While some 66 percent of those who voted on Sunday were in favour of separating Venice's 'floating' centre from the mainland borough of Mestre, turnout was less than 22 percent.
At least 50 percent of voters would have had to take part for the result to count.
Barely 45,000 residents out of more than 206,000 who were eligible to vote participated, Venezia Today reports, giving this latest referendum the lowest turnout of all five the city has held on the matter in the past 40 years.
➡️Hanno votato sì 29.477 votanti, pari al 66,11%
➡️Hanno votato no 15.109 votanti pari al 33,89%
?La mappa georeferenziata del voto pic.twitter.com/BBe0mJsb2L
— Comune di Venezia (@comunevenezia) December 2, 2019
The vexed issue of whether the central islands of Venice should be governed separately from larger, more residential and industrial Mestre has been up for debate since at least 1979, the year the city first called a vote on it.
Residents rejected the motion then and again in 1989 and 1994, while another referendum in 2003 failed to reach 50 percent turnout.
How Mestre municipality would look (in red) if it were to separate from old Venice. Screenshot: Google Maps
Supporters argue that the two halves of the city, which were joined into a single municipality under Benito Mussolini in 1926, face such different problems that administering them separately would benefit both.
Central Venice has seen its permanent population shrink as the number of visitors to the Unesco World Heritage city swells. Preserving the islands from mass tourism and increasingly extreme weather is an urgent priority, with residents complaining that corruption and mismanagement have delayed flood defences and allowed huge cruise ships to continue squeezing into the fragile lagoon.
- Venetians protest cruise ships and corruption after historic flooding
- What happened to Venice's planned flood barriers?
- 'Venice is on its knees': Venetians angry after record flooding devastates city
Meanwhile post-industrial Mestre has seen rapid development of large hotels and other tourist infrastructure aimed at travellers looking for a cheap place to stay before day-tripping into central Venice. Those who support its autonomy complain that as the poor cousin to the historic centre, the mainland suffers from a lack of investment and services for its residents, who significantly outnumber those living on the central islands.
Though the campaign to split the city failed to convince voters, turnout was noticeably higher on the islands than on the mainland, which pro-autonomy campaigners said was a sign that the city was divided on the issue.
“Venetians showed good sense in the face of this separation nonsense,” said former mayor Massimo Cacciari, who like current mayor Luigi Brugnaro opposed the referendum.
“Venice and Mestre are indivisible. Let's hope that this time will be the last, though madness never ends.”