By Philip Bump July 6 at 2:12 PM
The resounding failure of Greece's budget referendum over the weekend upheld one of the unspoken rules of ballot initiatives: If there's a large undecided vote shortly before the vote, it will probably end up as "no." The thinking is that people who haven't made up their minds are more likely to decide against change and think that "no" is the option that provides for that. Ballot-measure proponents believe this so whole-heartedly that they will try to craft the language of the referendum to make their side the "no" option.
There was one way in which the Greek referendum differed from the American norm, though: It failed.
Across nearly 6,500 intiatives and referenda tracked by the National Conference of State Legislatures, ballot measures in the United States passed 57.6 percent of the time.
They're more likely to be on the ballot in federal election years, but they actually have done better when there wasn't a presidential or congressional election. In presidential years, they've passed about 55 percent of the time; in off-years, 64 percent of initiatives have passed.
The results vary by state, in part because the number of initiatives and referenda vary, too. The most have been in California, where 54.7 percent of 913 ballot measures have passed. In second place is Oregon, where 45 percent of 658 measures have done so. Michigan has the lowest rate of passage: 37.8 percent of its 135 initiatives in the database have passed.
There's an enormous amount of variety here, of course. Not all of these were necessarily contentious in the way that Greece's voting was. But a large number were in the 50-to-60 percent majority range, which suggests a competitive measure. (The big spike to 150 below is at 66 percent -- the margin sometimes needed for passage.)
The European betting site PaddyPower, confident of the passage of the Greek referendum, went ahead and paid out to "yes" bettors a few days early. It was a bad call.
Maybe they just thought this thing was happening in the United States.
Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.
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