Is Justice a Fixed Point?

The forthcoming article “Is Justice a Fixed Point?” by Alexander Schaefer is summarized by the author below. 

Values change. Despite being a truism, this claim remains surprisingly difficult to square with our most famous theories of justice. Political theorists from Plato to Rawls have sought to uncover and present eternal and immutable principles of justice. Yet, if values are an important factor in determining a conception of justice, and if these values evolve over time, then the correct conception of justice may be a moving target. In other words, the set of principles that best coheres with our considered value judgments may be fleeting and ephemeral, precisely because those value judgements themselves are fleeting and ephemeral. 

Political theorists have typically responded to this observation by attempting to show that their favored conception of justice would be stable. Rawls, for example, devotes a third of his lengthy treatise, A Theory of Justice, to precisely this task. Drawing on results from the mathematical analysis of dynamical systems, I argue that this concern with stability actually misses an important step. Before demonstrating that some equilibrium state is stable, one must first demonstrate that we are dealing with a system that will actually equilibrate. In short, one cannot have a stable equilibrium if one does not even have an equilibrium.  

Demonstrating that real social systems will equilibrate is difficult, if not impossible. In fact, complexity theorists often present social systems as paradigmatic examples of non-equilibrating systems. Does our system of shared norms and political values fall among these non-equilibrating systems?  

In this paper, I provide several stylized examples of social-moral systems that fail to exhibit any equilibrium states at all. The plausibility of these model systems passes the burden of proof to the static theorist: in order to convincingly discuss a stable conception of justice, the theorist must first offer some evidence that a social system can support a conception of justice as an equilibrium.  

There is, however, a more promising approach. Rather than seeking to demonstrate the existence of equilibrium states, political theorists should develop dynamic theories that do not assume equilibrium. The key to dynamic theorizing, I argue, is to focus on general, process desiderata, rather than the instantiation of particular political values. In dynamic theorizing, the concept of robustness, naturally replaces that of stability. This promising new approach requires us to redirect our attention from the snapshot to the process.  

About the Author: Alexander Schaefer is PhD Student, Department of Philosophy at University of Arizona. His research “Is Justice a Fixed Point?” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

War as a Redistributive Problem

The forthcoming article “War as a Redistributive Problem” by Jason Sanwalka Davis is summarized by the author below. 

Does the distribution of costs and benefits from war across domestic groups influence whether war is likely to occur? The idea that this might matter has certainly been a part of the popular narratives of conflict. Concerns about the influence of oil and defense contractors loomed over discussions of the genesis of the Iraq War. Similarly, during World War I, many countries were rife with internal domestic tensions over the distribution of the burdens of the war, with the wealthiest accused of profiting while middle-class soldiers suffered the costs of fighting. Going back further, Kant’s Perpetual Peace centered its theory of “republican” peace on the idea that leaders of republics – unlike autocracies – would be forced to care about the groups subject to war’s most significant harms. 

Despite this, the rationalist conflict literature has usually sought to explain war via features of interstate bargaining: generally, commitment problems and information asymmetries. Recently, however, international relations scholars have begun to explore the possibility that war might instead emerge from agency problems – i.e. situations where the incentives of decision makers responsible for entering a war differ from the incentives of the population more broadly. Importantly, this creates space for domestic distributive politics to have an impact on war onset, as it may not matter if the country as a whole benefits from a peaceful bargain if the key constituencies do not. 

Or does it? This paper develops a model that shows that the conditions under which domestic distributive politics can matter are more tightly circumscribed than previously understood. Indeed, their impact is conditional on the existence of redistributive frictions within a country. If war is to be the result of state capture by a pro-war constituency, it must be the case that the state-level agent lacks other cost-free means of “buying off” this group via redistribution from other parties; otherwise, even an agent who cares little for those who experience the burdens of war would be better served by using these costless tools to satisfy the pro-war group, while avoiding the destructive costs of conflict. It should not then matter if this group is 10 times or 1,000 times more influential than those who face the burdens of war, as the “inefficiency puzzle” at the heart of interstate conflict would simply have been relocated intrastate and left unresolved. 

