Search This Blog


Unusually-informed electorate passed amendments

With all 13 amendments to the Louisiana Constitution, some easily, others narrowly, passing last Saturday, what does say about the electorate’s preferences?

First, there appears to be confusion in the interpreting this event. One observer believes that all succeeded, despite the fact that questionable wording on two of them means they may not do what was intended, because “chronic” voters registered affirmative votes out of “trust” of government. Those in political science who study voting behavior and turnout relating to ballot propositions could not concur in that assessment.

This election featured largely isolated propositions – that is, only two statewide special election contests for state offices joined them on the ballot. These are precisely the kinds of elections that disproportionately attract the most informed kind of voters, people with a higher degree of interest in politics. Those with lower interest are more likely to stay home, because there are not on the ballot high profile partisan contests, widely and regularly reported in the media with aggressive campaign organizations spewing forth electioneering materials to the public. So if we equate “chronic” with higher-interest, as a behavioral pattern of these kinds of voters, this does not mean they “trust” government more and vote accordingly, because we also know that there is no relationship between trust in government and higher- and lower-interest people. Therefore, we cannot say that it is greater “trust” that disproportionately produced “yes” votes.

Where they may be a relationship, however, is in the relative level of turnout and the likelihood of approval or disapproval. As turnout increases, more and more marginal voters appear who often are distrusting of the propositions which by definition change things. As less-involved citizens, they are more likely to take the attitude, “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” and, being less informed and probably more in doubt of what propositions mean, become more likely to vote against something. If anybody, they would “trust” government more.

While a retired colleague in the profession argues the passage of over two-thirds of state amendments since the 1974 Constitution shows a tendency to vote affirmative demonstrates the electorate’s pliability to supporting government initiatives, in fact a more discriminating view indicates otherwise. In the 21st century, 49 amendments have been proposed of which 14 (the other besides last Saturday’s being the prohibition against same-sex marriage in 2004) have not had any of a presidential, senatorial, or gubernatorial election at the top of the ballot. All have passed. Of the others that did have big races topping the ballot, only 22 of 35 have passed.

This is because of the bias of marginal voters against changing the constitution. Further proof may be obtained by noting in 2006 two measures basically identical to two 2002 failed measures ended up passing – investments in equities for Medicaid funds and by institutes of higher learning. They won this time with about 610,000 and 595,000 total votes, respectively (each winning handily) while in 2002 they both (narrowly) lost with about a million votes cast for each.

In other words, perhaps half of the electorate this time was better-informed voters (note: even at this level they still only comprise 11 percent of the total electorate), and the other half not. Propositions won because the more-informed voters saw merit in them (the vast majority on some items, but even about half of them with the flawed amendments, which, one should note, may or may not be defective in wording; their flaws are because of possible multiple interpretations of them, but that does not mean they won’t be interpreted in the way their authors’ intended – still, the safest thing to do with them is to try again).

So the 2006 amendment results are not a product of an electorate trustful of government, but of a more-discriminating electorate than typically seen deciding on ballot propositions. Understanding current Louisiana electoral behavior requires understanding this.

No comments: