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Enduring Questions and Unsatisfactory Answers About Direct Democracy  

Shaun Bowler and Todd Donovan

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.

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Direct Democracy and Political Decision Making  

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.