When a minority party gains tenuous control of the legislature, or when a majority feels that it might become the minority soon, then legislators gain an incentive to weaken the legislature by empowering the median voter.
Today, voters in 24 states can make policy directly through the initiative process. In most of these states, the initiative process was first adopted between 1898 and 1918. Smith and Fridkin seek to explain why only these states, and not others, adopted the initiative.
Because most of the states that adopted the initiative in this period were agrarian, western, and mostly white, historians have traditionally answered this question by claiming that the initiative was most likely to be adopted in “younger states with a strong history of populism and antimonopoly sentiments, more homogeneous [white] populations…, more radical (but weaker) political parties, and stronger interest groups” (pg 334). Smith and Fridkin contend that these conclusions have been based on deeply flawed logic and methods.1
In particular, scholars have erred in asking why some states adopted the initiative and others did not; such an approach focuses on voter demand for direct democracy. But since the initiative is usually adopted via legislative referendum, in which legislators invite voters to choose whether to adopt the initiative, scholars should instead be asking why legislators in some states chose to offer the initiative to voters, while legislators elsewhere did not.2
Theory and Findings
Smith and Fridkin argue that legislators were most likely to offer the initiative when states experienced close partisan competition. When a minority party gains tenuous control of the legislature, or when a majority feels that it might become the minority soon, then legislators gain an incentive to weaken the legislature by empowering the median voter. This is their main causal argument, which is supported by an event history analysis.
Other conditions also play a role. In particular, legislatures in newer states are more like to offer the initiative than legislatures in older states. The authors attribute this difference to the weaker party organizations in younger states–organizations that might have less ability to rein in independent-minded legislators. Likewise, legislators were more likely to offer the initiative if there were more third-party legislators or if there was a strong interest group pressure in a particular state for instituting the initiative.
Contrary to previous work, the authors do not find any evidence of a contagion/diffusion effect. Nor do they find that initiative adoption was more common in racially and ethnically homogeneous states. Significantly, they find that dummies for the western and southern region are not statistically significant in their models; controlling for other variables apparently eliminates the regional bias in initiative adoption.
This paper’s methodological rigor makes it a welcome addition. As the authors point out, most previous work on this topic has been somewhat impressionistic and ad hoc. Event history analysis is the right way to study adoption of the initiative. Their shift from studying adoption to studying legislative support for the initiative is very smart.
That being said, a few things seem off to me. First, why did initiative adoption largely cease after 1918? Imperfect as previous work may be, its emphasis on western culture and populism seems to have an answer to this question. Smith and Fridkin don’t so much as speculate; they simply restrict their analysis to 1898-1918. But if some omitted variable caused initiative adoption to cease in 1918, is it possible that the same omitted variable, if measured, would change the results in Smith and Fridkin’s analysis?
Also, it seems that the role of governors may be downplayed. The authors start well (p 339) by listing several Democratic and Republican governors who pressured their legislators to pass an initiative reform; they even note that Republican Hiram Johnson of California made this a major goal. Yet inexplicably, the authors “control” for these considerations by including a dummy for whether the governor belonged to a third party. They provide no justification of this measure which, unsurprisingly, is not statistically significant–leading them to conclude (without basis) that gubernatorial action plays little role in adoption of the initiative. But if we believe that executives can pressure legislators by “going public” or through other means, then we should be looking more at the role governors may have played.
Third, they take no account (empirically) of variations in initiative institutions. Initiatives vary widely in (1) how hard they are to use and (2) how easily the legislature can ignore them (Bowler and Donovan 2004). Why did some states (California, Oregon) pass powerful initiatives, but other states (Utah, Idaho) passed weak ones? The authors acknowledge this variation, but do not seek to explain it. My speculation: The “party competition” variable that the authors discuss might be two different things. If a minority (perhaps allied with third parties) seizes control for a short while, or if a majority genuinely fears becoming a minority, then we might see an effort to create a truly powerful initiative. But if a majority sees its power slipping and wants to do something popular to build up support, then we might see a weak initiative created purely for its symbolic value.
Every study has weaknesses, and the flaws in this one are by no means fatal, nor are they necessarily more numerous or severe than what is typical for an article in a top journal. But I think they point to some avenues for further research.