Advocates claim that when citizens can make law through voter initiatives, they become better citizens. This paper puts that claim into context. Using data from the Current Population Survey November Supplement and American National Election Studies for each election between 1978 and 2004, it demonstrates that voter initiatives in the American states have limited effects on turnout, and on political knowledge and efficacy. Initiatives increase voters’ likelihood of turning out to vote in six of seven midterm elections under study, but show no effect on turnout at presidential elections. For knowledge among non-voters and for political efficacy among all respondents, the results show null effects; for knowledge among voters, they indicate modest effects.
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The initiative states are Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. See Waters (2003) for complete rules by state. Initiatives are distinct from referendums in that citizens may place the former on the ballot themselves.
See also Gilens et al. (2001).
Closing dates coded from The Book of the States (1978–2004).
Because it treats the differences among points as constant while the distances among items on our scales are unknown, ordinary least squares regression is inappropriate for scales such as these (Greene 2000, 875).
Although respondents over-report whether they voted, it seems highly unlikely that the presence or absence of voter initiatives would affect whether they lie to pollsters. The best predictor of falsely reporting having voted is education, and controls should negate any such effects (Silver et al. 1986).
Where possible, the scale includes the Vice President, Speaker of the House, and Chief Justice. The 2000 ANES asked about substantially more obscure figures, however, so the names are Trent Lott, William Rehnquist, and Janet Reno.
Specifically, we use the “sandwich” estimator, commonly referred to as the Huber–White estimator (Huber 1967; White 1980), adjusted for clustering (Rogers 1993). When using CPS data, this clustering procedure substantially raises the standard errors on state-level variables as it effectively reduces degrees of freedom from 80,000 (or so) respondents to 48 states. Since the ANES has a smaller overall sample size, and fewer observations from each state, the standard errors change little. Regardless, the substantive pattern of results remains the same in models with and without robust standard errors.
The number of simulations for both the vector of parameters and each quantity of interest is set at 1,000. All analyses were conducted in the R statistical environment, version 2.6.2, using code modified from the Zelig package. Results on replication may differ slightly due to estimation uncertainty in the simulation procedure.
More specifically, for each respondent in each model, 1,000 simulations estimate first differences for changes in the initiative variable, while all other variables are set to their observed values. Next, we average these draws. From these individual respondent estimates, we compute a mean and variance for the overall treatment effect.
While scholars have added various statewide controls to models of initiatives’ effect on citizenship, we find their effects to be strikingly modest. In order to keep the focus on initiatives, we eschew statewide controls in the figures shown here. Nevertheless, these results remain robust to adding a series of state-level variables. We consistently find zero effect in presidential elections, although the effects at midterm look substantially weaker with controls for state political culture and for the percentage of residents 25 and over with a college education than with controls for the state’s Black and Hispanic population, or no statewide controls. Without controls, and with controls for Black and Hispanic populations, the mean effect of initiatives from simulating the full change in initiatives, averaged across the seven midterm elections, is 0.08. For political culture, however, the figure is 0.05 and for share of residents with a high-school education 0.07. Similarly, when statewide controls are added to the models below for knowledge and efficacy, results change only minimally. Political culture coded from Sharkansky (1969). State-level education and race/ethnicity coded from U.S. Bureau of the Census (1982, 2006a, b).
The results are nearly identical without controls for party ID; in all but three elections, the average treatment effects differ by less than 0.01.
Appropriately designed experiments could gain traction on this notion.
To follow the distinction introduced in Fig. 3, the null effects hold for voters and non-voters alike; the average treatment effect is positive in 26 of the 52 questions for voters, and in 25 questions for non-voters.
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We thank Mark Smith for providing data, and Zoltan Hajnal, Gary King, Kay Schlozman, Caroline Tolbert, anonymous referees, and participants in the Harvard American Politics Research Workshop and the 2006 Midwest Political Science Meetings for helpful comments. Authors’ names listed alphabetically.
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List of CPS and ANES Variables
Turnout: 1 = voted, 0 otherwise.
ANES 880576, 900279, 925601, 940601, 961074, 980303, 001241, 025016, 045018X.
CPS 1978 Q42, 1980 Q30, 1982 Q31, 1984 Q33/43, 1986–1988 Q34, 1990–1992 S34, 1994 S3, 1996–1998 S1, 2000–2004 PES1.
