Céline Colombo (2019) Principles or Pragmatism? Morality Politics in Direct Democracy. British Journal of Political Science. DOI:

Political scientists often distinguish between two types of issues: moral versus non-moral issues or social-cultural versus economic issues, implying that these types of issues trigger different types of reasoning. While economic or non-moral issues rely on pragmatic, consequentialist reasoning, moral or social-cultural issues are said to rely on principles and deontological reasoning. However, we do not know whether this distinction is so clear-cut from a citizens’ perspective. Scholars agree that understanding the morality of voters’ political attitudes has implications for their political behavior, such as their willingness to compromise and openness to deliberation. Few studies have analyzed however, whether citizens reason in principled or pragmatic ways on different issues. This study takes an exploratory approach and analyses the determinants of principled versus pragmatic reasoning in direct democracy, where citizens decide directly over policies at the ballot box. Using a unique dataset based on 34 ballot decisions in Switzerland, it explores the justifications voters give for their ballot decisions in open-ended survey-answers. Thereby it distinguishes between pragmatic (or consequentialist) arguments and principled (or value-based) arguments. The analysis shows that principled justifications are not tied to particular issues. Voters use both types of justification almost equally frequently. Moral justifications are more likely when an issue is personally relevant, as well as when a proposition is accepted, while pragmatic justifications prevail when a proposition is rejected. Furthermore, identifiers of the political right argue more often in pragmatic terms.  Finally, the framing of the issue during the campaign significantly affects moral versus pragmatic justifications.

Andrea DeAngelis, Céline Colombo & Davide Morisi (2019). Taking cues from the government: heuristic versus systematic processing in a constitutional referendum. West European Politics. DOI: 10.1080/01402382.2019.1633836 

One of the main criticisms of direct democracy is that it places excessive demands on voters. Are citizens competent enough to vote directly on policy issues? When stakes are high, do citizens mainly follow elites’ signals or do they decide in line with their issue preferences? This article addresses these questions in a multi-method setting by combining observational and experimental data from an original three-wave panel survey conducted during the 2016 Italian constitutional referendum. In particular, Finite Mixture Models are employed to model voters’ heterogeneous strategies of information processing. Findings show that heuristic voting based on government evaluation prevails over policy-related voting. More specifically, less politically sophisticated and partisan voters relied on government assessment as a heuristic, while sophisticated and independent voters based their decisions mostly on their assessment of the reform. Implications for the question of citizens’ competence in direct democracy are discussed.

Davide Morisi, Céline Colombo & Andrea DeAngelis (2019). Who is afraid of a change? Ideological differences in support for the status quo in direct democracy. Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties. DOI:

Research has documented that individuals display a bias for preserving the status quo across numerous domains of decision-making, including elections for candidates and referendums. Yet, it is not clear whether thinking about a political reform as a change to the status quo actually makes voters less likely to support it. We investigate this possibility in a referendum campaign, in which we prime a representative sample of voters with a “change cue” evoking the modification of the status quo related to a proposed reform. Our findings show that support for a referendum proposal decreases when voters consider that it will change the status quo, but only among right-wing voters. The effect is stronger among less knowledgeable voters on the right (but not on the left) of the political spectrum. Furthermore, we find that the priming manipulation has no effect in the presence of campaign arguments, thus suggesting that voters might discard peripheral cues when substantial policy information is available. These findings have relevant implications for the goal of achieving political change in democratic politics, and highlight the key role of ideology in moderating the status-quo bias in political decision-making.

Colombo, Céline (2018). Justifications and Citizen Competence in Direct Democracy – A Multilevel Analysis. British Journal of Political Science, 48(3), 787-806 [PDF]

While the popularity and implementation of direct democratic instruments is growing throughout the democratic world, the criticism that ordinary voters lack the necessary competence to make policy decisions persists. This paper presents novel and original a measure of voters’ level of justification as a possible, policy-specific, conceptualization of citizen competence in direct democracy. Using a unique dataset based on 34 ballot decisions in Switzerland, the study explores the levels and correlates of citizen competence by means of a multilevel analysis. The main findings are, first, that most voters know policy-arguments. Second, the political context and individual resources are important in determining voters’ competence. Finally, with regard to individual resources, motivation is strongly associated with justification levels, while the effect of ability is smaller than expected.

