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Do Ballot Initiatives Increase General Political Knowledge?

Abstract

Current literature often suggests that more information and choices will enhance citizens’ general political knowledge. Notably, some studies indicate that a greater number of state ballot initiatives raise Americans’ knowledge through increases in motivation and supply of political information. By contrast, we contend that political psychology theory and findings indicate that, at best, more ballot measures will have no effect on knowledge. At worst greater use of direct democracy should make it more costly to learn about institutions of representative government and lessen motivation by overwhelming voters with choices. To test this proposition, we develop a new research design and draw upon data more appropriate to assessing the question at hand. We also make use of a propensity score matching algorithm to assess the balance in the data between initiative state and non-initiative state voters. Controlling for a wide variety of variables, we find that there is no empirical relationship between ballot initiatives and political knowledge. These results add to a growing list of findings which cast serious doubt on the educative potential of direct democracy.

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Notes

  1. Several other states mirror the California experience, with complex and numerous ballot measures. In 2008, for instance, the state of Colorado had 14 ballot measures, which bested both the California and Oregon ballot by two measures.

  2. Dyck (2009) demonstrates that in fact citizens in states without the initiative tend to rate their state governments more favorably, espousing greater levels of trust in government.

  3. Another effect of lack of awareness of specific ballot measures and overall ballot length is that voters will “drop-off”, or abstain from measures of which they are unaware, or that appear towards the center of a lengthy ballot (Bowler and Donovan 1998).

  4. Our own analysis of these data found no relationship between ballot initiatives and political knowledge using an “average number of initiatives” independent variable as opposed to Smith’s coding. These results are available from the authors upon request.

  5. The 2004 election was an unusual one in the context of ballot measures, as 13 states had highly salient initiatives or referenda on the ballot amending their state constitutions to prohibit same-sex marriage. Though a number of studies have addressed the effects of the presence of these marriage amendments, which include priming evaluations of presidential candidates (Donovan et al. 2008) mobilization of evangelical voters (Campbell and Monson 2008), and increasing campaign-specific knowledge (Biggers 2012), we have no reason to expect the presence of these same-sex marriage measures to bias our results.

  6. This question has been shown to perform as well as multiple question knowledge indices (Zaller 1992).We have recoded this to range from 1 to 5, such that higher values indicate higher levels of political knowledge.

  7. The CCES data come from a stratified internet sample. At present, the validity of internet surveys is being debated (a good summary of that debate is available from Mark Blumenthal here: http://www.nationaljournal.com/njonline/mp_20091016_9342.php). Taking a position on these issues or resolving this debate is far beyond the scope of this project. However, we are confident that our results do not hinge on sampling design as the CCES uses a stratified opt-in sampling method, while the NAES is a probability sample that uses random-digit-dial. Despite these differences, the results of our statistical models from these varying data sources are essentially the same.

  8. The possibility remains that ballot initiatives increase policy-specific knowledge, especially about the issue under consideration (or possibly related issues). The notion that an individual learns about a specific issue because of a specific initiative seems wholly plausible to us, and not at all inconsistent with our theory about how citizens make sense of their information environment.

  9. Note that this measure varies from 0 (ease of qualification) to 10 (states without the initiative).

  10. One possible alternative is that we should include a measure of initiative context (initiative dummy or difficulty-of-qualification index) alongside a measure of initiative usage (average initiatives, total initiatives in the survey year, of spending) consistent with Boehmke and Bowen (2010). We considered this alternative and present Appendix Tables 8, 9, and 10 to demonstrate that multiple measures do not alter the underlying finding that there is no effect of the ballot initiative on knowledge.

  11. The segregation indices are from the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan, http://www.psc.isr.umich.edu/dis/census/segregation.html (accessed 7/7/13). For more on how these indices were calculated, see Frey and Myers (2005).

  12. Ideological Weakness ranges from 1 to 3 and Partisan Weakness ranges from 1 to 4.

  13. In many cases, the wording or coding of the variables differs between the CCES and NAES data. We have therefore included a full set of coding specifics in the Appendix.

  14. The argument, as most frequently expressed, goes something like this: while the link between the ballot initiative and increased voter turnout is well established in previous studies, there remain concerns about endogeneity in the research design; are ballot initiative contexts created by more participatory cultures or do ballot initiatives institutionally act as a catalyst to turnout? If the states that have adopted the initiative are historically more likely to also have citizens with a greater propensity towards interest, involvement, and knowledge of politics, then the use of direct democracy may in fact be a symptom of this underlying political culture, rather than a cause.

  15. We use the MatchIt software package (Ho et al. 2007) to conduct nearest neighbor propensity score matching, whereby each observation in the treatment group (initiative state voters) is matched to the observation in the control group with the nearest propensity score.

  16. Zaller (1992, p. 338) reports that “a single five-point rating scale performs about as well as a scale constructed from 10 to 15 direct knowledge tests.” Of course, there is an obvious reliability problem here as interviewers may have different impressions of different respondents. We therefore use this measure in 2004, but present more common “knowledge scales” in the 2006 and 2008 data.

  17. We find essentially the same results using ordinal hierarchical generalized linear models. Given the lack of apparent differences, we opt for the model which readers will find more straightforward to interpret. The ordinal HGLM results are available from the authors upon request.

  18. The NAES offers a richer set of response options allowing us to construct a 29 point scale from 4 questions, while the CCES data allow us to construct a 10 point scale from 3 questions.

  19. Using 95 % significance levels, we would expect 1 in 20 results to be statistically significant merely by chance.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank the editors and anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and suggestions and pushing us to make this paper better. Additionally, we would like to thank Paul Quirk and Kimberly Nalder for helpful comments and suggestions on an earlier draft. The authors alone are responsible for any errors.

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Correspondence to Joshua J. Dyck.

Appendix

Appendix

See the Appendix Tables 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10.

Table 5 Descriptive statistics
Table 6 Variable Coding
Table 7 Matching Summary Statistics
Table 8 The effect of ballot initiative exposure on General Political Knowledge, 2004 NAES
Table 9 The effect of ballot initiative exposure on General Political Knowledge, 2006 CCES
Table 10 The effect of ballot initiative exposure on General Political Knowledge, 2008 NAES

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Seabrook, N.R., Dyck, J.J. & Lascher, E.L. Do Ballot Initiatives Increase General Political Knowledge?. Polit Behav 37, 279–307 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-014-9273-5

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Keywords

  • Ballot initiatives
  • Political awareness
  • Secondary effects of direct democracy