Guest blogger Steven Spadijer, of Australian National University, continues with Part Two of his series on Direct Democracy. Part One is available here.
In today’s post I’ll examine the role direct democracy has on informing the people. That is, what impact does direct democracy have on the average voter competence? Does the information-rich environment make people better informed citizen, because they have been bestowed the duty to decide heavy policy decisions?
Authors Benz and Stutzer (see references at bottom) provide evidence in favour of the conjecture that citizens in states with direct democratic institutions are better informed than citizens in purely representative states. The paper is interesting because it is one of the very few that deals with the effects of direct democratic institutions in a cross-country setting.
Some European states used referendums to pass the Maastricht Treaty, others did not. According to Eurobarometer data, citizens in countries with a referendum were indeed better informed both objectively and subjectively. In the first case the data shows that countries which held referendums on EU matters scored considerably better on 10 general questions about the EU than did inhabitants of countries where no referendum.
They also looked at to what degree direct democracy in Switzerland is practiced at cantonal level, and compared this with the answers from Swiss citizens on three questions about general Swiss politics. Here too, the Swiss who lived in cantons with greater direct democracy had considerably more knowledge than the Swiss living in cantons with more representative systems. In both cases, the impact was just as large as between members of political parties and non-party members, or difference in monthly incomes.
The US literature also reveals the positive endogenous effects of direct democracy:
- Smith and Tolbert find that when given the opportunity to participate directly in policy decisions via the initiative process, voters are generally more likely to hold more favourable opinions of state government.
- They also find, based on aggregate-level voter age population data, that ballot measures increase turnout in low-information midterm elections.
- Donovan and Smith found that independent voters, relative to partisan voters, exhibited greater awareness of midterm elections due to ballot measures (i.e. they were more likely to vote), suggesting that without the presence of salient ballot measures some episodic independent voters would not have voted in midterm elections.
But are the stinking masses incapable of understanding policy, a common argument promoted by those with a paternalist bebt? Are they stupid and easily manipulated? In the US in particular, what does the literature say?
- Lupia examined voting patterns on five complicated California insurance propositions in 1988 that were prima facie hard to distinguish. Based on exit surveys, Lupia classified voters into “informed” and “uninformed” groups based on whether they could correctly answer questions about the substance of the measures. He found that uninformed voters could emulate the voting patterns of informed voters simply by knowing the positions interest groups such as Ralph Nader and the insurance industry had taken on the measures.
- Kahn showed that voting patterns on 18 California environmental initiatives closely reflected underlying economic interests—voters who stood to suffer an economic loss from a measure tended to oppose it.
- Donovan found that voters “appear able to figure out what they are for and against in ways that make sense in terms of their underlying values and interests. Failing that, others appear to use a strategy of voting no when information is lacking or when worries about general state conditions are greatest. Just as legislators do, these voters make choices purposefully, using available information”
- Bowler and Donovan also argue the effects of citizen exposure to direct democracy on internal and external political efficacy rival the effects of a formal education.
- McNeal finds that exposure to initiative stimulates campaign contributions from interest groups, dramatically enhances political knowledge and increases the probability of voting with each ballot initiative additional initiative on the ballot increasing the turnout by one percent.
So the “people are stupid” mantra seems rather…err…stupid. Furthermore, one may encounter polities where experts are themselves not well informed. In this instance, there are two possible scenarios.
In the first, no one in the polity is sufficiently well informed. In such a case, letting the voters choose policy by direct democracy rather than leaving it to the legislature causes no loss in competence.
In the second scenario, some elites are knowledgeable, but voters are not. This scenario can only occur in a “closed society”, where the channels of communication are centrally controlled, or in a society where effective channels of communication do not exist. In such a situation, letting voters make policy by direct democracy can do considerable damage.
European and North American states, however, are not closed societies. Nor is Australia. We have access to modern forms of communication and competitive political environments. All voices are heard from career politicians’, Professors/academics, family members, Church leaders over the course of months. Parliament can even propose a counterproposal and issue several recommendations on how to vote. Sometimes there are even multiple choice referenda, often practiced in Zurich and Berne.
