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How Will Voters Decide On Proposed NC Amendments? Q&A with Prof. Melody Crowder-Meyer

Davidson College Political Science professor Melody Crowder-Meyer
Prof. Melody Crowder-Meyer

On Election Day, North Carolina voters will vote in one of the most hotly contested—and closely watched—midterm elections in memory. However, one of the most controversial subjects in the 2018 elections is centered on six amendments to the state constitution. After they were passed by the NC General Assembly, all six were immediately subjected to legal tests as Gov. Cooper and other organizations called them misleading.

Voters have also been subjected to a series of contentious advertisements asking them either vote yes or no to every amendment. And in fact, the fight over the proposed amendments has grown so intense that the ads themselves have wound up in court with former Gov. McCrory accusing one commercial of misstating his position on the amendments. (For a list of the amendments, go to the NC Board of Elections)

Melody Crowder-Meyer, assistant professor of political science at Davidson, studies voter behavior. "The controversy surrounding the amendments is a good example of how difficult it can be for voters to decide," she says. "It shows how hard democracy can actually be."

How do voters decide how to vote on these knotty, dense subjects?

In this case, the amendments are being presented to voters without the kind of party cue (e.g., a "D" or "R" next to a name on a ballot) that can enable voters to make a fairly informed decision about who to vote for even in a complex election. So, what might voters do?

One possibility is they will look for elite cues. That is, evidence suggests that voters look at who endorses complex ballot items like these amendments in order to make fairly well-informed decisions when casting their votes.

This is likely why we are seeing so many ads about the amendments featuring a judge (one version of a trusted elite) and highlighting that 5 former governors—from both parties—oppose the amendments dealing with the governor's appointment powers. These are elite cues voters can use to decide how they want to vote even on amendments whose broader implications they may not understand.

This may also be why those ads and other communications try to make the cues they send as simple as possible. TV ads, doorknob hangers, and canvassers have all encouraged me to either "vote for ALL" or "vote against ALL" of the amendments, even though some amendments will likely have more impact than others. Keeping the message simple makes it more likely a voter with time and information constraints will be able to apply that message when they cast their ballot.

If there are no party cues, what other sources of information do voters lean on to make decisions?

My own research (a 2018 article in Political Behavior with Gadarian, Trounstine, and Vue) suggests that when voters are faced with more cognitively complex decisions (e.g., when they are asked to select multiple candidates from a larger field of candidates as in at-large local elections) or when voters' cognitive resources are otherwise taxed (which is likely in votes on complex amendments like these), voters are more likely to rely on simple cues like stereotypes or prejudices. These cues are cognitively easier to access and don't require extensive effort from voters (as compared to looking up and reading newspaper articles about each individual amendment, or as compared to making intentional efforts to counteract implicit stereotypes one holds)—so, they'll be relied upon more when voters are asked to do cognitively complex things.

Several of the amendments up for a vote are on topics that research highlights are linked in many people's minds (implicitly) to race. For example, research demonstrates that support for voter ID laws is different when individuals are primed to think about white voters and poll workers versus black voters and poll workers. So, if simple shortcuts that prime images of white or black voters are provided to those considering the amendments—for example, in advertisements - voters may be especially likely to use racial stereotypes and attitudes when deciding how to cast their ballots on this complex set of amendments.

This may be simplistic but do voters often get votes like these right?

It varies. When good cues are available (for example, clear endorsements by trusted elites), even less-informed voters can make decisions that are pretty similar to well-informed voters. But, because good cues are often not available, and because voters in cognitively complex situations like these are likely to rely on simple shortcuts, voters can sometimes make decisions on referenda that end up opposing their actual preferences. Governing is hard and putting detailed components of governance in the hands of the voters—especially in cases, like these amendments, when the wording is at best difficult to understand and at worst intentionally misleading—may work against voters' interests.

One example: In the 1990s, some counties in Illinois required voters to vote on property tax increases-used to provide services to the public, such as fire protection-beyond a particular rate, while other counties did not do this. Fire districts with referendum requirements had increases in their property taxes that were 43 cents less per year than districts without voter input on property taxes. For that ‘cost savings,' residents of those counties paid a price in fire safety. Response rates to fire calls in referendum districts took about 1 minute longer than in districts without referendum requirements - a duration of time that makes a big difference when your house is on fire. In other words, giving voters the ability to make property tax policy—which they probably did based on a simple cue of "do I want to pay less money in taxes? sure!"—resulted in underfunding fire departments and producing longer fire response time, which I cannot imagine any voter actually prefers.

Policymaking is complex and there are always tradeoffs. So, asking voters to vote on something like whether taxes should be lowered or capped (as one of the NC amendments does), without providing ample understanding of the implications of that decision, can lead voters to make decisions that they may not have made if they were fully informed about the implications of their vote. And, expecting voters to become fully informed about those implications is often unreasonable. I'm a college professor, and even after reading the amendments on my ballot closely, I still find it a bit difficult to predict all the possible consequences they might have.

The 2016 Brexit vote is perhaps another example of this in an international context. Looking at responses by voters even just in the week after that vote, it was clear people hadn't necessarily voted in line with their actual preferences or with a true understanding of the implications of leaving the EU. Yet, they were asked to vote on a complex issue, they voted (probably in many cases based on simple shortcuts), and their votes produced a policy outcome that studies are predicting will have undesirable negative financial effects on many in the UK.

Jay Pfeifer
japfeifer@davidson.edu
704-894-2920