However, when these redistributive frictions exist, both their magnitude and the structure of internal distributive politics become essential to understanding the origins of interstate conflict, in a way that requires they be considered jointly. Decisions about conflict should be biased towards both those who are most influential and those from whom value can be most easily extracted, but the effect of one is conditioned by the other; for instance, political influence matters less for determining war outcomes when costs to redistribute are low. Put differently, if war is to be thought of as a redistributive political tool, one needs to think carefully about the costs of the substitute tools available for redistribution. 

About the Author: Jason Sanwalka Davis is Postdoctoral Fellow, Browne Center for International Politics at University of Pennsylvania. His research “War as a Redistributive Problem” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Christmas, Crescents, and Crosses: When Is Symbolic Religious Establishment Permissible?

The forthcoming article “Christmas, Crescents, and Crosses: When Is Symbolic Religious Establishment Permissible?” by Aurélia Bardon is summarized by the author below. 

There are many ways in which states symbolically recognize religion: some have an established church, others display religious symbols in public spaces (crucifixes on the wall in classrooms, Ten Commandments in courtrooms, crosses and crescents on national flags, etc), and most recognize some religious holidays as public holidays. Such forms of symbolic religious establishment exist even in the most secular states which strictly separate religion from politics.

This kind of religious establishment is purely symbolic and compatible with equal treatment and religious freedom. The display of a religious symbol in itself does not force anyone to do anything. It does not grant special rights to those who belong to the established religion, and it does not impose special burdens on those who do not. But does this mean that it is never problematic? I argue that it does not; in some cases, but not in all cases, symbolic religious establishment is problematic because it sends a message that those who do not belong to the established religion are second-class citizens. In other words, it sends a message of exclusion that is incompatible with the kind of equal respect that a liberal democratic state should express towards its citizens.

A three-step test can help us to identify such problematic cases. First, we should ask what the symbol is a reference to: is it clearly and unambiguously referring to something divisive? The crosses on the national flags of many European states, for instance, are usually not perceived as religious or divisive symbols: for this reason, they are not problematic. Second, is the symbol displayed in a framework that makes it politically relevant? When a symbol is displayed in a parliament, in a courtroom, or in a public school, it has a significant political dimension that makes it more problematic. Finally, what are the reasons used to justify the existence of the symbol? Some of the arguments introduced by policymakers are not good enough and fail to provide a sufficient justification for why a new symbol should be created or why an existing symbol should be maintained.

The test can be applied to the Bavarian Kreuzpflicht, which makes display of a cross in the entrance of public buildings mandatory. First, the cross refers unambiguously to something religious and divisive. Second, it is made politically relevant by being displayed in political spaces. Third, the reasons used to support the decision do not provide a sufficient justification. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that this particular symbol sends a problematic message of exclusion to non-Christians: the Kreuzpflicht is an example of an impermissible case of symbolic religious establishment.

About the Author: Aurélia Bardon is Junior Professor in Political Theory, Department of Politics and Public Administration at University of Konstanz. Her research “Christmas, Crescents, and Crosses: When Is Symbolic Religious Establishment Permissible?” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

The Nature of Affective Polarization: Disentangling Policy Disagreement from Partisan Identity

The forthcoming article “The Nature of Affective Polarization: Disentangling Policy Disagreement from Partisan Identity” by Nicholas Dias and Yphtach Lelkes is summarized by the author(s) below. 

Republicans and Democrats loathe each other now more than ever measured in surveys. This chasm between in- and out-party affect—called affective polarization—encourages citizens to judge politicians and political outcomes in emotional and biased ways, compromising their ability to hold elected leaders accountable. It leads voters to reward politicians that eschew compromise in favor of grandstanding. Worse still, affective polarization’s effects are not limited to politics. It also motivates social segregation along party lines and potentially distorts economic markets.  

But why do Republicans and Democrats hate each other? Proposed causes include a decline in cross-cutting social identities between the parties, or Americans’ increasingly extreme or sorted policy preferences. These accounts assume partisanship influences interpersonal affect via one of two mechanisms: an evolved tendency to dislike social out-groups (partisan identity) or the parties’ disagreements about salient policy issues (policy disagreement). Yet, answering this question has been complicated given that the effects of partisan identity and policy disagreement are often empirically indistinguishable.  

Our study overcomes this methodological challenge to disentangle the effects of partisan identity and policy disagreement. We find partisan identity is the primary mechanism of affective polarization, and that party-branded policies mediate the party-affect relationship by signaling party loyalty. Thus, the party-affect relationship is not spurious, as others have argued. These results suggest that partisanship is not merely a “running tally” of policy preferences and past political experiences. 

