Citizen Competence in Direct Democracy

In my PhD thesis I started researching the question of citizen competence in direct democracy. A competent citizenry is the key to the legitimacy of direct democratic decisions, but just how competent are citizens? Understanding how citizens reason and how they make their decisions is ever more important as the use of direct democratic instruments is growing throughout the world. At the same time, all over Europe, as well as in the United States, populist parties and politicians are gaining attention and support. Many of these propose direct democracy as a means to cure the supposed malfunctioning of liberal democracy (Bowler et al. 2016). Against this background, much criticism toward direct democracy has been raised, questioning whether citizens, who have been repeatedly shown to be uninterested in and rather ignorant of politics (Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996), are competent enough decide over complex political questions.

In the coming years, I plan to further extend this research. At the moment I am in the process of publishing the papers of my dissertation. At the same time, I have started to work on new projects. My current research proceeds mainly along the following two lines:



Research Project I: Hearing the other Side? – Cognitive Complexity and Deliberation


In my thesis, I propose a concept of citizen competence based on reason-giving. A competent citizen is one who bases his or her decisions on substantive, policy-related arguments, and who considers a diversity of arguments before taking a decision. Using this concept of citizen competence, I analysed the open-ended answers to the question “What are your most important reasons for voting yes/no” which is posed in the Swiss Vox post-ballot surveys for 34 national votes in Switzerland. I conducted a quantitative content analysis and coded the answers firs for their content, and second, for their complexity / differentiation. In a first paper (Colombo 2016a), I analysed the complexity of these justification, as well as the individual- and context-level determinants of this complexity in order to assess citizen competence. In another paper, following up on this competence-assessment, I am currently analysing, which effect it would have had on the outcome of the votes, had the non-competent citizens not participated. Thereby I define those voters as non-competent, who did not give a content-related reason for their vote-decision. In a third paper, which I am currently working on, still using the same dataset, I analyse which types of justifications (pragmatic-economic, identity-related or universalistic-values) are used by citizens to justify direct democratic vote decisions, again accounting for individual-level variation and context characteristics such as the topic of the vote.

While these cross-sectional survey data offer the opportunity for a rich assessment of the use of arguments and justifications in direct democracy, the process and mechanisms which foster or hinder the consideration of different and complex arguments cannot be analysed. To go further in this direction, in another project which was part of my thesis, I conducted a laboratory experiment on the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum. Together with Davide Morisi, a fellow PhD researcher at EUI, we invited students of the University of Edinburgh to the behavioural lab to take part in an experiment, exposed them to different information material and motivational treatments and measured the effect of these treatments had on their opinion, as well as on the cognitive complexity of their justification. More specifically, I found that the expectation to take part in a group discussion and to have to justify one’s own view significantly increases cognitive complexity (Colombo 2016b) – a finding in line with research in social psychology as well as with propositions of deliberative democracy. The Scottish experiment was a first opportunity for me to design and implement an experiment on my own and to extend my focus beyond the Swiss context. In the coming years I would like to extend this project further and conduct more experiments in direct democratic settings to analyse the psychological mechanisms and circumstances which foster or hinder competent decision making, and systematic, deliberative reasoning.


Research Project II: The Role of Parties in Voters’ Direct Democratic Decision Making

The role of party cues in voters’ political decision has been at the centre of one of the key debates in political psychology of the last decades. While initially, with Lupia’s (1994) study of the California insurance vote, party cues were seen as a useful shortcut for otherwise ignorant citizens, other studies (Bullock 2011, Boudreau and McKenzie 2014) have pointed out the dangers of voters’ blindly following parties, in disregard of policy information, which opens the door to elite-manipulation. I am interested in finding out to what extent cues help or hurt decision making, and under what circumstances they are stronger, i.e. more likely to be followed, or in which situation people are able to resist party cues in response to policy argumetns. In a study, which I conducted together with Hanspeter Kriesi as part of my thesis (Colombo and Kriesi 2016), we analysed panel survey data from 2 Swiss referendum votes and came to the conclusion that policy arguments affect vote decisions significantly, but at the same time voters tend to align their arguments with their preferred party’s position during the campaign.

In order to further explore the role of party cues versus policy information I recently started two new projects. First, in a collaboration with Rune Slothuus from Aarhus University and Thomas Leeper from the London School of Economics, we analyse panel data on one Danish and three Swiss referendums. We try to find out to what extent party cues can be used as a learning device in referendum campaigns and whether voters are able to abstract from party cues if they clash with their own political values. Second, in a collaboration with two former PhD colleagues at EUI, Davide Morisi and Andrea DeAngelis, as well as Hanspeter Kriesi, we are planning to conduct a panel survey, containing an experimental component, on the Italian constitutional referendum this fall. In the survey-experiment we will expose respondents to a combination of policy details of the planned reform, as well as simple heuristic cues such as a government cue. The aim is to find out to what extent policy details affect opinion and to what extent people follow simple cues. In other words, we are assessing voters’ degree of systematic versus heuristic elaboration in their referendum decision.