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The Impact of Petition Signing on Voter Turnout

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Abstract

Generally speaking, campaign-related contact motivates voters. One form of such contact not much explored in the voter mobilization literature is the petitioning for ballot initiatives that occurs with considerable frequency in about half the states and even more localities. Using newly-available data that allow us to match individual petition signers with their subsequent election behavior, we explore the role of having had a hand in a ballot measure’s qualifying stage in propelling individual voters to the polls. Specifically, we perform multivariate analysis on a random sample of 1,000 registered Arkansas voters, 1,100 registered Florida voters, and all 71,119 registered voters in Gainesville, Florida to measure the influence of petition-signing in spurring voter turnout. We find marginal effects in the statewide samples, but substantial and significant turnout effects in the Gainesville municipal election—an off-cycle, low-profile election. Furthermore, the effect of petition-signing—across all of our samples—is strongest among irregular, as compared to habitual, voters. These findings are in keeping with recent campaign mobilization experimental research and comport with previous findings on the “educative effects” of ballot measures on voter turnout.

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Notes

  1. In a related integration of the various threads in the campaign mobilization literature, Panagopolous (2010) demonstrates that “shame” GOTV appeals may be more effective than “pride” appeals on average, but this too depends on the recipients. Pride impels compliance with the voting norm only among habitual voters, whereas shame works its magic on both the stalwarts and the low-propensity voters.

  2. Political operatives and the political parties of course have tried to use the educative effects of ballot measures in recent election cycles, hoping that specific ballot initiatives would stimulate voter turnout and improve their candidates’ prospects. Recent empirical work has confirmed the effectiveness of such maneuvers, as the presence of anti same-sex marriage initiatives in 2004 and minimum wage initiatives in 2006 increased the levels of saliency for the issues and helped Republican and Democratic candidates on the ballot, respectively (Nicholson 2005; Donovan et al. 2009; Smith and Tolbert 2010). Consequently, many “hybrid” candidate/ballot measure campaigns have been even more closely intertwined with exactly this outcome in mind (Chavez 1998; Kousser and McCubbins 2005; see also Garrett 2006).

  3. There is a good reason little work has been done that matches petition signers with subsequent political activity; save in a handful of freak situations, it has been almost impossible to do. When Pierce and Lovrich (1982, p. 167), for example, cross-checked just the 31 respondents (out of a sample of 700) who reported signing the Idaho petition against a list of approximately 6,000 validated signatures, they called the effort “a tedious task, to be sure.”

  4. Arkansas Secretary of State: “Secretary Daniels Approves Petitions for Foster and Adoption Ban Initiative,” Monday, Aug 25, 2008. Available: http://www.sosweb.state.ar.us/newsroom/index.php?do:newsDetail=1&news_id=74.

  5. All the names of those who signed valid petitions are currently accessible in a searchable database at www.knowthyneighbor.org/arkansas. See, also: http://knowthyneighbor.blogs.com/home/2009/04/press-release-names-of-arkansas-antigay-petition-signers-posted-online.html.

  6. Bill Kaczor, “Initiative On Gay Marriage On Ballot.” The Associated Press 2 Feb. 2008, www2.tbo.com/content/2008/feb/02/me-initiative-on-gay-marriage-on-ballot/.

  7. Campaign Finance Database: Expenditures Records. Florida Division of Elections. 26 Feb. 2009. Available at: http://election.dos.state.fl.us/campaign-finance/expend.asp.

  8. See, Florida Department of State, Division of Elections, “Election Results.” Available: https://doe.dos.state.fl.us/elections/resultsarchive/index.asp.

  9. On June 12, 2006, KnowThyNeighbor Florida was launched by the Christ Church of Peace in Jacksonsville, FL, and over 400,000 names were posted online. The searchable site is no longer available at http://www.christchurchofpeace.org/ktnf/, but it is available at http://www.knowthyneighbor.org/florida/.

