Framing the question – history’s lessons for winning and losing referenda

On Sunday, Greeks will go to the polls to vote in a crucial referendum. The politics are fraught, the media is frenzied and accusations and recriminations are already flying.

The ballot paper has attracted plenty of attention, both inside and outside of Greece. The question is detailed and, to eyes that are unaccustomed to non-Roman alphabets, impenetrable.


Some commentators have pointed out that the ‘no’ option is given first. It made me think about referenda ballots that have been decidedly imbalanced.  When with these, Greece’s ballot looks the model of democratic accountability.

1. Austrian referendum in 1938 on union with Germany

On 10 April 1938, Austrians went to the polls to decide the future of their country. At stake was whether Austria would join with Nazi Germany in a Greater German Empire.

Austria had emerged from the ruins of the Great War as a republic. The imperial heart of the Habsburg empire, Vienna, was now without both its monarchy and the bulk of its former territories and people.

The result was never really in doubt. Even so, the vote produced an eye-brow raising 99.73% support for the proposition. According to the official figures, only 11,929 people vote no (out of an electorate of 4,484,617). Did the ballot play a part?

Ballot used for Austrian referendum, 1938 See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It certainly wasn’t a subtle ballot. It uses the unmistakably Teutonic font preferred by the Nazi regime. The circle for yes is twice the size as that for no. Yes is placed in the centre, under the large rendering of Adolf Hitler. No is placed, as a seeming after thought, off to the right.

It almost certainly had no material impact on the results. Still, it was crystal clear which option the authorities wanted you to pick.

2. Italian general election in 1934

General elections are usually different from referenda. The former ask you to choose between parties seeking to fill seats in the legislature and form a government. The latter ask the electorate’s opinion of a specific question.

In Italy, the two merged into a strange election to validate an entirely fascist parliament. Voters could either vote for or against the National Fascist Party’s list. They did so by folding a decidedly unsubtle ballot paper.

Fascist ballot paper, Legislatura XXIX, politic election, 25 marzo 1934, front side of the "Sì" (Yes) ballot paper. The "NO" ballot paper is similar but completely white (without the Italian flag colour), so the vote was not secret. You can read: "Do you agree with the list of deputies chosen by the Grand Council of Fascism?" By Oggetto di mia (Accurimbono) proprietà. (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On one side, the vivid green and red stripes of the Italian flag frame the large YES option. To vote yes, the card was simply folded with the colours showing. The other side was plain white, with just the text of the question and NO. To select this option, the voter folded the card to hide the flag.

This was highly symbolic and also had the impact of destroying the secret ballot. It was clear who was voting yes and who was voting no. This goes some way to explaining the official result of 99.84% in favour of the National Fascist Party.

3. Chilean national consultation in 1978

In 1978, the United Nations accused Chile of human rights violations. President Pinochet responded with a referendum to demonstrate the support he enjoyed in the country.

The question was decidedly leading:

“Given the international aggression against the government of our country, I support President Pinochet in his defense of the dignity of Chile, and I confirm again the legitimacy of the Government of the Republic in its sovereign head of the institutionalization process in the country.”

The ballot paper was even more so.

Chilean national consultation 1978 ballot paper See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Vote yes, with the flag of Chile. Or vote no, with a black box further down the ballot paper.

4. Referendum on the future of the Soviet Union in 1991

By 1991, the Soviet Union was under considerable pressure from all sides. Pro-Soviet governments had collapsed across eastern Europe. More independent minded nationalities, such as Georgia, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, were straining to secede from the Union.

The authorities decided that a popular vote would bolster the Union, and declared a referendum. It was held on 17 March 1991. The ballot paper was admirably neutral, with equal prominence given to both options.

Soviet Union referendum, ballot 1991 By USSR [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But the question was, at best, leading:

“Do you consider necessary the preservation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics in which the rights and freedom of an individual of any nationality will be fully guaranteed?”

Many Soviet citizens did. The result was a landslide in favour, with 77.85% voting yes. This wasn’t enough to save the USSR. Just over nine months later, the USSR was dissolved.