What determines voter choice in EU referendums? Do voters treat referendums as ‘second order elections’ due to the complexity of the question posed to them; turning them in effect to a referendum on whether the voter trusts the government to represent his/her best interests, where the standard of evaluation is voter satisfaction with the economic and political performance of the incumbent government (Franklin, Marsh, and Wlezien 1994; Franklin 2002). Or do voters undertake a utility calculation of the costs and benefits of the issue before them (whether the country should ratify an EU treaty) (Svensson 1994, 2002)? The argument in this paper is that issue-voting is increasingly becoming the prevalent dynamic in EU referendums as voters become increasingly knowledgeable about EU affairs and believe that referendums are important questions worthy of the investment of significant time and effort in understanding the issues. However, in contrast to existing issue-voting arguments, I argue that the calculation of the utility of voting yes/no by voters has two distinct dimensions. Existing models are based upon the idea that voters undertake a utility calculation of the benefits of ratifying an EU treaty (or removing an opt-out), but this does not capture the separate reasoning of voters regarding what happens in the event that the country votes no.
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European Union Studies Association Biennual Conference, 2009