  10. As allowed by state law at the time, 36 individuals who signed the petition subsequently revoked their signatures, leaving a total of 6,343 valid signatures. Our analysis only examines the turnout of 5,796 ballot petition signers, as the balance of signers (547 individuals) were not registered voters in Gainesville at the time of the March 2009 municipal election (having moved outside of the city limits or died in the interim). Unfortunately, no past vote history is known of these petition signers. However, at the time they signed the petition, the petitions revealed that 278 were registered Democrats and 221 were registered Republicans; 323 were women and 244 were men; 349 were white, 169 were black, and 27 were Hispanic; and the average age was 43.6 years.

  11. Alachua County Supervisor of Elections, “Official Statement of Votes Cast, Regular Election,” March 24, 2009. Available: http://elections.alachua.fl.us/elections_and_records/_raw_results/20090324.html.

  12. In Arkansas, 50 of the 1,000 (5.0%) randomly selected statewide registered voters (as of November 2008) signed a valid petition to qualify Act No. 1. In Florida, 39 of the 1,100 (3.6%) randomly selected statewide registered voters (as of November 2008) signed a valid petition to qualify Amendment 2. In Gainesville, 5,796 of the 71,119 (8.01%) city-wide registered voters (as of March, 2009) signed a valid petition to qualify Issue 1.

  13. We ran alternative models which included an additional dummy variable if a citizen registered to vote in 2008 (for Arkansas and Florida) and in 2009 (for Gainesville), with the expectation that those most immediately registered would be less likely to participate in the 2008 general election (Arkansas and Florida) or the 2009 municipal election (Gainesville). In the Arkansas and Florida models, the dummy variable is not significant; in the Gainesville model it is significant and negative, indicating that voters registered in 2009 (and thus with no prior vote history in Gainesville) were less likely to cast votes in the 2009 municipal election. However, as the coefficients of all the other variables are not statistically or substantively affected by the inclusion of the dummy late registration variable, we opted to omit it.

  14. In creating a vote history index for Arkansas voters, we coded whether a registered voter cast a ballot in the 2008 primary, the 2008 presidential primary, and the 2006 midterm election. Because Florida’s January 29, 2008 presidential primary not was expected to count towards selecting the Democratic nominee, as the Democratic National Committee had voted to strip Florida of all its delegates to the 2008 national convention because the state’s early primary date violated national party rules, in creating a vote history index for Florida voters, we coded whether a registered voter cast a ballot in the 2008 primary, the 2006 midterm election, and the 2006 midterm primary (We also replicated the Arkansas vote index, but found no substantive differences for Florida’s 2008 general election turnout). For the Gainesville vote history index, we coded whether a registered voter cast a ballot in the 2008 general election, the 2008 primary election, and the 2006 midterm election. (Again, we replicated the Arkansas vote index, but found no substantive differences for Gainesville’s 2009 municipal election turnout). For each index, registered voters were given a score ranging from 0 (no prior turnout) to 3 (turnout in three out of three previous elections).

  15. In our Arkansas sample, 780 (78%) of the 1,000 registered voters cast ballots in the November 2008 general election. Of the total, 378 (37.8%) were coded as Functionally Inactive Voter (0/3), 254 (25.4%) were coded as Occasional Voter (1/3), 230 (23.0%) were coded as Regular Voter (2/3), and 138 (13.8%) were coded as Super Voter (3/3). In our Florida sample, 719 (65.4%) of the 1,100 registered voters cast ballots in the November, 2008 general election. Of the total, 674 (61.3%) were coded as Functionally Inactive Voter (0/3), 227 (20.6%) were coded as Occasional Voter (1/3), 106 (9.6%) were coded as Regular Voter (2/3), and 93 (8.52%) were coded as Super Voter (3/3). In Gainesville, 19,462 (27.4%) of the 71,119 registered voters in March, 2009, cast ballots in the municipal election. Of the total, 10,838 (15.20%) were coded as Functionally Inactive Voter (0/3), 33,135 (46.6%) were coded as Occasional Voter (1/3), 15,422 (21.7%) were coded as Regular Voter (2/3), and 11,724 (16.5%) were coded as Super Voter (3/3).

