Scottish independence: Are multi-choice referendums indecisive?

13 January 2012

"There have been six broadly constitutional multiple choice referendums since 1931. In four of those six, they needed a second referendum to sort out and decide on the answer to the first."

Lord Ashdown - BBC Question Time, 12 January 2012

With the hotly-anticipated referendum on Scottish independence from the UK dominating the news this week, on yesterday's Question Time programme on the BBC, Lord Ashdown questioned the ability of multiple choice referendums to deliver a decisive result. According to Lord Ashdown, two thirds of all such referendums since 1931 had required a second round of voting subsequently.

His claims were controversial, as the SNP reportedly favours a ballot which offers voters to express an opinon not only on independence, but also on "devo max" - the extension of power to the devolved Scottish government.

But were Lord Ashdown's figures accurate?


Finding a comprehensive list of multiple-choice (i.e. with three or more options) referendums internationally over the last century proved difficult, so Full Fact decided to contact Lord Ashdown to ascertain from where he acquired the figures.

He directed us to an extract from Peter Emerson's book 'Defining Democracy' (2011) which lists a number of multi-choice referendums dating back to as early as 1894 in New Zealand. The author indicated the examples listed all the cases in which multi-option referendums had been held.

In the extract is a table which lists six differrent multi-choice referendums since 1931. They are:

Finland (1931)

Newfoundland (1948)

Puerto Rico (1967)

Sweden (1980)

Guam (1982)

New Zealand (1992)

Of these, only Finland and Puerto Rico returned majorities (over 50 per cent of the initial vote) for one option. Hence, the other four were forced into a second round of voting.

The case of Sweden is slightly different to the other multi-choice referendums, in that there seemed to be only one round of voting, suggesting in this case that it was not one of the nations "needing a second referendum to decide on the answer of the first", even if the result did not deliver a majority.

However, the extract itself cites a number of other examples which were not expanded upon in any great detail. Since 1931, there is also evidence of 11 more multi-option referendums:

Liechtenstein (1951 - cited as one of potentially several)

Uruguay (1958) (1966)

Cambodia (1960)

Singapore (1962)

Northern Mariana Islands (1969)

Australia (1977 - to choose their national anthem)

Andorra (1982)

Benin (1990)

Cook Islands (1994)

Slovenia (1996)

The data does not give any detail as to whether these were resolved after the first round of voting, so while these indicate a much larger number of referendums than Lord Ashdown cited (several are 'broadly constitutional', hence valid for the analysis), we cannot say whether they present additional examples of second referendums.

Full Fact's own search also uncovered information provided in the UCL's Report of the Commission on the Conduct of Referendums in 1996. They provide a further table on multiple-choice referendums since 1900.

The UCL's table starts with the Finnish Referendum of 1931. However, while it misses some of the referendums mentioned in the book extract, it does provide two extra examples not mentioned in Peter Emerson's analysis:

Sweden (1957)

Puerto Rico (1993)

Interestingly, the UCL report also notes that only the New Zealand and Newfoundland referendums were "followed by a second referendum", suggesting Lord Ashdown's counting of Sweden 1980 and Guam 1982 as having "needed a second referendum" are not supported by the UCL's categorisation.


While Lord Ashdown's comments seem to have some grounding in the stats from Peter Emerson's book, there also seem to be further examples of 'broadly constitutional' referendums since 1931, suggesting that the Lord's "six" figure may not be comprehensive.

Also, the data from the UCL report indicates that, even within the table used by Lord Ashdown, only two - Newfoundland and New Zealand, actually involved a second referendum. This also casts doubt on Lord Ashdown's point that four of the six needed a separate procedure to clear up the ambiguous result. Only two of the six he mentioned seem to have held a second referendum in practice.

Full Fact found evidence of 19 different multiple-choice referendums since 1931. However, given the sources, we cannot also guarantee that this itself is a comprehensive list.

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