One More Piece to Make Us Puzzle: The Initiative Process and Legislators' Reelection Chances

By Bali, Valentina A.; Davis, Belinda C. | Political Research Quarterly, June 2007 | Go to article overview

One More Piece to Make Us Puzzle: The Initiative Process and Legislators' Reelection Chances


Bali, Valentina A., Davis, Belinda C., Political Research Quarterly


This article examines how the presence and usage of the initiative process impact the electoral chances of state legislators. Using individual-level data on state legislators across the states from 1970 to 1989, the authors find that the presence and frequency of use of the initiative do not hurt legislators' electoral chances. In fact, under certain institutional settings, the initiative process can have a small beneficial impact on legislator's reelection fortunes. In addition, the initiative can insulate legislators' electoral chances from national economic conditions. The authors argue these findings are compatible with the notion of state legislators adapting to the initiative process.

Keywords: initiative process; legislators; states

In their recent overview of the literature on initiatives and referendum, Lupia and Matsusaka (2004, 463) organized their discussion around four questions that are addressed in the direct democracy debate: "Are voters competent? What role does money play? How does direct democracy affect policy? Does direct democracy benefit the many or the few?" It is not possible to fully answer these questions, in particular those related to the policy implications of direct democracy, without considering state legislators. Presumably, competent voters, regardless of economic influence or minority/majority status, who are happy with the policies produced by their legislators, have little incentive to resort to the initiative process. In fact, the history of the Progressive Era reveals that reformers pushed initiatives to the forefront of reform in the early twentieth century precisely because the opposite situation existed. The goal of the initiative process was to allow citizens to exert some degree of control over the policy making process to "insure responsive as well as responsible government" (Howe 1967).

If dissatisfaction with indirect democracy and its primary institution, the state legislature, is at the heart of early adoptions of initiative and referendum in the American states, then the usage of initiatives by a state's citizenry may also represent dissatisfaction with the current performance of legislators. If this is indeed the case, then an important piece of the story regarding initiatives and their role in state politics is missing. How do initiatives affect state legislative elections? The original impetus in the adoption of the initiative process suggests initiatives and how they are used may have a damaging impact on legislators' electoral chances. However, there are several mechanisms by which the initiative process may also convey benefits to legislators. For example, even the early reformers saw one of the end results of increased direct democracy to be a more engaged citizenry (Key and Crouch 1939), which in turn may produce more confidence and trust in political institutions (Bowler and Donovan 2002; Hero and Tolbert 2004). Furthermore, as Gerber's (1998) work on indirect influences suggests, the threat of the initiative process itself may prompt legislative activity, potentially furthering legislators' electoral chances. Remarkably, there has been little systematic research to clarify how these competing forces from the initiative ultimately affect legislators. In this article, we hope to remedy this by examining the impact of the presence of the initiative process and the use of the initiative process on the probability that a state legislator will win reelection.1

Theoretical Development

Recent work devoted to the study of the initiative process and its effect on state politics makes it clear that initiatives alter the landscape in which public policy is produced (Donovan and Bowler 1998). The initiative process provides an additional venue, outside of the legislature, through which groups can participate and influence policy making. Initiatives provide citizens with an end run around the legislative process, and when citizens choose such a route, it stands to reason that there are implications for state legislatures. …

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One More Piece to Make Us Puzzle: The Initiative Process and Legislators' Reelection Chances
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