, Volume 33, Issue 1, pp 3-25

When Ballot Issues Matter: Social Issue Ballot Measures and Their Impact on Turnout

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Abstract

Evidence for whether direct democracy positively affects turnout is mixed, which can be attributed to a theoretical ambiguity about the proper way to measure the institution. The most common measure, a count of the number of initiatives on the ballot, is incomplete, because it unrealistically assumes that all propositions have an equal impact on turnout and focuses exclusively on initiatives. These deficiencies are addressed by looking at the issue content of all ballot measures. I find that the number of social issues on the ballot, because they are highly salient, tap into existing social cleavages, help to overcome barriers to voting, and fit within a framework of expressive choice, had a positive impact on turnout for all midterm and some presidential elections since 1992. In contrast to previous findings, however, the total number of propositions on the ballot was rarely associated with an increase in turnout. I discuss the implications of these findings in the conclusion.

A previous version of this paper was presented at the 2009 Midwest Political Science Association Annual National Conference.