Direct democracy elections bring into sharp focus several enduring questions about the role of voters in elections. Questions of voter competence, majority rule, spending effects, and process concerns are all highlighted. Many of these questions form the basis of often very pointed debates within the literature. The study of direct democracy throws into sharp relief some of the most enduring questions relating to elections and electoral democracy. So far, however, the answers have not proved satisfying to many observers. In some cases, these debates have persisted despite an accumulation of empirical evidence that would seem to resolve the issues. Contrary to the claims of repeated criticisms, voters are capable of voting on ballot propositions in accord with their own interests and are supportive of the process as a means of making decisions. While direct democracy does have its flaws, the flaws identified by many critics are not really as damning as the critics would seem to believe. For whatever reason, however, the criticisms repeat.
Shaun Bowler and Todd Donovan
Catherine E. De Vries
Public contestation regarding European integration is becoming increasingly important for the future of the European project. While traditionally European Union (EU) scholars deemed public opinion of minor importance for the process of European integration, public support and scepticism is now seen as crucial for the survival of the European project. One important reason for this change in perspective is the increasing politicization of the EU in domestic politics. In recent years, a burgeoning literature on public contestation concerning European integration has developed. Students of public opinion in the EU have primarily focused their attention on the explanations of fluctuations in support and scepticism. This work stresses both interest- and identity-based explanations showing that support for European integration increases with skill levels and more inclusive identities. Less attention has been given to the conceptualization of the precise nature of public opinion and its role in EU politics. When it comes to the politicization of European integration and its effects on public opinion, many scholarly contributions have aimed to explore the conditions under which EU attitudes affect voting behavior in elections and referendums. Yet, the way in which public opinion affects policy making and responsiveness at the EU level has received much less scholarly attention. This suggests that more work needs to be undertaken to understand the conditions under which public contestation of the EU constrains the room to maneuver of domestic and European elites at the EU level, and the extent to which it poses a challenge to, or opportunity for, further integrative steps in Europe. Only by gaining a better understanding about the ways public opinion limits the actions of domestic and European elites or not at the EU level, will scholars be able to make predictions about how public opinion might affect the future of the European project.
Since the end of World War II a key question that successive U.K. governments have faced is what position the country should occupy in global affairs. Such a question stemmed from the legacy of Empire, which both offered global connections and at the same time financial demands in terms of the need to maintain a global footing. These issues came to a head when the United Kingdom applied (unsuccessfully) to join the European Community (the forerunner of the European Union (EU)) in the 1960s when the country was reappraising its position in the world. And while the United Kingdom eventually joined the Community in 1973, there remained an underlying skepticism about membership within the public at large as well as within sections of the Conservative and Labour parties. This suspicion gained more traction from the 1990s onward as the then EU appeared to be moving to a deeper level of integration in the wake of the Maastricht Treaty. This spurred on Euroskeptics in the United Kingdom to campaign for independence. To put a lid on this pressure for reform, David Cameron held a referendum on U.K. membership in 2016. His gamble that this would once and for all seal the United Kingdom within the EU by closing down the issue of withdrawal did not actually materialize, as the electorate voted to leave, which in turn set the country on a path to depart the EU in 2020. Yet, despite these developments, just as was the case in 1945, the United Kingdom is in many ways still searching for a role in the world in 2020.
Referendums are frequently used to ratify European Union (EU)–related propositions. Since 1972 there have been in total 46 EU-related referendums, excluding third-country referendums on EU-related matters. While referendums are constitutionally mandated in some countries in order to ratify new treaties, other referendums are held for either normative or for political reasons. Referendums deal with topics that are less familiar to voters, where key issues typically do not map onto domestic political cleavages. This means that we should expect that campaigns and the information they provide about the issues and the positions of political actors might matter more in framing issues than in first-order national elections. While there is by no means a scholarly consensus, recent research has shown, for instance, that an issue that dominates media coverage can impact how voters evaluate a proposition. Finally, what do we know about voter behavior? While referendums on EU affairs have been criticized as being decided by “second-order” factors such as government popularity, there is evidence that when a proposition matters for voters, voting behavior is more dominated by issue-voting. Recent research has drawn on advances in cognitive psychology to investigate the impact of attitude strength and personality characteristics for voter behavior.
Shaun Bowler, Reagan Dobbs, and Stephen Nicholson
Direct democracy in the United States is the process whereby voters decide the fate of laws, through either an initiative or a referendum. Initiatives allow voters to approve or reject a policy proposal, whereas referendums permit voters to decide the fate of laws passed by the legislature. Although some high-profile ballot measures, especially those related to ‘moral’ issues, may induce people to vote, most ballot measures are unfamiliar to voters and so have a limited effect on participation. Rather than mobilizing voters, the more choice confronting voters faced with ballot measures is whether to “roll-off” or abstain from voting on them. The subsequent decision, how to vote, is intimately related to the decision over whether to vote and is largely motivated by the same factors. In deciding whether and how to vote, voters must know what a ballot measure is about, discern the political motivation underlying it, and match that information to their political predispositions to cast a Yes or No vote; otherwise they abstain. The more voters know about a given proposition, the more likely it is that they will vote and, furthermore, that the vote they do cast will reflect their underlying political values. In contrast both to the claims made by many critics of direct democracy and, also, some current studies in political science, votes in direct democracy are often underpinned by substantive, policy-based considerations. Voters are thus capable of meaningfully participating in the direct democracy process.
Robert Harmsen and Anna-Lena Högenauer
A founding member state of the European Union (EU) and a major European institutional center, Luxembourg has been a consistently strong supporter of the further development of European integration, often acting to facilitate compromises at critical moments. Its European policy rests on a broad political consensus and enjoys strong support in national public opinion. However, the country has also defended key national priorities on occasion, such as the interests of the steel sector in the early phases of European integration or its taxation policy in the early 21st century. Historically, this openness toward cooperation can be explained by reference to Luxembourg’s long experience of cooperation with neighbouring countries. Luxembourg was a member of the Zollverein (German Customs Union) in the 19th century and formed an economic union with Belgium after the First World War. European policymaking in Luxembourg is characterized by a pragmatic and informal policy style. The comparatively limited size of the national bureaucracy allows for an ease of internal communication and coordination. The typically long tenures and broad remits of national officials coupled with their multilingualism facilitate their integration into European policy arenas, where they often play pivotal roles. Luxembourgish society is further highly “Europeanized.” As the country became one of the largest producers of steel in the world, it attracted high levels of immigration from other European countries. The economic transformation of the country from the 1980s onward—moving from an industrial economy to a service-based economy centered on the financial sector—would not have been conceivable without the parallel development and deepening of European integration. In 2018, foreigners made up 48% of the resident population of the country, with citizens of the other 27 EU member states accounting for around 85% of that foreign community. The country’s labor force is further heavily dependent on cross-border workers from the three surrounding countries. This unique national situation poses a range of distinctive policy challenges regarding both the national political system and the wider governance of an exceptionally dense network of cross-border relationships.