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Direct Democracy and the Culture Wars
Biggers, Daniel Ryan
Kaufmann, Karen M
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Proponents of direct democracy maintain that this institution can facilitate political participation in the United States. By providing citizens with a greater role in the legislation-making process, these supporters assert, the initiative and/or referendum may heighten the importance assigned to political action and engage those who do not consistently vote. Substantial empirical evidence supports this relationship, and the positive relationship between direct democracy and turnout is the most consistent finding in all of the literature on this institution. I contend, however, that the existing literature is both theoretically and methodologically incomplete. Theoretically, scholars have yet to identify the exact causal mechanism that explains why any ballot measure might bring citizens to the polls, and this failure has led to the employment of multiple incomplete measurements of the direct democracy process. I attempt to rectify this concern by positing two key requirements necessary for any proposition to influence the decision to vote. These criteria lead to the conclusion that we must look at the issue content of each individual ballot measure to identify its effect on participation. Using moral issue propositions as an example of those that consistently possess the potential to raise voting rates, I illustrate the factors necessary for direct democracy to fulfill the expectations of its proponents. Across a number of contexts, I find substantial evidence for the ability of moral issue propositions to habitually engage citizens, mobilize them above normal turnout rates, and even increasing levels of political knowledge. In contrast, the average ballot measure rarely maintains this capacity, and even others that address salient and/or controversial issues (such as tax matters) exhibit difficulties in doing so more than episodically. These findings provide significant insights into the consequences of permitting the public to legislate via the ballot, how institutions shape the size and composition of the electorate, and what might be done to increase turnout in this country.