The Effect of Ballot Initiatives on Turnout

February 24, 2020
USA Elections

As the 2020 Presidential Election comes ever closer into focus, it is worth remembering that voters will not vote exclusively on who will be their president for the next four years. They will also be voting for their Congressional representatives and State governmental officials as well as on a number of ballot initiatives. Typically, members of either party hope that enthusiasm for their party’s presidential candidate generates further support down the ballot, leading to a cascade of victories that shifts the balance of power in government to their party.

However, in this year’s tense election contest, that conventional wisdom may be reversed. Party officials may seek to generate enthusiasm among potential voters through particular ballot initiatives, in the hope that specific issues important to their side, ranging from abortion and rent control to gerrymandering and the legalization of marijuana, will bring victories further up the ballot, including the presidential election.

The latest research in political science does not yet hold a decisive position on whether ballot initiatives generally increase turnout. A Brookings research paper in October 2018 predicted little effect of ballot initiatives in increasing turnout in the midterm elections.

It may be that ballot initiatives are an afterthought for most voters. Unlike in Switzerland, where local referenda occur frequently, voters are not provided in advance with information and background surrounding the specific legislation they will weigh in on in the voting booth. Some voters may therefore mark their ballots before even knowing about a particular initiative.

In two recent polls of registered voters in California and in Arizona, Redfield & Wilton Strategies investigated this question. We asked these registered voters two straightforward questions about their past experiences voting on ballot initiatives:

  1. How would you describe your position when you voted on ballot initiatives in the past?
  • I have generally been well informed about the arguments presented by each side on the ballot initiatives I have voted on in the past.
  • I have generally been not well informed about the arguments presented by each side on the ballot initiatives I have voted on in the past.
  • I can’t remember.

2. In the past, has any ballot initiative made you more likely to turn out to vote?

  • Yes, I have been more encouraged to vote in the past due to a ballot initiative.
  • No, I have not been more encouraged to vote in the past due to a ballot initiative.

Respondents largely reported generally being well-informed about the issues they were voting on and being more encouraged to vote due to a ballot initiative. Altogether, this result should bolster the arguments of proponents of direct democracy in the United States. At least as far as voters themselves say, they think they feel they were well informed on and encouraged by ballot initiatives in past elections.

However, it may be hard to take these results at face value. It takes a certain amount of personal courage to admit that one was generally not well-informed about the particular issues that one voted on in the past. Furthermore, while one may say they were more encouraged to vote due to a ballot initiative in the past initiative, it may likely not be the case that a ballot initiative was the deciding reason to vote instead of not to vote.

Further, deeper research on the effect of turnout on ballot initiatives is therefore required. Regardless, party officials will likely be undeterred in pursuing the registration of certain initiatives in the hopes of increasing turnout from their base of supporters.

California

Arizona

To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.