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Multi-option Referendums: The Cases of Puerto Rico and Newfoundland

    With the possibility of an in-out-devo max ballot on Scottish independence being discussed, CPS Research Fellow and expert on referendums Matt Qvortrup looks closer at multi-option referendums. 

    Multi option referendums have often been discussed in relation to referendums on ethnic and national issues. There have been relatively high profile referendums with several options in Sweden, e.g. in 1955 when three pension systems were put to a vote and in 1980, when the future of Nuclear Energy was decided in a three-option referendum. But multi-option referendums have also been discussed in relation to the referendum on independence or ‘devolution max’ (independence but with the same currency and foreign policy) in Scotland.

    There are two referendums that are particularly interesting in this connection; first, the referendums in Puerto Rico in 1967, 1993 and 1998. In all but the last of these referendums the voters were offered more than one choice; independence, become a state within the United States and status quo (‘Commonwealth’). In all cases, as the table shows, the voters opted for status quo – or in 1998 ‘none of the above’. Indeed, the latter was the most popular option in 1998.


    The referendums have not resolved the issue. It still polarises the political debate in Puerto Rico, though the issue is not as hotly contested as ethno-national issues in other parts of the world.

    The second is Newfoundland. On June 3, 1948, a referendum was held in the territory, at that time a dominion within the United Kingdom. The question was whether Newfoundland should maintain its status (Commission government), become a part of Canada (Confederation) or become an independent territory with strong links to the United States (Responsible Government). In the first round of the - very bitter campaign – the clear winner was responsible government with 69,400 votes (44.6 percent). Maintaining the status quo dropped out (receiving a mere 14.3 percent). Confederation received 64,066 votes, 41.1 percent of the total. A second referendum was set for 22 July. The confederates, i.e. those in favour of becoming a Canadian province, realized that they could win. In order to win additional votes, the confederates adopted two new tactics. First, they decided to emphasize the role played by the Roman Catholic Church in the first referendum (the Church had been staunchly against confederation). In early July the Loyal Orange Association issued a circular letter to all members. It cited the role played by the Roman Catholic Church, condemned "such efforts at sectional domination", and warned Orangemen of the dangers of such influence, which they should resist. And, in order to win votes from those who had voted for status quo, the Confederates targeted unionist voters, and presented the confederal option as a "British Union". The tactic paid off, 78,323 votes (52.3 percent), voted to become a Canadian province, and 71,334 votes (47.7 percent), voted for independence. Newfoundland became a Canadian province, and the divisive campaign was soon forgotten.

    Matt Qvortrup teaches British politics and Constitution at UCL. He has previously been a visiting Professor at University of Sydney and a fellow at the London School of Economics.

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    Anonymous - About 1740 days ago

    Of course not. Politicians want you to beilvee that this is a choice between staying in the EU and leaving, but it is nothing of the sort. It is a choice between a more powerful, more undemocratic EU, and the status quo. A second 'No' to the same question would be unprecedented. The EU would finally be forced to accept that the people don't want this Treaty, and don't agree with the way in which it is being forced upon the people of Europe.A second 'No' vote would give power back to the people - there would be celebrations all over Europe as all the millions of people who were denied a vote on this toast Ireland's refusal to be bullied.Far from resulting in Ireland leaving the EU, a No vote would allow the incoming Conservative government in Britain to hold the referendum it has repeatedly promised, and to then revoke the UK's ratification when the country inevitably votes No too. Neither the Czech nor the Polish Presidents will sign if the Irish people say no. It will be the end of the Treaty, and the beginning of a new, more positive and democratic period in which the people of Europe engage in the debate about what kind of powers the EU should have, and how these should be exercised. The EU doesn't need the Lisbon Treaty to survive - it needs a radical rethink, and the Irish referendum is the first step towards (and last hope for) real change for the better.

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