We begin with a representative survey (Study 1), which shows the parties have easily distinguishable stances on policy issues used in past studies of affective polarization. This underscores the need to test the effects of policy preferences that do not cue partisan identity. Then, in four experiments, we separate the effects of policy disagreement and partisan identity by having participants evaluate personal vignettes with randomly manipulated features: partisanship, the statement of policy preferences, and what stated preferences signal about party loyalty. 

Study 2 finds party-branded preferences (which signal party loyalty and policy disagreement) nearly erase the party-affect relationship. But salience-matched, unbranded preferences (which only signal disagreement) have a much smaller effect. This gap in policy effects is especially large among strong partisans. Study 3 shows unbranded preferences act as party-branded when randomly tied to a party. Moreover, party-disloyal preferences particularly deplete the party-affect relationship. We replicate this finding (Study 4) and show that party-disloyal preferences do not work via inferences about other policy preferences (Study 5). 

Though policy disagreement’s role in affective polarization has been overestimated, disagreement still matters to affective polarization. Unbranded preferences diminish the effect of partisanship on feeling thermometers by around a third. Also, the total effect of policy preferences—that is, including mechanisms unrelated to partisanship—on thermometers exceeds that of partisanship. However, the total effects of partisanship and policy preferences on social closeness are comparable. 

Altogether, our findings underscore how the effects of partisanship and policy preferences flow through one another. The policy-affect relationship is direct. The party-affect relationship is large, but mediated by party-branded policies. These patterns can give the false impression that policy preferences matter more than partisanship. 

About the Author(s): Nicholas Dias, Ph.D. student in Communication and Political Science, Annenberg School for Communication, Department of Political Science, School of Arts & Sciences at University of Pennsylvania and Yphtach Lelkes, Associate Professor of Communication, Annenberg School for Communication at University of Pennsylvania. Their research “The Nature of Affective Polarization: Disentangling Policy Disagreement from Partisan Identity” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Do Female Officers Police Differently? Evidence from Traffic Stops

The forthcoming article “Do Female Officers Police Differently? Evidence from Traffic Stops” by Kelsey Shoub, Katelyn E. Stauffer, and Miyeon Song is summarized by the author(s) below. 

With mounting evidence that police contact affects political and civic participation, political scientists have increasingly questioned what informs police-citizen interactions, ranging from citizen characteristics, to the context of the interaction, to officer race. Our research focuses on the possible role of officer sex in shaping these interactions, and asks whether women bring a unique perspective to the force and do their jobs differently than men. 

Existing research has offered conflicting answers to these questions. One perspective argues that gendered socialization means men and women have different experiences and perspectives that they bring with them to the force, and these differences will manifest in observable differences in officer behavior. Another perspective, in contrast, points to factors such as academy training and agency norms and practices to argue that men and women are socialized (and incentivized) to engage in similar behaviors on the force. 

Using information on millions of traffic stops conducted by the Florida Highway Patrol and Charlotte (North Carolina) Police Department across multiple years, we test these competing perspectives. We focus on traffic stops because they afford officers a high degree of discretion, meaning if men and women approach their jobs differently, we should be most likely to observe differences in this context. Traffic stops also provide a more “gender-neutral” context compared to past studies that have examined officer sex in highly gendered areas, such as sexual assault. Another aspect of traffic stops that lends itself to this analysis is that multiple steps occur during a stop, which we can leverage to test not only whether there are differences in behavior (i.e., whether men and women officers search drivers at different rates) but also whether men and women have different levels of success in bringing contraband off the streets.  

We find that women officers are less likely to search a driver following a stop than officers who are men, indicating that women are less likely to escalate the encounter. While these differences in search rates may help to minimize negative interactions between women officers and civilians, it does raise the question of whether fewer stops come at the cost of effectiveness. Our findings, however, show that the decrease in searches conducted by women officers only negligibly affects how much contraband they find compared with officers who are men and that women officers find contraband at a comparatively higher rate.  

