Elections offer voters many choices. While voter choice in candidate elections has received a great deal of scholarly attention other choices, such as those found in direct democracy elections, have not. This project helps address this imbalance by conducting surveys exploring vote choice on ballot propositions. In so doing, this project advances societal understanding of the nature of voter decision-making, a valuable contribution to better understanding the strengths and limitations of direct democracy.

The intellectual merit of the project lies in its examination of two connected sets of puzzles concerning the causes and consequences of opinion formation on ballot propositions. In the first set of puzzles the project examines how voters form opinions on ballot propositions. Existing literature emphasizes endorsements made by political actors such as interest groups or political parties. But previous research raises more questions than it answers since endorsements imply that voters are uninformed enough not to know how to vote on a problem, yet informed enough to understand certain kinds of cues. Similarly, an endorsement-driven approach may explain why opinions form but cannot explain whether opinions - once formed - remain stable or change. This last point in particular has not been explored to date. It also connects the second set of puzzles relating to the consequences of direct democracy.

In the second set of puzzles, the proposal examines whether, and how, direct democracy sets the agenda in elections and affects candidate vote choice and turnout in federal and state elections. Although these issues have been considered in the literature to date, the conditions under which these effects are seen, and who turns out as a consequence of ballot propositions, do not have established answers. The answer to both sets of puzzles is that effects vary not just over individuals but also over the kinds of issues themselves and, importantly, over differences in state political context. In order to understand both sets of puzzles, it is necessary to understand the conditional nature of these phenomena.

The project plans to conduct web surveys before and after the 2012 presidential election in conjunction with the ANES. The study is augmented with instrumentation that addresses questions with more appropriate data and, further, will allow a better examination of the effects of state political environments. In coordinating with ANES, the project can apply the intellectual richness of the leading survey of electoral behavior to an understanding of voting on direct democracy issues. In return, direct democracy content may inform models of candidate vote choice and turnout, the central aims of the ANES.

The broader impact of this project lies in three areas. First, it will establish the degree to which voters can and do have opinions informed by cues and, further, the extent to which those opinions remain stable. Second, it will establish the degree to which choices on national level candidates are shaped by local political context. Third, the project offers several empirical contributions. One assumption of the ANES is that issues relevant to vote choice are national in scope but there are often important state issues that shape these decisions, especially ballot measures. If that is true, then ANES' focus on national level politics is only part of the story. If it is the case that initiatives can inform vote choice even in federal elections - either by shaping the criteria voters use to evaluate candidates or affecting turnout - then this may help shape future ANES instrumentation. Lastly, the proposed study will markedly improve the quality of data available to study questions about direct democracy elections.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Brian D. Humes
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University of California Riverside
United States
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