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Study: Interest Groups Influence Ballot Initiatives

By Keyon Vafa, Contributing Writer

A new study conducted by Harvard Kennedy School assistant professor Todd T. Rogers revealed that campaign efforts by independent political organizations have a significant influence on the outcome of ballot measures.

The study, co-writtem with New York University professor Joel A. Middleton, was the first empirical assessment of the effects of campaigning on the results of ballot initiative races.

Ballot initiatives are used in a variety of states to tackle issues ranging from education policy to the legalization of medical marijuana. “Ballot initiatives are an increasingly impactful aspect of our democratic process and we were interested to see whether the outcomes of these initiatives could be influenced by interest groups,” Middleton said.

While the use of ballot initiatives in many states has been justified for their relative lack of outside influences, the study shows that the time and money spent by independent groups in circulating pamphlets, identifying voters, and other forms of campaigning are effective in swaying the minds of the public towards desired policy positions.

“People often advocate for these ballot initiatives because it takes the influence of lobbyists out of the process,” Rogers said. “But our research pretty strongly argues that either advocating for or advocating against, these campaigns can have an effect.”

The study was the first of its kind to study ballot initiatives through the use of a randomized field experiment, in which the voting behavior of residents was tracked and compared.

“There was a lot of research, none of it experimental,” Rogers said.” We were able to evaluate the impact of this kind of treatment costlessly, unobtrusively, accurately, and precisely.”

The study evaluated the impacts of ballot guides sent by Defend Oregon, a political action committee, to roughly 18 percent of Oregon Households during the 2008 election. Rogers and Middleton discoverer that in 10 to 12 initiative races, there was a greater percentage of success in precincts that received the guides than those that had not. The authors state that Defend Oregon’s actions may have even changed the final outcome in two of the contests.

The researchers hope that their results will spark a national discussion on the role of political organizations in campaigns.

“I think we, in our democratic system, should have a vigorous debate over whether that kind of money and expense is free speech or whether it’s a less positive force of influence in our democratic system,” Middleton said.

“Now that we know that these things truly can be effective, we need to ask ourselves whether we want the outcomes to be influenced or if we want to put regulations in place.”

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PoliticsResearchHarvard Kennedy School2012 Election