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.
Law and Politics | Law and Society | Legislation
Date of this Version
Craig M. Burnett, Elizabeth Garrett, and Mathew McCubbins, "The Dilemma of Direct Democracy" (March 2010). University of Southern California Legal Studies Working Paper Series. Working Paper 57.