There are two false narratives in the post-referendum debate.
On the “Yes” side there is the claim that the scale of their success is a game-changer and should lead to full liberalisation.
On the “No” side, there are claims that the poll was rigged.
A comparison of this referendum with the same-sex marriage vote would refute both claims.
Firstly, the Yes vote was highly predictable once you accept that (a) almost no-one who said Yes to same-sex marriage would vote No to repealing the Eight Amendment and (b) turn-out must be higher.
There is no logical reason why someone who voted Yes in 2015 couldn’t switch to No this time (or vice-versa): there is no longer any link between marriage and child-bearing in Ireland so the voter could regard these two referendums are logically independent. In reality, however, we all know those who voted Yes in 2015 voted overwhelmingly Yes this time (and vice-versa). In terms of turnout, it was also predictable that an issue which had been a battleground for 35 years would generate a higher turnout. In that sense, the increased turnout was modest: 64.13% compared to 60.52% in 2015.
Bear in mind that if the only Yes voters this time were those who voted Yes in 2015, there would still have been a majority of 62.2% assuming the No vote just held up. So the “surprise” Yes victory boils down to an additional 4.2% percentage points and this can be explained in one word, demographics.
Paradoxically, our voters are getting older: the numbers of over-65s have increased from 610.3K to 649.9K since 2015 i.e. almost 40K more in that age bracket. At the same time, the number of young people is stagnating; 276.3K of 20 to 24 year-olds now which is only 1.2K extra since 2015.
Why then did the “liberal youth” prevail over the growing numbers of older voters?
Because the voters who were aged 61 to 64 in 2015 didn’t switch their vote simply because they joined the over-65s while the youngest voters reflected the Yes predisposition of their peers who had voted in 2015. The problem for “No” can be put brutally, they are dying out. Of 68,133 deaths in the past three years, 65,265 were over 65.
An additional 145,875 voters are on the register compared to 2015 which is consistent with the current, historically low, numbers of young people reaching voting age and a delay in removing the most recently deceased (a few of whom may nonetheless have voted!)
Of course, not all the new voters went to the polls and voted Yes but, unlike in ordinary elections, young voters seem to participate at least as much as the population in general and exit polls indicate they were heavily “Yes”. I would estimate that out of the 146K new voters on the register, there were at least 90K additional Yes voters casting their ballots for the first time out. Higher turnout accounts for 135K additional Yes votes (i.e. 4% of the 3,367K electorate) and you have 225K more Yes votes, without persuading any “No” voters to switch.
There were 1,429,981 Yes votes this time, which is 228K more than for same-sex marriage. My estimates based on two factors (young voters and higher turnout) explain practically all of this additional Yes vote.
The other side of the ledger is even more remarkable and I don’t think anyone has highlighted it. Despite the higher turnout and the nationwide organisation of the pro-life campaign, there were fewer No votes this time than in 2015 i.e. this time there were 723632 No votes, and this is 10,688 fewer than in 2015. I don’t believe this decline is due to “switching”. I think it is mortality - the true Catholics amongst us are a dying breed.
So, the Yes side can’t claim an extraordinary victory: they simply got out the youth vote. On the other side, the No claims of voting rigging don’t wash unless you think the 2015 vote was also rigged (in which case, your tin foil hat needs further adjustment). The youth vote is powerful but I think when it comes to the many issues that might create a generational divide (pensions, housing, health), the older voters will protect their interests.