The Dilemma of Direct Democracy

USC Law Legal Studies Paper No. 10-3

Election Law Journal: Rules, Politics, and Policy, Vol. 9, No. 4

47 Pages Posted: 3 Mar 2010 Last revised: 14 Oct 2010

See all articles by Craig M. Burnett

Craig M. Burnett

Hofstra University

Elizabeth Garrett

USC Gould School of Law

Mathew D. McCubbins

Department of Political Science and Law School, Duke University

Date Written: September 8, 2010


The dilemma of direct democracy is that voters may not always be able to make welfare-improving decisions. Lupia’s seminal work has led us to believe that voters can substitute voting cues for substantive policy knowledge. Lupia, however, emphasized that cues were valuable under certain conditions and not others. In what follows, we present three main findings regarding voters and what they know about California’s Proposition 7. First, much like Lupia reported, we show voters who are able to recall endorsements for or against a ballot measure vote similarly to people who recall certain basic facts about the initiative. We show, second, that voters whose stated policy preferences would otherwise suggest they would favor the “no” position cast their ballots with far less error than do people who favor the “yes” position. One thing this suggests is that many voters may employ a “defensive no” strategy when faced with complex policy choices on the ballot. Our third result is a bit surprising: we find that better-informed voters, whether this information is derived from factual knowledge of the initiative or from knowledge of well-publicized voting cues, are no more likely to make reasoned decisions than those who are, by our measure, uninformed. This suggests that existing theories of voter choice, especially in direct democracy, may be inadequate. We conclude with some preliminary policy recommendations that could help improve the information environment for initiatives and referenda by providing key information on the ballot.

Keywords: direct democracy, voter competence, initiatives, referenda

Suggested Citation

Burnett, Craig M. and Garrett, Elizabeth and McCubbins, Mathew D., The Dilemma of Direct Democracy (September 8, 2010). USC Law Legal Studies Paper No. 10-3. Available at SSRN: or

Craig M. Burnett (Contact Author)

Hofstra University ( email )

Hempstead, NY 11549
United States


Elizabeth Garrett

USC Gould School of Law ( email )

699 Exposition Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90089
United States
213-740-0064 (Phone)
213-740-5502 (Fax)

Mathew D. McCubbins

Department of Political Science and Law School, Duke University ( email )

210 Science Drive
Box 90362
Durham, NC 27708
United States

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