Direct Democracy, Educative Effects, and the (Mis)Measurement of Ballot Measure Awareness

  • Jay Barth
  • Craig M. Burnett
  • Janine ParryEmail author
Original Paper


A century ago, Progressive reformers in the U.S. introduced the institutional innovations of direct democracy, claiming these reforms would cultivate better citizens. Two decades of high-profile research have supported and challenged the relationship between direct democracy, increased attention to politics, and a higher turnout rate. We propose, however, that a necessary condition of the “educative effects” model is voter familiarity with initiatives and referendums. While some research has examined ballot measure awareness, we suspect that that the standard measurements—e.g., “Have you heard of Proposition X?”—overestimate actual knowledge. Specifically, we measure ballot measure knowledge in a manner requiring voters to demonstrate familiarity with specific measures rather than merely asserting broad familiarity. Our approach reveals that the public’s awareness of statewide ballot measures, both in the abstract and with respect to particular measures, is far lower than past research suggests. Importantly, it also reveals that people with high levels of education, political interest, and knowledge of national politics are the most likely to misrepresent their ballot measure awareness.


Direct democracy Ballot measures Educative effects Voter knowledge Political behavior 



The authors wish to thank the ever-helpful participants of the annual State Politics and Policy Conference for their suggestions, most especially Michael Binder and Daniel Biggers, as well as the manuscript’s anonymous reviewers. Any errors that remain are of course our own.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Hendrix CollegeConwayUSA
  2. 2.Hofstra UniversityHempsteadUSA
  3. 3.Department of Political ScienceUniversity of ArkansasFayettevilleUSA

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