Shows that ballot initiatives do not foster civic engagement, but encourage divisiveness

Look Inside


Arguments about the American ballot initiative process date back to the Progressive Era, when processes allowing citizens to decide policy questions directly were established in about half of the states.

When political scientists began to systematically examine whether the state ballot initiative process had spillover consequences, they found the initiative process had a positive impact on civic engagement. Recent scholarship casts doubt on these conclusions, determining the ballot initiative process did not make people believe they could influence the political process, trust the government, or be more knowledgeable about politics in general. However, in some circumstances, it got them to show up at the polls, and increased interest groups’ participation in the political arena. In Initiatives without Engagement, Dyck and Lascher develop and test a theory that can explain the evidence that the ballot initiative process fails to provide the civic benefits commonly claimed for it, and the evidence that it increases political participation. This theory argues that the basic function of direct democracy is to create more conflict in society.  

Joshua J. Dyck is Associate Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Center for Public Opinion at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
Edward L. Lascher, Jr is Professor of Public Policy and Administration at California State University, Sacramento.

"This insightful volume is a valuable contribution to our knowledge of how the citizen-legislating process affects those who participate in it and a strong challenge to how scholars should conceptualize this relationship moving forward."
Perspectives on Politics

“Does direct democracy boost turnout or leave voters feeling frustrated and powerless? In this snappy, data-filled, and much-needed book, two of the foremost experts on ballot initiatives marshal novel and persuasive evidence that the answer is actually yes.”
—John Hibbing, co-author of Stealth Democracy and of Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives and the Biology of Political Differences

“To the discussion of the rise of tribalism in American politics, Joshua Dyck and Edward Lascher offer new and provocative evidence that points to a factor that until now has gone unnoticed.”
—Steve Kornacki, National Political Correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC and author of The Red and the Blue: The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism

“A major contribution to our understanding of direct democracy in the United States. The authors present some important challenges to the notion that ballot initiatives have positive spillover effects, and they base this challenge in a theory of conflict.”
—Todd Donovan, Western Washington University
“In this fascinating book, Dyck and Lascher show how direct democracy in the United States falls short of its democratic promise. Rather than cultivate political knowledge and interest, the politics of ballot initiatives instead serve to deepen partisan divides and encourage feelings of mistrust.  This book is essential reading for those want to understand how citizens engage with politics in their states.”
—Jennifer Wolak, University of Colorado Boulder

Winner: American Political Science Association (APSA) 2020 Virginia Gray Book Award, State Politics and Policy Section

- State Politics and Policy Section of APSA

"In all, the book is a helpful addition to the debate on the merits of direct democracy. If these institutions do not on their own have positive impacts on citizens’ relationship with government, it shifts the focus of the debate to policy effects. As Dyck and Lascher note, with concerns about minority rights and the complexities of public policy, increased responsiveness to the public through direct democracy institutions may not, in the end, be a net benefit to democratic governance."
—Political Science Quarterly

- Daniel Lewis

Listen: Joshua Dyck and Edward Lascher interviewed about Initiatives without Engagement on Democracy Works | 2/1/2021
Listen: Joshua Dyck and Edward Lascher interviewed about Initiatives without Engagement on the Democracy Paradox podcast | 8/2/2020
Listen: Joshua Dyck and Edward Lascher interviewed about Initiatives without Engagement on New Books Network | 5/17/2019