Colombo, Céline (2018). Debiasing Political Opinions – The Case of the Scottish Independence Referendum. Political Studies, 27(1), 23-42 [PDF]

 This study reports the effects of two debiasing-strategies on the complexity of people’s thinking on a controversial policy issue – the question of Scottish independence. I start from the well-researched assumptions of motivated reasoning theory that individuals tend to protect their beliefs, are often not willing to hear the other side, and fail to integrate contrasting arguments and different perspectives in their political considerations – although considering different viewpoints is a fundamental normative requirement for democratic decision-making. Two different debiasing techniques, which are meant to counteract this tendency, and to evoke more integrative and complex thinking, were tested experimentally, a cognitive and a motivational strategy. The experiment was situated in the context of the Scottish independence referendum. The expectation of accountability – having to justify one’s opinion in front of unknown others – significantly enhanced integrative complexity of thinking about the issue, while inducing subjects to consider the opposite had a no significant effect. Opinion strength and political knowledge did not affect the treatment effects significantly.

Colombo Céline and Kriesi, Hanspeter (2017). Party, Policy – or both? Partisan biased processing of policy arguments in direct democracy. Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, 27(3), 235-253[PDF]

 How do party cues and policy information affect citizens’ political opinions? In direct democratic settings, this question is particularly relevant. Direct democratic campaigns are information-rich events which offer citizens the opportunity to learn detailed information about a policy. At the same time parties try to influence citizens’ decision procedure by publishing their own positions on the issue. The current debate on whether ‘party’ or ‘policy’ has more impact on political opinions has not yet yielded conclusive results. We examine the effect of policy arguments and party cues on vote intention in two Swiss referendum votes using panel survey data. To the simple dichotomous question of “party cues or policy information” we add an additional twist in asking how party cues affect the processing of policy information through processes of motivated reasoning. We find first, that both, policy arguments and party cues, have an independent effect on vote intention. However, in a second part of the analysis, we find strong evidence for partisan biased processing of policy arguments – that is voters tend to align their arguments with their preferred party’s position. Our conclusions with regard to the democratic quality of these vote decisions are therefore ambivalent.


Steenbergen, Marco and Céline Colombo (2018). Heuristics in Political Behavior. In: Mintz, Alex and Lesley Terris (eds.): The Oxford Handbook of Behavioral Political Science. New York: Oxford University Press

Heuristics have rapidly become a core concept in the study of political be- havior. The term stems from the ancient Greek heuriskein, which means “to discover.” In most contexts, however, a more apt description would be “discovery by way of shortcuts.” For the key idea is that decision makers bypass  a certain amount (if nor most of the) information on their way to discovery; in other words, they rely on shortcuts. In this sense, heuristics contrast with classical rational choice.

Colombo, Céline and Hanspeter Kriesi (2020). Referendums and Direct Democracy. Oxford Handbook of Political Representation in Liberal Democracies. Edited by Robert Rohrschneider and Jacques Thomassen. 

In this chapter, we start by tracing the origins of modern day direct democracy back to the ideas of participatory democrats, and we give a systematic overview of the different forms of direct democratic practices existing today, as well as of the main criticisms of direct democracy. Next, we review existing empirical evidence on some of the crucial debates surrounding direct democracy:  Does direct democracy lead to systematically different policy outcomes and to a better representation of voters? Do popular votes hurt minority rights? To what extent does direct democracy undermine the relevance of and participation in elections? Are citizens competent enough to decide over policy at the ballot box? What is the role of the elite and of campaigns in direct democracy? Finally, we discuss the controversial relation between direct democracy and populism.


Colombo, Céline (2016). Partisan, not ignorant: citizens’ use of arguments and justifications in direct democracy (Doctoral dissertation). European University Institute: Florence. [PDF] [abstract]


Céline Colombo and Hanspeter Kriesi. Referendum campaigns can end up convincing voters that their preferred party is right. LSE Democratic Audit Blog, October 2017

Céline Colombo, Davide Morisi und Andrea DeAngelis (2016): Die falsche Strategie: wie Renzi den Erfolg des Verfassungsreferendums sabotiert hat. DeFacto, 01.12.2016

Davide Morisi, Céline Colombo, and Andrea DeAngelis (2016): New survey evidence: Renzi’s support is damaging the chances of a Yes vote in Italy’s referendum. LSE Europp Blog, 18.11.2016

Colombo, Céline (2016): Wie kompetent ist das Stimmvolk? DeFacto, 22.06.2016

Céline Colombo, Thomas DeRocchi, Thomas Kurer, Thomas Widmer (2016): Analyse der eidgenössischen Abstimmung vom 5. Juni 2016, gfs.bern und Institut für Politikwissenschaft der Universität Zürich. Hrsg. vom Forschungsinstitut gfs.bern in Zusammenarbeit mit den politikwissenschaftlichen Instituten der Universitäten Bern, Genf und Zürich, 1977 ff.