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CHAPTER 1 The History of Direct Democracy: A Critique of Voter Competence Can voters make sense of direct democracy? Are they capable of making choices that are consistent with their interests and desires, or is the act of voting on initiatives and referenda haphazard-or, worse, is it the subject of confusion and manipulation? Do decisions reflect some underlying ability to respond to information that is relevant to a policy decision, or are the choices that citizens make on ballot measures capricious, reflecting nothing but whim? Do the choices made at the end of an initiative campaign reflect an ability to reason? These questions are the focus ofthis book. Indeed, questions such as these have motivated decades ofcriticism and analysis of direct democracy as it is used in the United States. As we shall illustrate, the conventional answer to these questions has not been flattering to voters, at least in the view of academic political scientists. In this book, we demonstrate that voters in a direct democracy engage in a substantial amount of reasoning. We assume that different ballot propositions create different settings for voter choice-and these propositions provide voters with a variety of information cues and heuristics that guide the choices they make. Some ofthese choices are more informed, or more "self-interested," than others. Working from the perspective that views voters as responsive to minimal levels of information (Lupia 1992; 1994a), we provide evidence that the choices that voters in a direct democracy make are reasonably informed. In addition , these choices often appear consistent with the interests and values of the voters, and they reflect a responsiveness to the available information sources. Before we discuss the capacity to reason that voters in a direct democracy must possess, we briefly consider the context in which their decisions are made. This context, some suggest, is simply too demanding for voters. We begin with an examination of some of the interpretations that have been put forth to explain the behavior of voters in direct democracy. Contending Views of Direct Democracv in the United States The American experience with the direct citizen's initiative began nearly a century ago in South Dakota. Since then, more than seventeen hundred initiative 2 Demanding Choices measures have been placed on statewide ballots (Magleby 1994a:231; Neal 1993). California is perhaps the most visible, if not the most discussed, example of direct democracy on a mass scale. Given its visibility, California's well-known Proposition 13 serves as a good point of departure for our examination ofcontending views ofthe prospects for voter reasoning in direct democracy at the state level. By launching what many viewed as a national "tax revolt" in 1978, Proposition 13 produced profound changes in California and in American politics in general (for a discussion of Proposition 13, see Sears and Citrin 1982). Proposition 13 rolled back California local property taxes and reduced local government revenues. Paul Gann, the initiative's coauthor, attempted to alter his state's revenue structure further by qualifying another initiative, Proposition 4, which placed constitutional restrictions on state appropriations, for a special election in 1979. Seventy-four percent of California's voters approved Proposition 4, the so-called Gann Amendment. Because direct democracy altered California's political economy, antitax activists in other states worked successfully to qualify and to pass similar legislation. The most common interpretation of the tax revolt in California and elsewhere views these events as an example of direct democracy at its worst. After years of struggling to write budgets under the constraints on property tax revenue imposed by Proposition 13, a major recession in the 1990s left California with its bond rating downgraded and its public services deteriorating. It seemed as if voters, shortsighted or angry or perhaps in response to elites who promised "something for nothing," stumbled into passing a policy that they were unable to comprehend at the time. When seen in this light, the budget shortfall in the 1990s that was subsequently attributed to Proposition 13 created constraints on public policy. That allowed a new crop of political entrepreneurs to propose (and pass) a new initiative, Proposition 187, which attempted to bar illegal immigrants from receiving basic public services, including education and health care. Given this interpretation, one conclusion drawn from California's experience stresses that confused and ignorant voters breed crisis and conflict when they are allowed to have a direct hand in major policy decisions (see, e.g., Schrag 1994; also "Government in California," Economist, 13 Feb. 1993...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780472023349
Related ISBN
9780472087150
MARC Record
OCLC
665834046
Pages
216
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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