Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Does Direct Democracy Increase Voter Turnout? Evidence from the 2004 General Election

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Does Direct Democracy Increase Voter Turnout? Evidence from the 2004 General Election

Article excerpt

I

Introduction

SINCE DOWNS (1957) first introduced the theory of the "rational voter," there have followed numerous theoretical extensions and empirical studies to enhance, test, and better understand the theory of variants thereof in a variety of both "real-world" and "experimental" contexts (e.g., Buchanan and Tullock 1962; Tullock 1967; Buchanan 1968; Riker and Ordeshook 1968; Brazel and Silberberg 1973; Ashenfelter and Kelly 1975; Wolfinger and Rosenstone 1980; Kafoglis and Cebula 1981; Cebula and Kafoglis 1983; Ledyard 1984; Morton 1987; Piven and Cloward 1988; Cox and Munger 1989; Morton 1991; Teixeira 1992; Aldrich 1993; Green and Shapiro 1994; Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995; Leighly 1996; Lapp 1999; Greene and Nikolaev 1999; Knack 1999; Copeland and Laband 2002; Barreto, Segura, and Woods 2004; Borgers 2004; Feddersen 2004; and Cebula 2005).

Of these studies, arguably the complexity of voting behavior and the voting process is perhaps best exemplified in the classic works by Buchanan and Tullock (1962) and Tullock (1967, 1976). Moreover, the possibility of voting in alternative ways, such as "voting with one's feet," is exemplified in the works of Tiebout (1956) and Tullock (1971), among others. Copeland and Laband (2002), Barreto, Segura, and Woods (2004), and Cebula (2005) have empirically investigated a theory of "expressive voting." To some extent, Copeland and Laband (2002), along with Barreto, Segura, and Woods (2004) and Cebula (2005), reflect recent efforts to identify nontraditional or nondemographic variables that may explain voting behavior.

Concern over low voter participation rates in the United States is expressed frequently in the media and elsewhere. In the words of Putnam (2000: 31): "With the singular exception of voting, American rates of political participation compare favorably with those in other democracies." Putnam (2000: 31) further observes: "We are reminded each election year that fewer voters show up at the polls in America than in most other democracies."

Clearly, since election outcomes can have profound resource allocation implications, the underlying free-rider problem in the voting decision may carry a huge price tag. So, what determines the benefits of voting? And what determines voter participation or the lack of it? Once there is a better understanding of the answers to these questions, perhaps there will also be a better answer to the question of how the U.S. voter participation rate can be increased.

In an effort to help answer these questions, the objective of this study is to determine whether "direct democracy" influences the voter participation rate. In this study, direct democracy can take the form of popular referenda or initiatives (or both). The actual hypothesis being tested in this study is that, on balance, neither referenda nor initiatives act to increase the voter participation rate (voter turnout). This is because of two offsetting considerations. On the one hand, the existence of referenda and/or initiatives presumably enhances the power of voters to influence government decision making. This enhancement implies increased expected gross benefits from voting, which in turn increases the expected net benefits from voting, ceteris paribus. On the other hand, voters must incur the information/ transactions costs involved in learning about the referenda and/or initiatives on the ballot in order to be adequately informed to make the most effective use of their enhanced voting power. The latter phenomenon implies increased gross costs from voting, which impact in turn decreases the expected net benefits from voting, ceteris paribus. Since expected gross benefits and costs both rise as a result of the existence of referenda and/or initiatives, there is no reason to believe that there are positive net benefits from voting per se as a result of these forms of direct democracy.

The model is a cost-benefit framework that parallels the rational voter model. …

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