  16. We have no a priori reason to suspect that super or regular voters will be more or less likely to sign an initiative petition than those who are occasional or functionally inactive voters. Petitions in Florida and Arkansas are typically circulated in public places—shopping mall parking lots, busy street corners, and in the case of these three broadly anti-gay measures, in churches—but in none of these places are functionally inactive or occasional voters more or less likely to frequent than regular and super voters. As such, we do not think there are any concerns that any effects of signing an initiative petition might have on turnout may be endogenous, that is, that functionally inactive and infrequent voters might have been more likely to have signed the petitions than more regular voters. Furthermore, we have no reason to suspect that signers of petitions are any more or less likely to exit a dataset than those who did not sign for any reason—moving out of the city (Gainesville) or state, dying, or being purged from the voter rolls by a local supervisor of elections or office of the Secretary of State.

  17. We ran an alternative statewide Arkansas model (not shown), replacing the vote history index with individual dummy variables for the three previous elections (voted in the 2006 general election, voted in the 2008 presidential primary, and voted in the 2008 primary). The estimated logit coefficient (B = 1.007) for having signed the petition was significant (p value = .085, two-tailed test), as were the logit coefficients (p values = .000) for having voted in the 2006 general election and the 2008 presidential primary (but not the 2008 general primary).

  18. We ran two alternative statewide Florida models (not shown). In the first, we replaced the vote history index with individual dummy variables for the three previous elections (voted in the 2006 general election, voted in the 2008 presidential primary, and voted in the 2008 primary). The estimated logit coefficient for having signed the petition remained not significant (p value = .305, two-tailed test). In the second model (not shown), we created an alternative vote history index (coded 0–3) if the respondent voted in the 2006 general election, the 2008 presidential primary, and the 2008 primary. Again, the estimated logit coefficient for having signed the petition is not significant, though the estimated logit dummy coefficients for the dummy variables, voted in the 2006 general election and voted in the 2008 primary, are significant at the .01 level.

  19. To avoid intermediate variable bias, we ran a streamlined model (not shown) for Florida that was identical to those for Arkansas (controlling only for gender, age, and vote history); there were no substantive or statistical differences from the fully specified Florida model. The same is true for the Gainesville model (not shown).

  20. We ran an alternative Gainesville model (not shown), replacing the vote history index with individual dummy variables for the three previous elections (voted in the 2006 general election, voted in the 2008 primary, and voted in the 2008 general election). The estimated logit coefficient for having signed the petition remained significant (p value = .000, two-tailed test), as were the logit coefficients for all three election dummy variables (p values = .000).

  21. In March 2009, Democrats made up 55.9% of registered voters in Gainesville, with Republicans comprising 21.9%. As such, a higher percentage of registered Republicans signed the petitions than Democrats, although marginally so. The campaign to collect signatures was not targeted to Republicans. Volunteer signature gathers collected signatures in parking lots and churches, as a few went door-to-door, but not systematically targeting registered Republicans. Megan Rolland, “Transgender petition branded ‘anti-gay’,” Gainesville Sun, July 23, 2008. Available: http://www.gainesville.com/article/20080723/NEWS/924201154.

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Acknowledgments

The authors wish to thank Seth McKee and the anonymous reviewers for their particularly constructive suggestions, Roger Austin, Mark Zublay, Jason Barabas, Kate Kennedy, Amanda Hamilton Seng, and Marc Berkovits for their data collection and coding assistance, as well as Pam Carpenter, Jeannene Mironack, and Dennis Edwards of the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections.

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Parry, J.A., Smith, D.A. & Henry, S. The Impact of Petition Signing on Voter Turnout. Polit Behav 34, 117–136 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-011-9161-1

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