Together, these results indicate that women officers may reduce the frequency and intensity of negative police-citizen interactions at no cost to job performance and effectiveness. One implication of our findings is that diversifying police forces may produce more positive – or at least less negative – police-citizens interactions. Given the corrosive effects of negative police-citizen encounters on views of the government generally and the police specifically, understanding the dynamics underpinning these interactions is critical.  While our research does not address systemic forces that shape how police engage with citizens, it does shed light onto how individual officer characteristics and behaviors condition the nature of these interactions.  

About the Author(s): Kelsey Shoub is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science at University of South Carolina, Katelyn E. Stauffer is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science at University of South Carolina and Miyeon Song is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science at University of South Carolina. Their research “Do Female Officers Police Differently? Evidence from Traffic Stops” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Threat-Inducing Violent Events Exacerbate Social Desirability Bias in Survey Responses

The forthcoming article “Threat-Inducing Violent Events Exacerbate Social Desirability Bias in Survey Responses” by Shane P. Singh and Jaroslav Tir is summarized by the author(s) below. 

Feeling pressure to answer in a socially desirable manner, survey respondents sometimes provide untruthful answers to the questions asked of them. We identify violent events as a new source of social desirability bias. We theorize that, because violent events present a threat to society, individuals feel pressured to report engaging in behaviors that are perceived as being supportive of it. Our findings have important substantive and methodological implications for researchers who rely on survey questions known to be susceptible to social desirability bias—particularly when these are asked in the wake of violent conflict.  

To detect social desirability bias, we focus on responses to questions about past voter turnout, which are known to be influenced by social desirability. If our theory is correct, the likelihood that individuals will report having voted when they did not should be higher when they have been exposed to violent events. To marshal evidence for this observable implication, we conduct three separate studies.  

The first leverages the timing of survey fieldwork in the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems across 103 elections. We compare individuals whose post-election survey interviews were preceded by a post-election fatal terrorist attack to those whose were not. We find that being surveyed after an attack is associated with about a seven percentage point increase in the probability of reporting turnout. Because we only consider post-election fatal terror attacks, it is impossible for the attacks to have genuinely influenced electoral behavior. Thus, differences in recalled participation are attributable to turnout overreporting. 

The second study leverages the 2004 European Social Survey in the Netherlands, fieldwork for which was interrupted by the murder of Theo van Gogh, a prominent critic of Islam who was violently slain on an Amsterdam street. We find that the van Gogh terror attack boosted reported turnout among Dutch respondents by nearly eight percentage points when comparing individuals who responded to the survey after as opposed to before the murder. Because every individual was interviewed after the election in question, this increase is attributable to turnout overreporting.  

In the third study, we designed and implemented a randomized survey experiment in India that leverages a deadly 2019 terror attack on Indian national police. We find that respondents who were shown a vignette about the attack were about ten percentage points more likely to report having voted in the most recent national election than those in who were asked to read an innocuous vignette. 

To avoid making erroneous inferences, researchers should pay careful attention to the timing of surveys vis-à-vis potential violent events that take place during fieldwork. Our results show that respondents are prone to providing society-supporting responses, even when these are misrepresentations, in the wake of violent events. Our findings also suggest that standard social desirability mitigating approaches (e.g., question wording that excuses nonvoting) cannot alone correct for this bias.  

About the Author(s): Shane P. Singh is Professor, Department of International Affairs, School of Public and International Affairs at University of Georgia and Jaroslav Tir is Professor, Department of Political Science at University of Colorado Boulder. Their research “Threat-Inducing Violent Events Exacerbate Social Desirability Bias in Survey Responses” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

When Issue Salience Affects Adjudication: Evidence from Swiss Asylum Appeal Decisions

The forthcoming article “When Issue Salience Affects Adjudication: Evidence from Swiss Asylum Appeal Decisions” by Judith Spirig is summarized by the author below. 

Issues surrounding refugee migration have been featuring everywhere from parliamentary agendas, to media coverage and public debates. An extensive literature shows that the salience of an issue affects voters’ political attitudes and electoral behavior, perhaps particularly so when it comes to immigration. Do these findings extend to the behavior of judges?

Imagine the following scenario: two people from the same country of origin appeal the dismissal of their asylum requests. Both get assigned the same chair judge to handle their respective appeal and receive their decision at a similar point in time. If one person’s appeal is handled when newspapers generally report more on refugee issues than when the other person’s appeal is handled, is her appeal less likely to be granted?

