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When considering elections in multi-level contexts, scholars have typically assumed—in line with second-order election theory—that the way voters approach an election depends on their attributions of responsibility, that is, on what they see as being at stake in that election. This assumption is questionable. The formal position is not always clear, and is further blurred by parties and the media. Moreover, many voters pay little attention to politics and have little incentive to trace constitutional responsibilities. In this paper I use data from election studies in two multi-level contexts, Ontario and Scotland, to explore the nature and impact of voters’ attributions of responsibility. The evidence suggests that, when called upon in surveys to do so, many voters can confidently and fairly accurately assign issues to different levels of government. Yet they do not seem to consider these attributions much at elections. There is very little indication that issues weighed heavier in the decision-making of those who regarded them as the responsibility of that electoral arena. A plausible explanation is that most voters sidestep the cognitive demands imposed by multi-level elections.
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