Knowledge About Public Figures
Four-item scale, with 1 = correct, 0 = otherwise, for each person:
“What job or political office does he/she now hold?” Dick Cheney (ANES 045163); Tom Foley ANES 900401, 925919, 941009); Newt Gingrich (ANES 961192, 980478); Al Gore (ANES 941006, 961189, 980475); Dennis Hastert (ANES 045162); Ted Kennedy (ANES 880871); Trent Lott (ANES 001447); Dan Quayle (ANES 900395, 925916); William Rehnquist (ANES 880873, 900397, 925917, 941007, 961190, 980476, 001450, 045165); Janet Reno (ANES 001456); Jim Wright (ANES 880877.
Knowledge about Parties’ Ideological Placement
Four-item scale, with 1 = correct, 0 = otherwise, for each person:
“Where would you place the Democratic/Republican party on this scale?” The following questions ask respondents to place the parties on scales (with seven items, except for abortion, which has four); we code respondents as knowledgeable if they correctly locate the parties’ relative positions.
“Here is a seven-point scale on which the political views that people might hold are arranged from extremely liberal” (Dem) “to extremely conservative” (GOP).
ANES 880234, 880235, 900413, 900414, 923517, 923518, 960379, 960380, 043090, 043091.
“Government should provide fewer services even in areas such as health and education in order to reduce spending” (GOP) to “Government should provide many more services even if it means an increase in spending” (Dem).
ANES 880307, 880308, 900456, 900457, 923704, 923705, 940944, 940945, 980468, 980469, 000574, 000580, 043140, 043141.
“The government in Washington should see to it that every person has a job and a good standard of living” (Dem) to “The government should just let each person get ahead on their own” (GOP).
ANES 880328, 880329, 923721, 923722, 940934, 940935, 000634, 000640.
“Government should greatly decrease defense spending” (Dem) to “Government should greatly increase defense spending” (GOP).
ANES 900443, 900444, 000602, 000607.
“A government insurance plan which would cover all medical expenses for everyone” (Dem) to “All medical expenses should be paid by individuals, and through private insurance plans like Blue Cross or other company paid plans” (GOP).
ANES 940954, 940955.
“By law, abortion should never be permitted” (GOP) to “By law, a woman should always be able to obtain an abortion as a matter of personal choice” (Dem).
ANES 960517, 960518, 980509, 980510, 045138, 045139.
“Much tougher government regulations on business in order to protect the environment” (Dem) to “Regulations to protect environment already too much of a burden on business” (GOP).
ANES 960541, 960542, 980501, 980502.
“People like me don’t have any say about what the government does.” In 1988, 1990, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, and 2004: 1 = Agree Strongly, 2 = Agree Somewhat, 3 = Neither Agree nor Disagree, 4 = Disagree Somewhat, 5 = Disagree Strongly In 2002: 1 = Agree 2 = Neither Agree nor Disagree, 3 = Disagree.
ANES 880937, 900509, 926102, 941038, 961245, 980525, 001528, 025173, 045202.
“Public officials don’t care much what people like me think.” In 1988, 1990, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, and 2004: 1 = Agree Strongly, 2 = Agree Somewhat, 3 = Neither Agree nor Disagree, 4 = Disagree Somewhat, 5 = Disagree Strongly. In 2002: 1 = Agree 2 = Neither Agree nor Disagree, 3 = Disagree.
ANES 880938, 900508, 926103, 941037, 961244, 980524, 001527, 025172, 045201.
“Over the years, how much attention do you feel the government pays to what people think when it decides what to do—a good deal, some, or not much?” 1 = Not Much, 2 = Some, 3 = A Good Deal.
ANES 880959, 926124, 961255, 980522, 001538, 025178, 045203.
“How much do you feel that having elections makes the government pay attention to what the people think—a good deal, some, or not much?” 1 = Not Much, 2 = Some, 3 = A Good Deal. ANES 880960, 926125, 961256, 980521, 001539, 025178, 045204.
“Sometimes politics and government seem so complicated that a person like me can’t really understand what’s going on.” 1 = Agree Strongly, 2 = Agree Somewhat, 3 = Neither Agree nor Disagree, 4 = Disagree Somewhat, 5 = Disagree Strongly.
ANES 880939, 900510, 926104, 941039, 961246, 980523, 001529.
“I feel that I have a pretty good understanding of the important political issues facing our country.”
1 = Disagree Strongly, 2 = Disagree Somewhat, 3 = Neither Agree nor Disagree, 4 = Agree Somewhat, 5 = Agree Strongly.
ANES 880940, 926105, 001516.
“I consider myself well-qualified to participate in politics.” In 1988, 1992, and 2000: 1 = Disagree Strongly, 2 = Disagree Somewhat, 3 = Neither Agree nor Disagree, 4 = Agree Somewhat, 5 = Agree Strongly. In 2002: 1 = Disagree 2 = Neither Agree nor Disagree, 3 = Agree.
