes, or alternatively that those who want to block a proposal are overpowering the perhaps more passive non-voters who might say Yes otherwise.

We decided to break out the history books and dust off the Excel spreadsheets to see exactly how referendums had been influenced by the quantity of people who showed up.

Helpfully, the four European referendums since the turn of the millennium – the four ballots on the Nice and Lisbon treaties – were all held as standalone votes, and not alongside any other elections or public plebiscites.

This means that thankfully the turnout figures are not influenced by high-profile other referendums – like in 1998, when the Treaty of Amsterdam was held alongside the Good Friday Agreement, or the two referendums held alongside last October’s Presidential election.

Taking each of the pairs – that is, the two Nice votes and the two Lisbon ones – separately, it’s the former pair which help to best illustrate the effects that the turnout can have on a European-themed election.

Balancing act

In the original Nice ballot, of June 2001, the lowest-ever turnout in a European election (just 34.8 per cent) resulted in 53.9 per cent of the public voting against allowing Ireland to ratify a Treaty which reformed the weight of each country’s vote at European Council level.

When the second ballot was held, the number of No voters actually increased by around 5,000 – indicating that those who may have been calmed by the assurances given about Irish neutrality were offset by those who were turned off at being asked to take part in a (then) unprecedented second vote.

The second result was largely determined because the number of Yes voters rose significantly the second time around – almost doubling, from 453,461 to 906,317 – and dragged the turnout up 49.5 per cent.

The two Lisbon ballots are a slightly different example – firstly because it was no longer unprecedented for a second vote to be held on the first place – and secondly because the political moves in the aftermath of the first vote were legally binding (though still not yet implemented).

The effects of the guarantees on abortion, neutrality and corporate tax appeared to have convinced many previous No voters to opt for the yes side afterward – the 1,214,268

In that case, however, the turnout on the first occasion – at 53.1 per cent – was still quite a bit lower than the second time, when 59 per cent turned out – a numerical difference of over 195,000 from the first time out.

Either way, the fact that the turnouts were lower when the No side won, and higher when the Yes side did, would suggest that any sluggishness in turnout could punish the Yes side this time – while an eleventh-hour pick-up this evening could hurt the hopes of the No side.

The final answer, either way, will probably be known by mid-morning tomorrow.

Earlier: Polling stations quiet with low turnout so far

Poll: Do you intend to vote today in the referendum?

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About the author:

Gavan Reilly

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