BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Their original promise, as well as much recent
research, suggests that institutions of direct democracy -- ballot
initiatives that permit citizens to enact or reject the laws at the
polls independent of the lawmaking power of the governing body --
produce an environment that encourages better democratic
However, Joshua Dyck, PhD, assistant professor of political
science at the University at Buffalo, disagrees.
Using the results of two major national surveys with a total of
more than 4,000 respondents, Dyck demonstrates that state ballot
initiatives on things like same-sex marriage, eminent domain, tax
reform, education and a host of other issues actually create an
environment that encourages citizens to distrust their
He makes his argument in the study, "Initiated Distrust: Direct
Democracy and Trust in Government," published in the journal
American Politics Research (Vol. 37, No. 4). The article can be
downloaded at http://bit.ly/8WljJq.
Dyck says his findings offer a caveat to what was assumed to be
the uniformly positive effects of direct democracy on democratic
citizens. It is one of the first studies of its kind to question
existing notions about whether living in a richly democratic ballot
initiative environment has a positive effect on democratic
"The evidence presented in this study strongly supports the
notion that distrust is an institutional byproduct of direct
democratic institutions," Dyck explains, "a finding that should
motivate researchers to question more seriously the effect of this
distrust on policymaking in direct democratic environments."
Dyck notes that until recently it has been difficult to test the
influence direct legislation has on trust because when national
surveys ask about trust in government they specify trust in the
federal government. Ballot initiatives occur at the state
level, however, and so should have the greatest effect on voter
trust in state government.
In order to assess how trust in government is related to state
ballot initiatives, Dyck examined data from two surveys, the 2004
National Annenberg Election Survey (NAES), which asked a state
trust in government question of more than 3,500 respondents, and
the 1997 Pew Trust in Government Study of about 800
The results were compared to the relative exposure respondents
had had to ballot initiatives.
The measure of state trust used in the Annenberg study comes
from the question, "how much confidence do you have in state
elected officials: a great deal, a fair amount, not too much or
none at all."
Dyck found that citizens exposed to the highest frequency of
ballot initiative usage are about 11 percent more likely than those
with no exposure to choose "not too much confidence" or "none at
The Pew study asks similar questions. Here, as well, Dyck finds
that the use of ballot initiatives predicts lower levels of trust
in state government.
"Indeed, across multiple surveys the effect is apparent.
Exposure to ballot initiatives leads to lower levels of trust among
Americans," Dyck says.
Dyck notes that studies by political scientist Marc Hetherington
of Vanderbilt University have found that the key change in American
public opinion over the last 40 years is that Americans of all
stripes have lost faith in the federal government to implement and
administer public policy. Dyck adds that this distrust fuels
volatility in the political system, making distrusters more likely
to support non-incumbent candidates or vote for political
outsiders, and less likely to support social spending programs.
Should ballot initiatives lead to decreasing levels of trust at the
state level, we would expect potentially negative repercussions of
that decline, he says.
"The American progressive movement in favor of direct
legislation in the early part of the 20th century was founded on
prospects of good government and perceived failings of
representative democracy at the state and local level," Dyck
"The belief at the time was that the initiative, referendum and
recall would empower citizens in a manner that would make both the
inputs and outputs of government fall more closely in line with
majority opinion," he says, "and, in fact, many scholars have
argued that direct legislation has positive secondary effects on
democracies by encouraging citizens to become more involved in
"But all the conflict and turmoil generated by these elections
has also put citizens in an adversarial relationship with their
governments and has led them to alter their view of the political
process -- namely, to question if public officials are
trustworthy," Dyck says.
Dyck directs the undergraduate program in political science at
UB. His current research centers around how citizens interact with
the institutional and social environment, with particular focus on
ballot initiatives and direct democracy. His work has been
published in The Journal of Politics, Public Opinion Quarterly,
Political Research Quarterly, Political Behavior, American Politics
Research, Electoral Studies, Social Science Quarterly and Party
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive
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of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus.
UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests
through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional
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