There are several reasons why we could think that issue salience would not affect judicial decision making. The principle of “equality before the law” is enshrined in many constitutions and research shows that the attitudes of elites with more expertise and experience are more stable. Yet, existing work on judicial decision making has documented that, in many ways, judges’ decisions are shaped by similar factors as the political behavior of regular citizens.

This paper argues that we should expect issue salience to affect judging if there is clear correspondence between a salient, politicized issue and the legal issue to be decided. In the specific case of asylum decisions, issue salience reduces the asylum appeal grant rate, because the perception of and media coverage about asylum issues is largely problem-centered.

To test this argument, I leverage the universe of asylum appeal decisions from the Swiss Federal Administrative Court and the volume of media coverage on asylum and refugee issues in Switzerland between 2007 and 2015. I find that higher issue salience leads judges to decide otherwise similar asylum appeals less favorably. When average daily issue salience increases by one standard deviation (+ approx. 9 newspaper articles), an appeal’s probability of success decreases by about 3-6 percentage points. Additional analyses suggest that this effect is unlikely to bedriven by accountability pressures, as there is no evidence that judges are responding to incentives created by the judicial retention system or timing their decision sin response to issue salience. Furthermore, an automated text analysis of newspaper articles reveals that the salience effects are larger when newspapers report more on asylum topics that are in line with concerns documented to drive public anti-immigrant sentiment.

How generalizable are these findings? I contend that while the issue salience effect might be particularly pronounced in the case of Swiss asylum appeal decisions, it is likely also present in other Western countries and other, similarly politicized, issue areas. Beyond advancing our theoretical understanding of the role of extra-legal factors in judging, this study emphasizes that inconsistency in judging arises not only from disparities between judges, but also from disparities between decisions of the same judge sat different points in time.

About the Author: Judith Spirig is Lecturer, Department of Political Science at University College London. Her research “When Issue Salience Affects Adjudication: Evidence from Swiss Asylum Appeal Decisions” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Ascriptive Characteristics and Perceptions of Impropriety in the Rule of Law: Race, Gender, and Public Assessments of Whether Judges Can Be Impartial

The forthcoming article “Ascriptive Characteristics and Perceptions of Impropriety in the Rule of Law: Race, Gender, and Public Assessments of Whether Judges Can Be Impartial” by Yoshikuni Ono and Michael A. Zilis is summarized by the author(s) below. 

Perceptions of procedural fairness influence the legitimacy of the law, and because procedures are mutable, reforming them can buttress support for the rule of law. Yet legal authorities have recently faced a distinct challenge: accusations of impropriety based on their ascriptive characteristics (e.g., gender, ethnicity). That is, Americans may question the impartiality of the judiciary based on attributes of judges that cannot be changed. It is worth remembering that, in 2016, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump criticized a Hispanic judge, claiming that the judge would not be able to give a fair ruling on a suit involving Trump University due to his ethnic background. What is the publics view of whether judges are impartial in light of ascriptive characteristics such as a judge’s gender and ethnicity? 

In order to understand how the attributes of judges affect perceptions of judicial impartiality in the context of the U.S. legal system, we conducted two survey experiments with around 3,000 U.S. adults each. We first conducted an experiment in which we manipulated the names of the judges appearing in a news article and asked them to evaluate the fairness of the judge. Our results revealed that assessments of a judge’s fairness depended on their perceived race/ethnicity and genderFigure 1 below shows how respondents assess the fairness of female (black square dots) and Hispanic judges (grey triangle dots)It demonstrates that Democrats, compared with Republicans, tend to perceive less bias among Hispanics and women. 

Figure 1 Perceptions of Impropriety Based on Innate Traits 

The squares and triangles in the figure represent estimates of the extent to which respondents believe there is bias in the judgments of women and Hispanic judges, respectively, and the straight lines represent confidence intervals at the 95% level. 

Next, we conducted a conjoint experiment in which respondents read aarticle about a pending court case and then asked to rate the fairness of judges who might be assigned to the case. Crucially, we randomized multiple aspects of judges’ profiles, including race/ethnicity and gender. As the results shown in Figure 2 below demonstrateDemocrats believe that female (compared to males) judges and Hispanic (compared to white) judges exhibit less bias. The exact opposite is true among Republicans. Republicans perceive more bias on the part of female and Hispanic judges. 

