Referendums: Designing understandable questions and answers

Since always, Referendums have been considered a way to give the power to the population, and it can be like this if we make the most understandable and objective questions, answers and instructions. Unfortunately, this does not always happen. Let’s see three wrong examples:

Greek Referendum for leaving the EU, Greece 2015

Don’t you understand greek?… Really?… Let’s translate :D

The agreements don’t sound very understandable for voters. Isn’t is? do you miss some explanation? People on twitter were making jokes as the following one during those days:

Referendum for change the Constitution. Zambia, 2016

First of all, what is the Article 79? The best thing in this cases is to include at least an overview about that article. See more aboout it:

Zambians still not understand the referendum and how to participate

Referendum question too technical

Brexit, UK 2016

It’s good to have answer different as a yes/no because they are semantic itself, but… what is wrong here? ‘Remain a member of…’ is not following the same structure than the short ‘leave…’. Then, last answer is shorter. A solution could be:

  • Remain in the European Union
  • Leave the European Union.

This was not the only wrong practice in the Brexit referendum, let see the postal voting guide and how they appear to guide the choice of voters:

Do you think the instructions point the user what to answer? it can be…

If you want to know more about this, here you have a good article: Dirty Tricks? Brexiteers Protest Council’s Postal Voting Guide ‘Telling Voters To Vote Remain’

Guidelines for reviewing referendum questions

A referendum question should present the options clearly, simply and in a neutral way. Then it should:

• Be easy to understand

• Be to the point

• Be unambiguous

• Avoid encouraging voters to consider one response more favourably than another

• Avoid misleading voters


Follow it to assess how intelligible a question is:

• Is the question written in plain language? That is, language that:

– Uses short sentences (around 15–20 words)

– Is simple, direct, and concise

– Uses familiar words, and avoids jargon or technical terms that would not be easily understood by most people

• Is the question written in neutral language, avoiding words that suggest a judgement or opinion, either explicitly or implicitly?

• Is the information contained in the question factual, describing the question and the options clearly and accurately?

• Does the question avoid assuming anything about voters’ views?


Scottish referendum 2014, a good example

This is a good case of formulate the question and answers in a simple way.

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