When Common Wisdom Is Neither Common Nor Wisdom: Exploring Voters’ Limited Use of Endorsements on Three Ballot Measures

39 Pages Posted: 5 Dec 2012 Last revised: 19 May 2013

See all articles by Craig M. Burnett

Craig M. Burnett

Hofstra University

Mathew D. McCubbins

Department of Political Science and Law School, Duke University

Date Written: May 17, 2013

Abstract

Ballot measures offer voters the opportunity to shape policy decisions directly. It remains unclear, however, if direct democracy asks too much of voters. Do voters have the capacity to make informed decisions on ballot measures that have important and far-reaching policy consequences? The common wisdom in the academic literature is that voters routinely use endorsements from elite cue-givers — such as prominent political figures, interest groups, and political parties — to arrive at an informed decision despite their lack of specific knowledge about the measures under consideration. We examine the degree to which this description is accurate in the case of direct democracy by surveying individuals about three ballot measures in North Carolina and California during their respective 2012 presidential primaries. The three ballot measures covered subjects that voters consider frequently in many states: same-sex marriage, term-limits, and taxation. We find that, contrary to the common wisdom, the ways in which individuals use endorsements to inform their decisions, while efficacious for some individuals, is highly conditional. In our surveys, campaign endorsements were informative to voters less than half of the time; but they can be quite effective for some subsets of the electorate. Our findings raise important questions about how voters evaluate ballot measures, and whether voters can make competent policy choices via the initiative and referendum.

Keywords: direct democracy, endorsements, initiative, referendum, same-sex marriage, term-limits

Suggested Citation

Burnett, Craig M. and McCubbins, Mathew D., When Common Wisdom Is Neither Common Nor Wisdom: Exploring Voters’ Limited Use of Endorsements on Three Ballot Measures (May 17, 2013). Minnesota Law Review, Volume 57, Number 5. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2185076

Craig M. Burnett (Contact Author)

Hofstra University ( email )

Hempstead, NY 11549
United States

HOME PAGE: http://people.hofstra.edu/craig_burnett

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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