ANES 880941, 926106, 001517, 025169.
“I feel that I could do as good a job in public office as most other people.” 1 = Disagree Strongly, 2 = Disagree Somewhat, 3 = Neither Agree nor Disagree, 4 = Agree Somewhat, 5 = Agree Strongly.
ANES 880942, 926107, 001518.
“I think that I am better informed about politics and government than most people.” In 1988, 1992, and 2000: 1 = Disagree Strongly, 2 = Disagree Somewhat, 3 = Neither Agree nor Disagree, 4 = Agree Somewhat, 5 = Agree Strongly. In 2002: 1 = Disagree 2 = Neither Agree nor Disagree, 3 = Agree.
ANES 880943, 926108, 001519, 025170.
Strong Democrat: 1 = Strong Democrat (party ID = 0), 0 otherwise.
Strong Republican: 1 = Strong Republican (party ID = 6), 0 otherwise.
Pure Independent: 1 = Pure Independent (party ID = 3), 0 otherwise.
ANES 880274, 900320, 923634, 946055, 960420, 980339, 000523, 023038x, 043116.
ANES recoded age; 880417, 900552, 923903, 941203, 960605, 980572, 000908, 023126x, 043250.
CPS actual respondent age; 1978 Q27, 1980-1982 Q18C, 1984-1992, Q18, 1994-1998 AGEVR, 2000-2004 PRTAGE.
Female: 1 = female respondent, 0 otherwise.
ANES 880413, 900547, 924201, 941434, 960066, 980672, 001029, 023153, 043411.
CPS female = 2 on variable all years; 1978 Q30, 1980–1982 Q18E, 1984–1992 Q18G, 1994–1998 SEX, 2000–2004 PESEX.
Education: 1 = 8 grades or less; 2 = some high school; 3 = high school diploma or equivalency test; 4 = some college, no degree; 5 = junior or community college degree; 6 = BA level degree; 7 = advanced degree.
ANES as coded on variable; 880422, 900557, 923908, 941209, 960610, 980577, 000913, 022026, 043254.
CPS 1 = 1–7 on variable for 1978–1988, 0–6 for 1990, 31–33 for 1992–2004; 2 = 8–9 for 1978–1988, 7–8 for 1990, 34 for 1992–2004; 3 = 10–12 for 1978–1988, 9–11 for 1990, 35–38 for 1992–2004; 4 = 13 for 1978–1988, 12 for 1990, 39 for 1992–2004; 5 = 14–16 for 1978–1988, 13–15 for 1990, 40–42 for 1992–2004; 6 = 17 for 1978–1988, 16 for 1990, 43 for 1992–2004; 7 = 18–19 for 1978–1988, 17–18 for 1990, 44–46 for 1992–2004; 1978 Q31, 1980–1982 Q18F, 1984–1992 Q18H, 1994–1998 EDUCA, 2000–2004 PEEDUCA.
Black: 1 = black respondent, 0 otherwise.
ANES black = 2 on variable for 1988–1998, black = 10 for 2000, black = 1 or 12–15 for 2002, black = 10 or 12–15 for 2004; 880412, 900549, 924202, 941435, 960067, 980673, 001006A, 023150, 043299.
CPS black = 2 on variable for 1978–2002, black = 2, 6, 10–12, 15–16, 19 for 2004; 1978 Q27, 1980–1982 Q18H, 1984–1992 Q18J, 1994–1998 RACE; 2000–2004 PERACE.
Hispanic: 1 = Hispanic respondent; 0 otherwise.
ANES Hispanic = 1 on 880540, 900676, 924122, 941418, 960708, 980659, 001012, 023151, 043305 and/or Hispanic = 1–7 for 1988–2000, 2004 on 880541, 900677, 924123, 941419, 960709, 980660, 001013, 043306.
CPS Hispanic = 1–7 on variable for 1978–2002; 1 on variable for 2004; 1978 Q33, 1980–1988 Q18I, 1990–1992 Q18K, 1994–1998 ORIGI, 2000–2002 PRORIGIN, 2004 PEHSPNON.
Income: Ordinal scale with variable coded as in survey.
ANES 880520, 900663, 924104, 941404, 960701, 980652, 000993, 023149, 043293X.
CPS 1978–1982 Q27; 1984–1992 Q28; 1994–1998 FAMIN; 2000–2004 HUFAMINC.
Note: For all ANES and CPS questions, don’t know, other, or NA responses are coded as missing.
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Schlozman, D., Yohai, I. How Initiatives Don’t Always Make Citizens: Ballot Initiatives in the American States, 1978–2004. Polit Behav 30, 469–489 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-008-9062-0
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