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24 June 2016

How much impact has voter turnout had on the EU referendum result?

The 72 per cent turnout was higher than the general election, but lower than the Scottish referendum. 

By Hasan Chowdhury

In a historic turn of events, the Remain campaign’s bid to keep Britain in the European Union has been surmounted by a decisive vote to leave – resulting in the lowest pound value since 1985, increased market volatility, and the announced resignation from David Cameron.

Many will now argue that the call for the referendum was unnecessary, a ploy for disentangling in-house Tory conflicts – but it seems that a large part of the outcome has been swayed by disenchanted voters who saw the referendum as an opportunity to have their say. What has resulted is a voter turnout higher than anyone could have imagined.

Undeterred by the poor weather, 33.6 million people headed to their polling stations on Thursday – a number equating to 72.2 per cent of the total authorised voters in the electorate. The Telegraph reports that areas where an overwhelming proportion of voters were represented by the older demographic of the population experienced higher turnouts than anywhere else.

Turnout and results shocked pundits nationally: 62 per cent of Scotland decided to remain despite a turnout of just over 50 per cent, while the only other regions deciding to remain were London and Northern Ireland. They represented three out of the four regions with lowest turnout, with regions such as the South East and South West of England (the two areas with the highest turnout) voting in favour of leave.

But how does this turnout compare to previous elections?

The 1975 referendum (the first of its kind), led by the then Labour government’s leader Harold Wilson, also focused on Britain’s membership of the European Union (then known as the European Economic Community).

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Despite the current government’s echoing of Wilson’s Labour turmoil, the 1975 referendum saw 25,903,194 people turn up, with 17,378,581 of those people voting in favour of remaining a part of Europe. It gave the 1975 remain campaign a landslide victory of 67.1 per cent, but turnout was significantly lower than the EU referendum of 2016; 64.6 per cent of those eligible to vote came out to have their say.

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The highest general election turnout in recent memory was in 1992, which saw 77.7 per cent of the electorate vote for a Conservative victory – a win which confounded the public and politicians alike at the time. With the EU referendum’s turnout representing a figure just shy of the 1992 general election, it seems there’s a correlation between turnout and surprise in public opinion.

The most recent general election, in 2015, was decided by a count comprised of 66.1 per cent of eligible voters. The results of the EU referendum show that Britain’s ties to Europe, shaped by opinions on economic stability, immigration and security, were ones which the public felt should be severed; the results indicate that those in favour of leaving felt their concerns would be better dealt with from a referendum outcome in their favour than any resulting general election outcome. It highlights just how divided the UK has been on its role within the now-27 member state European Union.

Meanwhile the Scottish referendum of 2014 saw a voter turnout of 84.6 per cent, one of the highest recorded turnouts for decades and saw a stronger “no” win than anticipated. The Alternative Vote referendum of 2011, which centred on the way MPs are elected, also had a turnout greater than expected, with 41 per cent of voters turning out to steer the outcome towards “no”.