Some Pros and Cons of Making Decisions by Referenda

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Direct democracy has a natural appeal that transcends ideological
schisms: both the left and the right frequently complain
that institutional features of democracy thwart the will
of the people, badly distorting public opinion in its translation
to public policy. Why not, then, skip the legerdemain of
lobbyists and legislators, and let the public decide? Plebiscites
obviously have populist appeal, but serious analyses of how
referenda work, where they have been most frequent, have
raised a range of somewhat surprising. conclusions about the
merits and demerits of letting the people decide. in some contexts,
“Referendum” is a specialized term referring to a subset
of all policy issues put to public vote as ballot items. In this
article, I will eschew technical usage, so that all references to
plebiscites, initiatives, referenda, and the like will mean some
variety of public policy question—including potential constitutional
amendments—being put to a public vote.
An immediate concern about referenda is whether they
aren’t too demanding of the ordinary voter, whose
interest and expertise in public policy is bound to be
limited. On the plus side, there is some evidence that
even fairly inattentive voters can navigate tricky policy
matters without necessarily submerging themselves in
the details. By relying on shortcuts (e.g. knowing
whether the insurance industry is backing the “Yes” or
the “No” side of a ballot question), people knowing few
details about complicated ballot propositions are able
to vote in pretty much the same manner as the (far less
numerous) wonks, who’ve delved into the intricacies of
the issue. That’s not to say that they are voting the
“right” way in the sense of some objective measure of
public interest or by the standards of some commentator
(me, for instance). But if commitment to democracy
means taking your chances on your fellow citizens
making mistakes, at least it is good to know that the
low level of engagement in public policy does not necessarily
signal that direct democracy is bound to fail.
It is also true that there is ample evidence that much decision
making by ordinary voters is strongly colored by partisan
leanings, so that a great deal of what strong Democrats
and Republicans do when picking favorites is to rationalize
their pre-determined partisan picks by concocting post-hoc
explanations based on, say, issue contrasts. Accordingly, policy
decisions stripped of overt partisan labels are perhaps
helpful in the sense that they jar substantial numbers of voters
out of routine adherence to party lines.
There is even some indirect (still debated) evidence that
voting does a body good: in Switzerland, the cantons that
have the most plebiscites also have higher average levels of
self-reported happiness (in surveys), even after other predictors
of happiness such as average wealth are taken into
account. Some years back, as a paper discussant on an academic
panel where a Swiss economist was presenting one
such study, I couldn’t resist quoting the speech delivered by
Orson Welles in the character of scoundrel Harry Lime,
from the film The Third Man:
In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare,
terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo,
Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland
they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy
and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
Despite my antics, happiness is clearly a valid goal of
public policy, so if being allowed to exercise choice on more
policy matters really does increase overall public contentment,
that’s a noteworthy argument in favor of the practice.
In the United States, direct democracy is a state-level phenomenon,
with wide variance in how common are any
referenda. Many states, most of them in the west of the
country, have long histories of holding regular and frequent
votes on ballot measures. But, as in so many other
realms, California overshadows all others when it comes
to evaluating direct democracy. What have academics
learned from hundreds and hundreds of ballot initiatives
stretched overly nearly a century in the Golden State? The
conclusions, and debates, are many, but a few interesting
patterns stand out.
First, not surprisingly, special interests are not absent
just because policies are being made in the ballot box, not
in Sacramento. Many complain that the whole process of
has become a mockery of grass-roots politics, as successful
initiatives normally engage professional signature-collection
firms to get on the ballot, advertising agencies to build
support, and sometimes even get-out-the-vote operations.
Frequently, a great deal of money is spent by both sides.
There is also much loud complaint that campaigns feature
as much disinformation as information, and that the public
too often fails to understand the matters at hand, even
though the state provides a neutral voter’s guide offering
arguments from both sides. One school of commentators
urging that what is most needed in democracy is more and
better deliberation has delivered mixed verdicts on whether
the public at large seems to engage more fully in debates
when they are choosing outcomes rather than choosing
outcome makers. Turnout patterns reveal higher abstention
on ballot initiatives—sometimes much higher—than on
top-of-the-ticket races like Governor, Senator, or President.
Somewhat more interesting and much less obviously,
there seems to be a curious asymmetry in what works in
persuading voters. Both campaign spending and elite
endorsements seem to work better at driving up the No
vote to block initiatives than at persuading people to pass a
measure. So for all the complaints that big money has taken
over the ballot initiative, there are very few examples of
measures passing because of skewed spending.
It is difficult quickly to summarize the policy directions
endorsed by Californians over this long history. In some
cases, measures opposed by both major parties have passed
comfortably. Occasionally, shrewd interest groups have
used direct democracy to break deadlock in the legislature.
Perhaps the most famous proposition of all, 1978’s Proposition
13, effected a major change in property tax law that has
had the effect of greatly privileging those who purchased
homes years back and have stayed put as against frequent
movers and newcomers to the state. It isn’t clear that this is
an optimal way to limit taxation or for the state to discriminate
amongst tax payers, and detractors often lament that
the many of the state’s budgetary woes originate in this “tax
revolt.” On the other hand, surveys continue to show
strong public support for tax limits and it does not seem to
be the case that Californians were fooled into passing a
measure that was not properly understood.
A pattern that has gained more attention over time is
that a surprisingly large number of all successful initiatives
are never implemented, or are strongly modified by subsequent
court decisions. To some commentators, this outcome
is still more evidence that populism is folly: the public
will fall for any nostrum, without regard for its constitutionality,
practicality, or long-term consequences. Others
take an antithetical view, regarding the trend as further evidence
of excessive judicial activism being a severe constraint
on American democracy, with judges forever trumping
the people.
California offers some intriguing evidence that frequent
referenda may permit voters to straddle ideological divides
by leaning alternate ways when selecting candidates and
when choosing policies directly. Consider that 24 out of 32
statewide races (including presidential elections) from
1994 to 2004 were won by Democrats (and 5 of the Republican
wins came in 1994, a year with a massive nation-wide
swing in their direction). California’s two Senators, Boxer
and Feinstein, have each won election thrice, Feinstein
seems certain to win easy re-election yet again this November,
and the toughest race either has had to fight was a 5-
point win by Boxer over right-wing commentator Bruce
Herschensohn in 1992. Their liberal credentials are solid:
over their 13 years in the Senate, Boxer has averaged an
Americans for Democratic Action rating of 94/100 and
Feinstein 90/100. Yet, over this same period Californians,
while putting liberals into office most of the time, have
repeatedly endorsed initiatives considered loathsome by
the left, including Propositions 187 to deny public services
to illegal immigrants (59% support in 1994), 209 to prevent
the state from implementing affirmative action programs
(55% in 1996), 227 to forbid bilingual education in
public schools (61% in 1998), and 22 to restrict marriage
to only heterosexual couples (61% in 2000). There are
other explanations on offer, but it does seem possible that
the existence of so many ballot questions allows voters step
to the left in picking representatives, then shuffle back to
the right when choosing policies themselves.
In the end, direct democracy is no panacea. In the US,
there are probably more experts who think experience
shows that plebiscites produce bad outcomes than there are
keen supporters of the process. Elsewhere, Switzerland is
Europe’s California, the polity that has used referenda far
more than any other. Although there are friends and foes of
the process there, my sense is that the balance is slightly on
the favorable side. The costs and benefits of allowing direct
public policy making are complicated, but insofar as one
believes in majoritarian principles, most of the complaints
strike me as secondary to the fundamental promise. Representative
and direct democracy needn’t be competitors, and
a mixture of the two is feasible and probably useful, even if
the mixture is often times messy.

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