If your goal is to find out what someone is thinking, there is nothing more important than the questions you choose to ask. It is impossible to separate the data you get back from the tool (the question) that you used to extract it.
In a previous post we pointed out that polls can be imagined as “virtual elections.” In an election, the format of the question being put to the voter is of the utmost importance. In some countries, as in Canada or the United Kingdom, a voter is offered a choice of names to send to parliament to elect a government. In Spain or Israel, the citizen chooses the party, which has chosen the representatives in advance. And in the United States, voters have the chance to choose the head of state directly, but only through the electoral college.
In a referendum, when a whole population is invited to make a collective decision, the choice of the question to be asked is itself an intensely political decision. One famous example is the question asked in the 1980 Quebec referendum. While there was a strong pro-independence party in power, they wanted to emphasize that the result of the vote would not be a unilateral declaration of independence, hence the following question:
“The Government of Quebec has made public its proposal to negotiate a new agreement with the rest of Canada, based on the equality of nations; this agreement would enable Quebec to acquire the exclusive power to make its laws, levy its taxes and establish relations abroad — in other words, sovereignty — and at the same time to maintain with Canada an economic association including a common currency; any change in political status resulting from these negotiations will only be implemented with popular approval through another referendum; on these terms, do you give the Government of Quebec the mandate to negotiate the proposed agreement between Quebec and Canada?”
Not the most straightforward option. After another referendum in 1995, with another question that the Canadian federalists (read: anti-Quebec independence) felt was ambiguous, a Clarity Act was enacted, which declared that no future Canadian government would negotiate Quebec independence unless a “clear question” had been asked in a referendum. Of course, this itself is problematic, as who can decide what a “clear question really is?
This challenge remains with us today. In 2014, Scotland will hold a referendum to decide whether to become independent after 307 years of union with England. And of course, the issue of what question to ask is extremely controversial. Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, proposes to ask Scots, “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” But apparently, certain opposition (and anti-independence) politicians believe that this question is too neutral, and does not mention the upheaval that might ensue from a Yes vote. A fascinating conundrum.
The case of the referendum question serves to illustrate one key point. The power wielded by the person or group that gets to decide what question should be asked is immense. When the right to ask questions is held by a few, the extracted data will always be distorted. The only way to counter this is to broaden the ability to ask questions, to spread this power around. The power to ask questions should always be in the people’s hands.