In a time when fewer people are reading traditional, hard-copy daily newspapers, it is heartening to find that newspaper endorsements are still important to voters—at least voters on ballot measures. In a recently published study of Florida voters in State Politics and Policy Quarterly, FSU political scientists Kevin Fahey, Carol Weissert and Matthew Uttermark found that newspaper endorsements do have an effect on voters’ decisions to vote ‘no’ on constitutional amendment. They found that endorsements had little impact on roll-off—where voters simply don’t vote for constitutional amendments that typically come at the end of the ballot.
Much of the political science research on ballot measures has focused on salient issues such as legalizing marijuana, tax cuts, or abortion restrictions. But most of the measures citizens decide are not salient issues where citizens need more information to decide how to vote. The authors find that they turn to newspaper endorsements for that information.
The information theory of voter participation argues that voters rely on information to vote, and if they do not feel comfortable, they will not vote or will vote ‘no.’ The authors posit that the responses of voters—vote ‘no’ or not vote—was substantially different. They argue that attentive voters (those who read endorsements from newspapers in hard copy and on-line) are informed by newspaper endorsements on ballot measures which are often complex and difficult to understand. Less attentive voters, those most likely to pay little attention to information on ballot measure ‘cues,’ are not persuaded to vote on ballot measures and ‘roll-off.’ This is exactly what the analysis found.
Data for the research came from county-level votes on every constitutional amendment on the Florida general election ballot between 1994 and 2014. The unit of analysis is the county-amendment with 67 counties and 79 amendments over the time period analyzed. The key independent variable was percent of ‘no’ votes and percentage of roll-off for each constitutional amendment. (In Florida, all ballot measures are constitutional amendments; in a number of other states, voters also make choices on statutory ballot measures.) The analysis controlled for the salience and complexity of the amendments, the number of amendments on the ballot, and whether it was sponsored by the legislature, a constitutional revision commission, or was an initiative. Other independent variables included the turnout of the county, the county’s education and whether the amendment was on the mid-term or presidential election (when turnout if much higher).
The findings confirm that newspapers can provide cues for voters on issues that are not partisan in nature and can be confusing as well. They also highlight the importance of making the distinction between ‘no’ votes and roll-off. Those seeking information will respond to information provided by newspapers as one of the only (if not the only) source of guidance on ballot measures. This is especially important in mid-term elections where casual voters often stay home. Our next election—2018—is slated to have a number of constitutional amendments on the ballot, including a measure to allow some former felons to vote in our elections.
The research is published in State Politics and Policy Quarterly, the official journal of the State Politics section of the American Political Science Association. Here’s the reference: Fahey, Kevin, Carol Weissert and Matthew Uttermark. 2018. “Extra, Extra (Don’t) Roll-off About it. Newspaper Endorsements for Ballot Measures.” State Politics and Policy Quarterly . http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1532440018759269
Dr. Carol Weissert is the LeRoy Collins Eminent Scholar and Chair of Civic Education and Political Science.
Dr. Kevin Fahey is a Visiting Assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Florida State University. He received his Ph.D. from FSU in 2017, and studies political institutions and elite behavior.
Matthew Uttermark is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at Florida State University.
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