Figure 2. Pooled Conjoint Results Predicting Judge Bias 

The dots in the figure indicate the extent to which each attribute influences respondents’ judgments about whether a judge is impartial, with positive values indicating a strong degree of unfairness. 

Overall, our findings show that despite the progress they have achieved, female and Hispanic judges face remaining hurdles. Equally notable is the fact that ascriptive traits contribute further to partisan polarization in support for U.S. judges. This pattern is concerning because it goes beyond mere ideology, demonstrating that citizens believe that judges may be biased as a result of their race/ethnicity and gender alone. As women and minorities make up a larger share of the bench, our results imply that partisans diverge in whether these judges can rule with impartiality. 

About the Author(s): Yoshikuni Ono is Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics at Waseda University and Michael A. Zilis is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science at University of Kentucky. Their research “Ascriptive Characteristics and Perceptions of Impropriety in the Rule of Law: Race, Gender, and Public Assessments of Whether Judges Can Be Impartial” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Decentralization Can Increase Cooperation among Public Officials

The forthcoming article “Decentralization Can Increase Cooperation among Public Officials” by Adriana Molina‐Garzón, Tara Grillos, Alan Zarychta and Krister P. Andersson is summarized by the author(s) below. 

Decentralization has been highly debated over the years. Millions of dollars and hours of work have been dedicated to the implementation of decentralization, its improvement, and better understanding its effects. However, many unanswered questions remain, especially related to social dynamics among public officials and bureaucrats who are in charge of delivering public services. We often forget that institutional reforms also create governance challenges among the people involved. Since these individuals have considerable discretion in how they serve clients, their preferences and behaviors can influence the effectiveness of governance reforms. With this in mind, we study the effects of decentralization on cooperation among public officials at multiple levels of state and local government in the Honduran health sector.  

We offer a deeper understanding of what happens when institutional reforms are implemented and potential tensions between individual and group interests arise throughout the system; from health center staff, to managing organizations and their state-level regulators. The main dilemma: actors could achieve better collective outcomes in the public sector by cooperating with one another, but individuals may choose to shirk or freeride, especially where their efforts are not easily monitored. (Monitoring is difficult within the hierarchical structure of how health services are delivered to local communities).   

We study cooperation among public officials in the setting of a prominent health sector decentralization reform in Honduras. We conducted public goods games with systematic sample of public officials and bureaucrats working at regional, municipal, and local levels of the health system. Within the game, individuals had the opportunity to cooperate by contributing to a common good (a health solidarity fund in this case) or to keep the money for themselves. This structured activity helped reveal participants willingness to cooperate with one another and also allowed them to reflect on their daily work experiences – two main reasons why it is now common to use this approach as a tool to study behavior. We conducted these public good games in two settings: decentralized municipalities and a matched set of centrally-administered municipalities. We also used surveys about connections between participants to better understand relational dynamics within the health system 

Our evidence shows that public officials in decentralized municipalities do cooperate more and have a higher frequency of strong connections to their colleagues across levels of government than public officials in centrallyadministered health systemsThis implies that decentralization affects the dynamic between the various civil servants who are in charge of delivering public services. In particular, it can create a setting that both incentivizes creating more ties across the service delivery hierarchy and promotes cooperation across levels. While we recognize that decentralization can and sometimes does have negative effects on important outcomes at the local level, we believe that studying these relational dynamics among those who provide public services is also fundamental to better understand the mechanisms and conditions under which decentralization may improve public services. 

About the Author(s): Adriana Molina‐Garzón is PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science at University of Colorado Boulder, Tara Grillos is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science at Purdue University, Alan Zarychta is Assistant Professor, Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice at University of Chicago and Krister P. Andersson is Professor of Political Science, Institute of Behavioral Science at University of Colorado Boulder. Their research “Decentralization Can Increase Cooperation among Public Officials” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Able and Mostly Willing: An Empirical Anatomy of Information’s Effect on Voter‐Driven Accountability in Senegal

The forthcoming article “Able and Mostly Willing: An Empirical Anatomy of Information’s Effect on Voter‐Driven Accountability in Senegal” by Abhit Bhandari, Horacio Larreguy and John Marshall is summarized by the author(s) below. 

