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Assessing the Illinois Referendum as a Tool for Democracy

In Collaboration with the Chicago Center on Democracy

Project Lead:


Sara Graziano, Jack Votava, Michael Ryter, Rory Gates, Nicholas Newton-Cheh


This paper examines data on Illinois referenda in the context of findings from prior research on tools of direct democracy. We review existing literature on referenda and initiatives to conclude that their use drives more democratically-aligned policy outcomes and a more engaged populace, and that factors including policy topic, wording, voter turnout, and campaign spending can all significantly affect referendum outcomes, possibly undermining the referendum’s efficacy as a policy tool. We analyze data on Illinois referenda since 1980 to assess the impact of policy topic, election type, and election turnout. We find that Presidential elections and higher voter turnout both significantly negatively impact pro-referendum vote share, and that passage rate varies significantly with policy topic area.

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