Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Engaged by the Initiative? How the Use of Citizen Initiatives Increases Voter Turnout

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Engaged by the Initiative? How the Use of Citizen Initiatives Increases Voter Turnout

Article excerpt


Using data from 1870 to 2008, the authors attempt to resolve competing claims about the nature of how citizen initiatives affect turnout in the American states. They provide evidence that mobilization is the mechanism through which direct democracy increases turnout. Contrary to previous research, they show that the adoption of the initiative and past usage of the process do not lead to higher turnout in a given election. Citizen initiative campaigns mobilize the electorate in current elections, and the number of competitive initiative elections has a greater effect on turnout than uncompetitive races.


elections, voting behavior, public opinion, political participation, state politics, policy

Research on political behavior has focused on a range of causal factors that increase political participation, voter turnout specifically. The discipline has examined external influences such as changes in electoral institutions designed to negatively affect voter turnout, poll taxes (Key 1949/1984; J. M. Kousser 1974), or to increase turnout with mail ballots (Karp and Banducci 2000; T. Kousser and Mullin 2007) and has examined internal influences such as genetics (Fowler and Dawes 2008; Fowler, Baker, and Dawes 2008). Aside from the direct intended effects of institutional changes, some American political institutions have had unintended consequences for political participation, as in the imposition of the secret ballot and the ensuing decrease in voter turnout (Heckelman 1995). We argue that direct democracy has had the opposite unintended effect, as campaigns for initiatives, particularly competitive races, mobilize voters and increase turnout. Our results show that the existence of the institution of direct democracy in and of itself does not lead to increases in voter turnout. However, our evidence suggests that the campaigns associated with initiatives do increase turnout.

In this article, we make three fundamental contributions to the literature on direct democracy and political participation that clarify how ballot propositions engage the electorate. First, we directly test competing theories of how citizen initiatives affect turnout by measuring the effects of the introduction and usage of the institution. Second, we investigate the differential effects that initiatives have on turnout by using competitiveness as a proxy for campaign intensity. Third, our historical data set allows us to draw proper causal inferences about the relationship between citizen initiatives and voter turnout.

Our work shows that merely having the initiative process in the state or simply having used it in the past does not affect turnout in a given election. Compared to states without the initiative process, states with initiatives on the ballot have higher turnout in that election. As the number of initiatives on a ballot rises during midterm elections, voter turnout does as well, but these effects do so with diminishing marginal returns as the number of initiatives increases. Controlling for changes in demographics over time (percentage foreign born, percentage nonwhite, and urbanization), institutional changes (adoption of the secret ballot and expanding suffrage to women), contextual electoral effects (party competition and the presence of gubernatorial and senate elections), and proposition-specific characteristics (competitiveness), we show that citizen initiatives (both competitive and uncompetitive-though less so) positively affect voter turnout during midterm elections and wield no appreciable influence on turnout in presidential elections.

The results presented here suggest that the causal story of why direct democracy leads to an increase in turnout is one of mobilization. We contend that political campaigns, and their ensuing mobilization effects, are the mechanisms that lead to the increases in turnout associated with direct democracy. In the following sections we review previous research on initiatives, explain our hypotheses and methodology, discuss our results, and conclude with potential directions for future research. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.