If a second EU referendum becomes a serious possibility for the UK, the design of the ballot paper will become a battleground in its own right. This article is not in itself a plea for or against a second referendum. It merely seeks to evaluate some available options for the form the ballot might take.
Many countries, most notably Switzerland, have considerable practice of phrasing referendum questions. Expertise is also found in the field of public international law, which deals with cases where the secession of territories has been made conditional on a popular vote. Drawing on this experience, good practices can be identified. The main objective is to avoid manipulative bias.
The decisive weight is usually assumed by a simple majority: 50 per cent of those who voted. Supermajority requirements give a veto to a minority of voters. In the absence of good reasons why a minority should be privileged, a simple majority is both necessary and sufficient.
The question is best put in a binary manner, to which you can either say Yes or No. There is an established practice that a Yes vote is support for change. A No vote helps to maintain the status quo. The 2014 Scotland referendum phrased the question in this way: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”
Neither of the UK’s European referendums have strictly adhered to these practices. The question in 1975 was “Do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?” with Yes being a vote for the status quo (albeit only for 17 months). The 2016 question was “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” with the answers “Remain a member of the European Union” or “Leave the European Union”; the Electoral Commission deemed that this wording was the “most neutral” of those it tested.
Nevertheless, it is best to consider the wording of another question in the light of best and established practice. If another Brexit referendum were to be initiated today, the status quo would be determined by the fact that the membership of the UK in the European Union ends on 29th March 2019. But since the voters are evaluating…