LONDON — This is the story of a strange election in a small Massachusetts city called Fall River that, believe or not, helps explain Britain’s week of Brexit chaos and its uncertain future.
Fall River’s saga began in October, when its then-26-year-old mayor, Jasiel Correia, was arrested on charges of defrauding investors and falsifying tax returns. He had raised funding to develop a marketing app called SnoOwl but, according to prosecutors, instead spent $230,000 of investors’ money on jewelry, clothes, a Mercedes and his successful mayoral campaign.
Mr. Correia contested the charges and refused to step down. So some citizens of Fall River got enough signatures to force a recall election, which was held on Tuesday.
The recall election was an absolute walloping for the mayor. About 61 percent voted to remove him from office. Only 4,911 people, or 38 percent, voted to keep him in office. It was a clear popular mandate.
But there was a twist. The ballot had two questions: one on whether to recall Mr. Correia, and another on whom to replace him with. Five people ran to fill the mayor’s seat — Mr. Correia among them.
It might seem like the height of hubris for a mayor under federal indictment to run for re-election even as he is being recalled. But whether he knew it or not, he was onto something.
Mr. Correia received 4,808 votes in the balloting on who should be the next mayor — almost exactly the number he had gotten on the recall question. But with the other four candidates splitting the rest of the vote, that was enough to put him ahead.
Yes, that’s right: The same election that removed Mr. Correia by a nearly two-to-one ratio also returned him to office.
Democracy can be a strange system sometimes.
Which brings us back to Brexit.
Part of what’s confounding Parliament’s votes on how or when to leave the European Union is that, as in Fall River, British governance is shaped by two different elections that produced two different results.
The first of those elections, the 2016 referendum on whether to leave the European Union, recorded a slight majority of voters choosing to leave and a slight minority choosing to stay.
The second, a general election held in 2017, appeared to send a different message. The ruling Conservative party, whose members had championed Brexit, lost seats. But the opposition Labour party did not win enough to take power.
The results seemed to tell lawmakers that they do not have a mandate to follow the Conservative party. And they told Conservatives that they do not have a mandate to obey their prime minister.
That muddle is on full display in the votes in Parliament.
On the one hand, British lawmakers believe that, because of the 2016 vote, they have a mandate to make Brexit happen, no matter what.
But because British voters did not express a clear majority for any specific vision in the 2017 general election, British lawmakers cannot form a clear majority for any one plan on how to withdraw from the European Union.
Mrs. May’s plan failed by a triple-digit margin when it was put to a vote in Parliament. A “no-deal” Brexit, favored by hard-liners, also failed. And there is not a majority for other options, like a second referendum or simply revoking Brexit.
Capturing public sentiment and converting it into governance is a messy, imperfect science. The way you design an election can shape the outcome just as much as the actual choices made by voters. Sometimes more.
That’s why the ballot in Fall River delivered one message from the public that Mr. Correia should pack his bags, and another that he should sit back down at his desk.
Democracy is built on the notion that any election outcome reflects the will of the people, and therefore must be respected. But as Fall River shows, that notion is, to some degree, a myth.
Elections test only what you design them to test. And tests of public sentiment becomes less scientific — and, frankly, less real — the more complex the question.
Fall River tried to ask its voters “Do you want to remove the mayor and, if so, whom do you want to replace him with?” But that question turned out to be too complicated. And the outcome clearly does not actually reflect public desire — since most people voted to recall the mayor.
Britain has been trying to test a vastly more complex question: “Do you want to leave the European Union and, if so, under what timeline and terms?”
The 2016 referendum corralled all of the many different options for leaving — soft Brexit, hard Brexit, Norway-style Brexit, Canada-style Brexit, Brexit under only certain conditions, Brexit under any conditions — under a single option: “Leave.”
As a result, the most popular plan, to remain in the European Union, narrowly lost. Much the way Mayor Correia is still in City Hall, despite the clear will of the people.
In a world where we acknowledge that elections can be imperfect and even arbitrary tests of public sentiment, we might look at Britain’s two votes and conclude that there is no majority consensus for any single Brexit. The past year of Parliamentary chaos, with lawmakers unable to coalesce around a plan, bears this out. We may also conclude that the most popular option is to remain in the European Union, which polls support.
But that is not the world that we live in. In this world, the mythology of elections says that they are perfect, infallible expressions of the people’s will, and their results must be obeyed.
In Britain, that means lawmakers are bending over backward to find a public mandate for one plan or another when in fact none actually exists.
So Parliament is deadlocked and, unable to pass anything, drifting toward a “no-deal” Brexit. That is not only the least-popular option — it may also devastate the British economy.
That seems an awfully high cost for maintaining the myth of perfect elections, but it’s the choice being made.
Orignially published in NYT.