Thus, if someone in a direct democracy debate has the opportunity to expose the weakness of the opposing side while the competitive nature of politics provides a strong incentive to do so publicly. In sum, if there are people who are willing to inform voters and if voters can use environmental factors such as institutions to better understand the motives of the people they listen to, then voters can cast the same votes they would have cast if more informed, or as Bruno Frey puts it:
The voters…do not need to have detailed knowledge of the issues, but rather of the main questions at stake. These, however, are not of a technical nature, but involve basic decisions / value judgements, which a voter is as qualified to make as a politician. Indeed, it is…not clear why the citizens are trusted to be able to choose between parties and politicians in elections, but not between issues in referendums. If anything, the former choice seems to be the more difficult one, because electors must form expectations about actions in the future by politicians over a range of issues.
But what about the California bogey where corporations and special interests are said to “hijack” the process? It should be observed that here in Australia if constitutionally entrenched and corporations hijacked the process, the people can always run an initiative to stop them from spending unlimited amounts.. In California this is not the case thanks to “judicial review” which treats corporations as “people” as these legal examples show:
- The courts invalidated Proposition 9, a direct citizen statute approved by 69.8 percent of Californian voters, restricting the ability of lobbyists to make gifts and political contributions and requiring them to disclose their transactions expenditures in ballot campaigns and election campaigns. It violated the right to freedom of association and free speech.
- The courts, citing the right to free speech, invalidated Proposition 73 in 1988 , which was approved by 58 percent of voters, limiting annual political contributions to a candidate for public office to 1000 dollars from each person, 2500 dollars from each political committee, and 5000 dollars from a political party; and limited gifts to elected officials to 1000 dollars from each single source per year.
- Proposition 73, in 1996, approved by 61.27 percent of voters which capped campaign contributions per candidate to 100 dollars for districts of less than 100 000 people, 250 dollars for larger districts and 500 dollars for state-wide elections; committees of small contributors can contribute twice the limit.
It speaks volumes of a constitutional system where one man can veto and disfranchise millions of voters at a stroke of a pen.
In any event, the above should not be surprising to the commentators of this blog. As one commentator put it last week:
Implementing direct democracy should be easy with the technology we now possess. It is even possible that every single decision on spending or law enactment be directly made by the electorate.
Thus, in addition to the economic arguments in favour of direct democracy, there is a civic Republican argument too, or as Thomas Jefferson put it:
[T]he remedy for an ignorant citizenry is not to take control from them, but to inform their discretion by education. Educate and inform the whole mass of the people…The are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty. After all it is my principle that the will of the majority should prevail
Direct Democracy does just that. This is for me perhaps the strongest argument of all. For if we take popular sovereignty seriously, we will be forced to educate ourselves, and each other.
Matthias Benz and Alois Stutzer, ‘Are Voters Better Informed When They Have a Larger Say in Politics?’
Shaun Bowler and Todd Donovan, ‘Democracy, Institutions and Attitudes About Citizen Influence on Government’
Caroline J. Tolbert and Daniel A. Smith, ‘The Educative Effects of Ballot Initiatives on Voter Turnout’, ‘Direct Democracy, Public Opinion, and Candidate Choice’
Arthur Lupia, ‘Shortcuts versus Encyclopedias: Information and Voting Behavior in California Insurance Reform Elections’
Bruno Frey, ‘Democracy by Competition: Referenda and Federalism in Switzerland’
Matthew E. Kahn, and John G. Matsusaka, ‘Demand for Environmental Goods: Evidence from Voting Patterns on California Initiatives’
- Is Labor or the Coalition a better bet for the economy? - May 20, 2022
- How These 5 Industries Are Utilizing Blockchain Technology - November 29, 2021
- Does Labor want to govern or not? - May 19, 2021