What is an intelligible question?

On 5th July 2015 the Greek electorate went to the polls to vote on the following referendum question:

greek referendum

It would be safe to say that in the UK, this 74-word question would not have passed our referendum question intelligibility test.

By law, the Electoral Commission must consider the wording of referendum questions and report our views on their intelligibility as soon as is reasonably practical after the question is introduced to Parliament. Fortunately we had longer than the nine days between the announcement of the referendum and the actual poll, as in Greece, to look at the following question included in the 2015 European Union Referendum Bill:

The question in the 2015 Bill is: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?’

With response options of: ‘Yes’ / ‘No’

We were also able to draw on our experience, accumulated over the years of assessing 11 other referendum questions as well as our established question assessment process, which uses qualitative research involving a wide range of people across the UK as well as public consultation, in order to make a recommendation to Parliament.

Again, this is familiar territory as we had previously provided two question wordings for Parliament to consider (as part our assessment carried out at the time of the 2013 Private Member’s Bill on an EU referendum), one of which is the question currently included in the 2015 Bill.

What is an intelligible question?

Our guidelines say that a referendum question should be clear and simple, that is, easy to understand; to the point; and not ambiguous. It should also be neutral, which means it should not encourage voters to consider one response more favourably than another or mislead voters.

The scope of our responsibility to give advice on ‘intelligibility’ goes further than simply looking at whether people understand the language used in the referendum question. Where we have a statutory duty to give views on referendums in the UK, we have powers to suggest alternative drafting or to offer suggestions as to how a question might be reframed.

Alternative versions of questions are used in our research testing to allow us to explore potential changes to the wording and see whether or not they improve the question, in terms of making it easier for people to understand and answer and its neutrality. This provides an evidence base for any recommendations for change we may want to make.

We have rigorously tested the proposed question with voters and received views from potential campaigners, academics and plain language experts.

What are we recommending?

Following our assessment process, the Commission has recommended that the question should be amended to:

‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’

The responses would be ‘Remain a member of the European Union’ / ‘Leave the European Union’.

This was the question the Commission previously recommended if Parliament decides not to retain a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ question. We concluded that Parliament should carefully consider whether to retain a question with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answer options taking into account perceived biases with it.

While we found that voters understood the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ question in the Bill, some campaigners and members of the public felt the wording is not balanced and there was a perception of bias. The alternative question we have recommended addresses this perception.

Although we have previously recommended both a ‘yes’/’no’ and a non-‘yes’/’no’ question for use at a referendum on EU membership, in this assessment we heard clearer views, particularly from potential campaigners to leave the EU, about their concerns regarding the proposed ‘yes’ and ‘no’ question.

There were two main reasons why consultation respondents and research participants viewed the question as biased – it only sets out the ‘remain’ option in the question, and the ‘yes’ response is for the status quo. Consequently, while the question is not significantly leading, we have concerns about the perception that this question will encourage voters to consider one response more favourably than another.

This perception of bias raises concerns about the potential legitimacy, in the eyes of those campaigning to leave and some members of the public, of the referendum result – particularly if there was a vote to remain a member of the EU. Our assessment suggests that it is possible to ask a question which would not cause comparable concerns about neutrality, whilst also being easily understood.

What happens next?

Our latest assessment, which builds on our previous work, has allowed us to confidently provide a constructive recommendation. We hope this will be helpful to Parliament when it makes the final decision about the question to be asked of voters.

Phil Thompson
Head of Research

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2 Responses to What is an intelligible question?

  1. John W Lewis says:

    The “remain or leave?” version of the EU membership referendum question is much better, and I am surprised that an unbiased Electoral Commision can support the “remain: yes or no?” version.
    Yes/no can be considered biased because the alternative is not described in the question.
    Also, whether or not yes/no is biased, it is potentially confusing because, although the message is clear, the meaning is not. “No” usually implies inaction, to preserve the current status, in this case to remain; whereas “yes” usually implies action, to change the current status, in this case to leave.
    This is particularly confusing because that was the meaning in the recent Scottish independence referendum: “yes” meant leave the UK and “no” meant remain in the UK.
    I’ll be interested in your answers to these points.

    • Hi John – glad you agree that the ‘remain / leave’ formulation works best. You may have seen today that the Government has also agreed with us and that amendments will be tabled in parliament to give effect to our recommendation. If you want to read more about why we recommended this question you can do so in the full research report we have published here

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