Ballot Initiatives Foster Distrust of State Government, Researcher Shows

Release Date: November 30, 2009 This content is archived.


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Research by UB political scientist Joshua Dyck indicates that ballot initiatives actually lead to distrust of government.

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 citizenship.

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 governments.

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

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 citizenship.

"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 respondents.

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 all."

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 says.

"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 government.

"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 Politics.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University 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 degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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