"Ballot" is not originally an English word: It comes from the Venetian word ballotta, or "little ball." For centuries, councils elected the Doge of Venice, who ruled the city-state, with small silver and gold balls. Now Venetians have put their modern equivalent to good use in a bid to declare independence from Italy. And they have a pretty good case to make for restoring their once-mighty republic.
Last week, in a move overshadowed by the international outcry over Russia's annexation of Crimea, Plebiscito.eu, an organization representing a coalition of Venetian nationalist groups, held an unofficial referendum on breaking with Rome. Voters were first asked the main question—"Do you want Veneto to become an independent and sovereign federal republic?"—followed by three sub-questions on membership in the European Union, NATO, and the eurozone. The region's 3.7 million eligible voters used a unique digital ID number to cast ballots online, and organizers estimate that more than 2 million voters ultimately participated in the poll.
On Friday night, people waving red-and-gold flags emblazoned with the Lion of St. Mark filled the square of Treviso, a city in the Veneto region, as the referendum's organizers announced the results: 2,102,969 votes in favor of independence—a whopping 89 percent of all ballots cast—to 257,266 votes against. Venetians also said yes to joining NATO, the EU, and the eurozone. The overwhelming victory surprised even ardent supporters of the initiative, as most polls before the referendum estimated only about 65 percent of the region's voters supported independence.
Luca Zaia, Veneto's regional president and the referendum's most prominent supporter, echoed the sentiments of separatist movements across Europe when he declared that international law allowed "the right to self-determination." But whether Italian law allows it is a different matter. "The 'digital plebiscite' has no legal value and it cannot force anyone to do anything," claimed Mario Bertolissi, an Italian constitutional scholar. "In short, it has no practical consequences." But with Scotland voting on independence from the U.K. in September and Catalonia weighing an unauthorized November referendum to leave Spain, it's worth watching how Veneto's independence campaign plays out.