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

By Craig M. Burnett & Mathew D. McCubbins. Full text here.

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.