Brexit Referendum Turnout Probably Won’t Help You Know Who’s Won

  • Higher participation points to ‘Remain’ winning -- or does it?
  • Focus on voter levels is a red herring, say academics

The Brexit Debate: What Happens if the U.K. Leaves the EU

Before a single result has been announced in Britain’s referendum on leaving the European Union, 382 counting centers will announce the turnouts in their districts. These data will be grasped at by traders eager for some hint of which way the vote is going. But what will they mean? The answer is a little confused.

First, what counts as high turnout? When Britain voted on its membership of the European Economic Community, as it then was, in 1975, 65 percent of the electorate took part. That was at a time when the participation rate in general elections was always above 70 percent. Voting has become less popular in the past two decades: In last year’s election, turnout was 66 percent.

The low-water mark for British voters was the 2011 referendum on changing the voting system, when only 42 percent voted. The opposite extreme, though only in one part of the U.K., came in Scotland’s independence referendum two years ago, with 85 percent casting their ballots.

The view of the “Leave” campaign is that anything under 60 percent helps their side, on the basis that their supporters are more highly motivated than “Remain” backers. “Every single piece of polling evidence says that ‘Remain’ voters are less likely to vote than ‘Leave’ voters,” John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University in Glasgow and an expert on polling, said in an interview. “They are less motivated.”

The first turnout figures will come before midnight: Sunderland in northeast England is scheduled to announce how many people have voted at about 11:30 p.m., with the local result due an hour later.

So does higher turnout mean better news for “Remain”? That’s “the standard line,” said Justin Fisher, professor of politics at Brunel University in northwest London and a specialist on electoral campaigns. But he has his doubts. “The types of people who are most likely to vote for Brexit are also the types of people who are least likely to vote,” he said. “If ‘Leave’ manage to mobilize them, then a high turnout may not be good for ‘Remain.”’

There are two ways of dividing up the voters. The first is between young and old. In Scotland, the pro-independence campaign lost partly because it failed to get younger voters to the polls. Turnout among 16-34-year-olds was 69 percent. It was 92 percent among the over-55s, who were more likely to support the status quo. In the EU campaign, it’s older voters who tend to support leaving, while younger voters support the status quo.

The second way of dividing up voters is by class. Affluent, educated people tend to support “Remain,” while poorer, less educated voters lean to “Leave.” Here the split pushes against a Brexit. “The types of people who are more likely to vote ‘Remain’ are the types of people who are more likely to vote generally,” said Fisher.

Or perhaps turnout doesn’t tell you anything at all. In Scotland, the pro-independence camp had assumed, incorrectly, that high turnout would help it. Curtice warned against reading too much into one number. He said that what matters is the splits across age and social class. In both the low-turnout 2011 vote and the higher-turnout general election, these were the same. His advice to those seeking an early clue? “The level of turnout is irrelevant.”

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