Electing competent and hard-working politicians is a pillar of democratic governance. It is often hoped that informing voters about their politicians’ performance may help citizens to select high-quality politicians and hold underperforming ones to accountAcademic research has made strides toward causally linking political information and accountability, though the evidence to date remains mixed. On one hand, the recent Metaketa initiative—which coordinated experimental projects in six countries to address this very question—found that making indicators of incumbent performance available to voters had little effect on their beliefs or vote choices. On the other, information’s pro-accountability effects are clearest in studies of broadcast, print, and social media.  

Given the complexity of the theoretical chain linking political information to voter-driven accountability, it is hard to know where the logic of accountability breaks down. Could limited effects be due to difficulties in disseminating information to voters? To voters’ inability or disinterest in processing information? To the lack of relevance of the information to voters? Or perhaps even to voters’ unwillingness to hold politicians to account?  

Furthermore, existing research has focused predominantly on electoral accountability – that is to say whether votes are cast against incumbent politicians that failed to meet expectations and for incumbents that exceeded them. However, citizen interactions with politicians once in office may be just as important, especially in the Global South where interactions with representatives often extend only to the months of an election campaign. Such contact represents a valuable opportunity to communicate an individual’s or community’s information, preferences, and requests to politicians.  

We designed a randomized field experiment around Senegal’s 2017 parliamentary elections to dissect the chain that connects the receipt of incumbent performance information to two forms of accountability: choices at the ballot box and requests of politicians after the electionPartnering with a Senegalese civil society association, we implemented the project across 450 villages in five rural Senegalese districts – places where information about legislators’ performance is otherwise hard to come by. Compounded by Senegal’s party-dominated system where citizens typically vote based on party rather than candidate in parliamentary elections, the low-information environment presented an opportunity to assess whether voters are willing and able to hold politicians to account based on information they receive. 

Over the month preceding the electionnine voters aged 20-38 per village could receive leaflets containing information about MP responsibilities, incumbents’ activity in parliament and local development policy outcomes, and/or information comparing the performance of the current incumbent to the previous one in a given district. To focus on how voters respond to such information upon receiving it, rather than whether the information reached or was in engaged with by voters, enumerators spent up to five minutes explaining the leaflet in person. Via baseline, endline, and follow-up surveys, we measured whether (and when) information impacted voter evaluations of the incumbentefforts to contact politicians, and actual votes in the community. 

Our varied treatment conditions, factorial experimental designs, and extensive measurement of citizen beliefs and behaviors enable us to anatomize the process through which information influences voter-driven accountability. Absent the dissemination challenges that may have affected previous studies, our study is able to examine which types of information voters care about, whether they internalize this information, and how – if at all – they use this information to hold their politicians to account.  

We find that rural Senegalese voters processed performance information in a sophisticated manner vis-à-vis their prior expectations, cared primarily about performance related to local development, and found information that compared their current incumbents with previous incumbents to be most informative. Their more positive evaluations of the best-performing incumbents endured for at least a month after treatmentIn contrast, providing information about legislator duties had little effect on voters’ beliefs or accountability-seeking behavior, suggesting that voters are well aware of politician responsibilities to bring resources back to their community.  

The information campaign also affected electoral and non-electoral efforts to hold incumbents to account. Voters durably requested greater contact with the best-performing politician after the election, and votes for such incumbents increased among likely-voters and the voters who prioritized local projects. In the often tight-knit communities that we studied, disseminating leaflets to nine younger voters was even sufficient to influence polling station level voting outcomes  

Upon receiving information, we conclude that voters are able and mostly willing to use information to hold politicians accountable. When the information provided to them is relevant, voters—even in rural settings characterized by limited access to education and information as well as low levels of political competition, where researchers might have least expected to have observed our resultsseek to hold politicians to account.  

By showing that accountability does not break down with voters in such contexts, which are all too common in the Global South, our findings shift the onus to improve accountability back to governments, donors, and civil society organizations. Such institutions may require more powerful incentives or greater capacity to disseminate accurate and relevant information that reaches a largely receptive electorate. Furthermore, our findings suggest a need for accessible fora through which enthused voters can communicate with their representatives.  

About the Author(s): Abhit Bhandari is Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse at University of Toulouse Capitole, Horacio Larreguy is Associate Professor, Government Department at Harvard University and John Marshall is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science at Columbia University. Their research “Able and Mostly Willing: An Empirical Anatomy of Information’s Effect on Voter‐Driven Accountability in Senegal” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

 

The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.