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Referendums in the European Union  

Derek Beach

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.

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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.