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TheDilemmaofDirectDemocracySSRN

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Prepared for the Lowenstein Festschrift March 1, 2010 The Dilemma of Direct Democracy Craig M. Burnett, Elizabeth Garrett, and Mathew D. McCubbins Abstract One of the oldest axioms about human decision-making is that knowledge is power. To be more specific, knowledge may enable people to make reasoned – that is, welfare improving – decisions. To determine whether this adage applies to voters with respect to ballot measures, we test four hypotheses. We find first that voters who know certain basic facts about an initiative vote similarly to voters who have knowledge of an information shortcut related to that initiative. We also show that many voters employ a “defensive no” strategy when faced with complex policy choices on the ballot. This reaction means that voters whose stated policy preferences would otherwise suggest they would favor the “no” position cast their ballots with less error than do people who favor the “yes” position. These hypotheses are well supported in the literature. Contrary to two of our hypotheses, however, we find no support for the expectation that better-informed voters, whether armed with certain factual knowledge or deploying well publicized voting cues, are more likely to make reasoned decisions than those who are, by our measure, uninformed. In other words, voters appear to make reasoned choices regardless of their ability to answer our knowledge questions or their knowledge of shortcuts regarding a ballot measure. We argue that existing theories of voting behavior may be inadequate for understanding voting on ballot measures and that more empirical research is therefore necessary. We conclude with some preliminary policy recommendations that could help improve the information environment for initiatives and referenda by providing key information on the ballot.Prepared for the Lowenstein Festschrift March 1, 2010 1 The Dilemma of Direct Democracy Craig M. Burnett, Elizabeth Garrett, and Mathew D. McCubbins* I. Introduction Democracy demands much of its citizens. Democracy asks them to hold office, to assess facts as jurors, to provide testimony in public hearings, to select dozens of public officials at all levels of government, and to approve public policy directly through popular initiatives, constitutional amendments, and bond measures. While there are questions about the ability of citizens to perform all of these activities, there is particular consternation regarding vote choice, which is fundamental to a well-functioning democracy.1 Although scholars have long studied voters’ decisions about candidates to determine whether they can live up to the demands of democracy, Daniel Lowenstein has been a pioneer in the study of direct democracy. Much of his work over the past three decades has focused on institutions that govern the process of qualifying initiatives for the ballot, ballot measure campaigns, and voting on propositions.2 His empirical * Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Political Science, University of California, San Diego; Frances R. and John J. Duggan Professor of Law, Political Science, and Public Policy, University of Southern California; and Provost Professor of Business, Law and Political Economy, University of Southern California. We appreciate the research help of Paul Moorman of the USC Law Library and research assistants Maya Herr-Anderson, Jonder Ho, Kloe Kmiec, David Lourie and A.J. Merton, as well as helpful comments from Bruce Cain, Vladimir Kogan, John Shockley and Bob Stern. We also wish to thank Gary Jacobson for providing us access to the 2008 Cooperative Congressional Election Study. Professor Garrett currently serves on the Fair Political Practices Commission, but the views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of other commissioners or FPPC staff. 1 See, e.g., Angus Campbell, Philip E. Converse, Warren E. Miller & David E. Stokes, The American Voter (1960); Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (1922); Philip E. Converse, The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics, in Ideology and Discontent (D.E. Apter ed., 1964); Larry M. Bartels, Uninformed Votes: Information Effects in Presidential Elections, 40 Am. Pol. Sci. Rev. 194 (1996). 2 See, e.g., Daniel Hays Lowenstein, Campaign Spending and Ballot Propositions: Recent Experience, Public Choice Theory and the First Amendment, 29 UCLA L. Rev. 505 (1982); Daniel H. Lowenstein, California Initiatives and the Single-Subject Rule, 30 UCLA L. Rev. 936 (1983).March 1, 2010 2work has shown how and when voters can make reasoned policy choices.3 Lowenstein has argued that a “consideration of the rules of the initiative game is central to the great normative and policy questions surrounding the process.”4 He has also forcefully articulated the concern that voters who rely on voting cues, provided by campaign communications such as slate mailers, are susceptible to manipulation by savvy political consultants hired by moneyed interests.5 Lowenstein’s empirical analysis grounds his proposals to reform direct democracy so that initiatives and referenda can better serve the goal of empowering ordinary citizens and grassroots movements.6 Drawing on Lowenstein’s work, as well as on other scholarship assessing voting shortcuts, we seek to measure empirically what people know when they vote on a typical California initiative. Lupia’s influential paper on voting cues and voter competence in initiative elections has shown that voters can learn from endorsements publicized during initiative campaigns.7 Lupia studied five initiatives concerning auto insurance reform appearing on a single ballot in 1988; aggressive and well-funded campaigns involving the insurance industry, trial lawyers, and consumer activists preceded the votes on these measures. Lupia found that voters who knew the insurance industry’s position on the initiatives demonstrated voting patterns similar to those voters who had factual knowledge of the ballot measures. Voters who knew nothing about the initiatives, however, displayed different voting patterns. 3 See, e.g., Shanto Iyengar, Daniel H. Lowenstein & Seth Masket, The Stealth Campaign: Experimental Studies of Slate Mail in California, 17 J. L. & Pol. 295 (2001). 4 Caroline J. Tolbert, Daniel H. Lowenstein & Todd Donovan, Election Law and Rules for Using Initiatives, in Citizens as Legislators: Direct Democracy in the United States 27, 53 (S. Bowler, T. Donovan & C.J.


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