In an election, you have a choice between several candidates, whose proposals you can consider and choose between, and place your X accordingly. If you decide not to do so, by abstaining, you may feel that you are nevertheless making a statement, which might be ‘none of these’ or ‘I don’t care’. Abstention is thus a positive choice.
In a yes/no referendum, you don’t have the luxury of that ‘none of these’ or ‘don’t care’ third option. It’s binary. Your action has to mean ‘yes’ or ‘no’, nothing else.
In the case of our recent referendum, not voting had to mean ‘remain’. What else could it possibly mean? After all, it certainly wasn’t a vote for ‘leave’, and as I’ve shown there was no third choice.
Therefore, the votes of the 28% of the electorate who abstained have to be counted as votes for ‘remain’. So by not turning up, those 28% were saying they were happy for things to ‘remain’ as they are.
This being so, the real result was
Remain: 63% of the electorate.
Leave: 37% of the electorate.