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November 21, 2005

Ballot Issues: How Do We Know?

I was reading through an embarrassingly long backlog of email today and came across one message I meant to respond to weeks ago.  In my first post on initiative and referenda polling, I wrote:

We know that many voters make up their minds by reading the actual language on the ballot while standing in the voting booth or filling out their absentee ballot.

Reader A.L. emailed with a great question:

How do we know that?  What sort of research has been done on that?  Just what are the numbers like here...do 80% of voters decide in the booth based on the ballot language or is it more like 50%?

To be honest, we don't.  At least, MP does not know with anywhere near that level of precision, and cannot find any formal academic research on that subject.   In response to AL's question, I actually emailed the California pollsters to ask if they knew of any such research, and no one did. 

As such, it may have been more accurate to say "we assume" than "we know."  Certainly every voter gets exposed to the ballot language at some point.  For some (such as California who receive a sample ballot in the mail from their Secretary of State in advance of the election), this experience may come long before they vote.  For others, it happens for the first time as they are casting their vote.  Some may try to read the text before deciding, others have made up their minds before confronting the text.  How many try to decide by reading the text on Election Day?  I can't say for sure, but I have certainly talked to voters who did just that. 

My observation was based mostly on a bit of conventional wisdom - widely shared by campaign consultants and managers - that derives from years of watching initiative and referenda campaigns.  More often than not, ideas that are very popular when polled as concepts fail at the ballot box.  Even when polled as a formal ballot issue, support almost always starts high and falls as the campaign progresses.   "No" campaigns do what they can to seed doubts, and like the campaign in Ohio, use legalistic or complex ballot language as their ally.  That's why pollsters and consultants largely agree that the "no" side has a built-in advantage.

Just because I could not find an academic research on this question does not mean that none exists.  Perhaps one of MP's many academically minded readers can suggest a citation.  If so, please post a comment or email me

Related Entries - Initiative and Referenda

Posted by Mark Blumenthal on November 21, 2005 at 05:08 PM in Initiative and Referenda | Permalink


["..How many try to decide by reading the text on Election Day? I can't say for sure, but I have certainly talked to voters who did just that..."

...of course, this issue rubs the 'Achilles Heel' of all human polling -- "self-reporting".

How can any pollster or academic-researcher 'know' that responses from people are true & accurate ?

Even if you were able to academically poll 100% of the California voters as to when they actually 'decided' their position on ballot-issues -- you'd only be taking their word on it... which ain't an objective measure.

Quite likely, most are not honestly sure when they mentally 'decided'.
Also, vague recollections and deliberate mis-statements/revisions about their 'decisions' cause significant polling error.

The larger issue is just HOW do individual voters exactly decide 'anything' that's put to them for a formal vote ?

Posted by: CrosbyT | Nov 22, 2005 10:52:40 AM

I always assumed that the conclusion followed naturally from the extreme sensitivity of initiative polling to the description or language being read on the phone. If the voters being polled were all like me, this would never happen. By the time pollsters make their calls, I have read the actual law (yes, I am that big a geek) and made up my mind, and would simply rattle off a lot of no's and the occasional yes based on the proposition number alone. That the electorate being polled is, by contrast, anything but invariant to wording seems strong evidence that voters don't make up their minds until they're reading the language on the ballot.

Posted by: wcw | Nov 22, 2005 12:35:16 PM

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