Factors that Impact Direct Democracy and Voter Turnout: Evidence from a National Study on American Counties
This dissertation examines factors that impact citizen initiatives and voter turnout. The dissertation contains two parts that build upon each other with fitting theoretical frameworks. The first part investigates the decision for a county government to permit citizen initiatives. This part applies new institutionalism theory as a framework to examine county governance, autonomy, and decision-making. County governments play a vital role in American politics, yet little is known about why some counties permit citizen initiatives while others do not. I address a gap in the literature that focuses on policy outcomes that vary at the county-level due to election laws. Therefore, this study is one of the first empirical works to examine the institutional arrangements that impact the enactment of citizen initiatives at the county-level. To investigate counties that permit the citizen initiative, I collect data from a national dataset on American counties from the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) 2014 Survey, U.S. Department of Education, American Community Survey (ACS), U.S. Census Bureau, Community Development Financial Institutions Fund (CDFI Fund), and the 2013 NACO state report. Using a logistic model, I find cross-sectional evidence that the citizen initiative has a high association with the commission and council-elected governments for U.S. counties surveyed in 46 states. The findings suggest that elected representatives have a place in county government structure, citizens within certain county governments can use the initiative as a safeguard against political malfeasance, and elected representatives can use the initiative to engage public opinion. In addition, the first part of this dissertation provides evidence that counties afforded the home rule authority are more likely associated with the initiative, high-income counties are more likely associated with the initiative, and, conversely, higher educated counties are less likely associated with the initiative.
The second part of this dissertation investigates the impact of citizen initiatives on voter turnout. This part uses participatory democratic theory as a lens to examine the attitudes and interests of citizens in the context of voter turnout. Therefore, this part is one of the first empirical works that contributes to the literature by determining the effect of uncharted county and state-level factors on county voter turnout. To conduct an analysis on voter turnout, I collect data from a national dataset on American counties from the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) 2014 Survey, American Community Survey (ACS), U.S. Atlas of Elections, Community Development Financial Institutions Fund (CDFI) Fund, Ballotpedia, and FairVote. Using both single-level and multilevel OLS models, I find cross-sectional evidence that information costs put a burden on voters in U.S. counties surveyed in 23 states during the 2016 election. The findings suggest information cost for both county and state initiatives can hinder voter participation, income inequality has a negative impact on county turnout, and educated citizens care about voting. Along the way, I provide evidence that sorts out competing claims on how citizen initiatives impact the rational voter.