The initiative process can be very demanding of voters’ time and energy. Ballot measures can cover complicated areas of public policy that may be difficult for even the most educated voters to understand. Voters must actively seek out reliable information, while deceptive advertising pours out of their televisions, radios, and mailboxes. Those who feel inadequately informed must decide whether to abstain from voting or risk mistakenly voting against their own interests. The information demands placed on voters by direct democracy increase with each additional proposal they must consider, and voters have expressed their frustration with long ballots. Including parties’ initiative endorsements on the ballot would significantly reduce this burden.
Political parties serve a unique informational role in democracy. Voters know each party represents a set of principles and policy preferences, as outlined in its platform. Voters are accustomed to seeing candidates’ party affiliations included on the ballot. Even if candidates’ names may be unfamiliar, their party affiliations provide voters with a wealth of information about the type of legislation they would support if elected. Rather than spending countless hours attempting to find all the available information on candidates, voters can feel safe supporting those who share their party affiliation, knowing these candidates also share their principles and policy preferences. In this role, party labels act as information shortcuts, drastically reducing the time and effort required of voters to make competent decisions. Unfortunately, voters are not provided similar shortcuts on the ballot when considering initiatives.
By placing parties’ initiative endorsements directly on the ballot, this proposal would allow party labels to serve the same unique function in direct democracy that they have long served in representative democracy: clarifying ballot choices. Voters who identify as Libertarians, for example, could feel safe voting for propositions 1 and 19 on the sample ballot above, knowing the Libertarian Party would only endorse initiatives that were consistent with its principals. A party’s decision not to endorse an initiative would also provide cues to all voters about the nature of the proposal. For example, because voters would know any initiative endorsed by the Green Party would be consistent with the party’s pro-environment platform, they would think twice about supporting a proposal that claimed to be environmentally friendly but was not endorsed by the Greens. (This would make it much harder for sponsors who could not secure any party’s endorsement to rely on deceptive advertising.) Research shows that when voters can correctly identify those backing initiatives, they can make competent decisions despite lacking detailed knowledge of the measures’ content.
In 1988, five separate initiatives claiming to reform California’s auto insurance industry qualified for the same ballot. Three of these were actually proposed by the insurance industry itself in an attempt to limit reform by confusing voters. An exit poll revealed that when voters unfamiliar with the initiatives’ content could correctly identify the proposals backed by the insurance industry, they cast essentially the same votes as well-informed voters:
The only difference between uninformed voters who cast competent votes and those who did not was that the former knew who was backing the initiatives. If the ballot clearly revealed who was backing each endorsed initiative, this information disparity among voters would disappear, and all voters could make competent decisions. Following the advice of an informed endorser who shares their policy preferences – or voting against an endorser with opposing interests – enables uninformed voters to cast the same vote they would have cast if they had thoroughly studied the proposal themselves (Lupia 1994).