The influence of campaign contribution disclosure on voter support for tax initiatives: Evidence from Washington’s ‘Keep Groceries Affordable Act of 2018’

Primary author: Beau Barnes
Co-author(s): Jeffrey Gramlich; Jonathan Lee

Primary college/unit: Carson College of Business
Campus: Pullman


Ballot initiatives are a common form of direct democracy that allows citizens to bypass lawmakers and—if enough signatures can be collected in support of an initiative—bring about a public vote on legislation. Theoretically, ballot initiatives promote self-governance; however, using sophisticated and sometimes deceptive public persuasion techniques, well-funded special interest groups often spearhead ballot-initiative-related campaigns to support their own agendas. Although disclosure regulations often require campaigns to reveal the source of major contributions, the robustness of such disclosures varies by state. Further, the degree to which voters view campaign contributions as important when deciding to support/oppose ballot initiatives has received little attention from academic researchers, leading critics to question the benefits of disclosure regulation in general. Thus, we evaluate the influence of campaign contribution disclosures on support for a tax-oriented ballot initiative. Specifically, we examine whether voters decrease their support for Washington State Initiative 1634—an initiative banning new or increased taxes on groceries—after being presented a table that discloses the major contributors behind the campaigns for and against the initiative. Using a sample of 147 potential Washington voters on the week before the 2018 general election, we find that people tend to decrease support for Initiative 1634 after they are shown a table of campaign donors and their contributions. Thus, this study provides evidence that campaign contribution disclosures can be an important factor when deciding to vote “yes” or “no” on a ballot initiative. Policy makers can reference these findings when assessing costs and benefits of new and existing disclosure regulation.