The Winner Takes it All: Revisiting the Effect of Direct Democracy on Political Support

Sofie Marien and Anna Kern

Declining levels of turnout and engagement in political parties as well as widespread political distrust have raised concerns about a democratic legitimacy deficit in advanced democracies. To address citizens’ novel participation preferences and to foster political support, proposals to give citizens more voice in the political decision-making process have been launched increasingly. Citizen involvement is expected to foster political support because citizens value voice and influence in political decision-making processes. However, despite these strong theoretical expectations, empirical studies on the effect of citizen involvement on political support remain scarce and the findings are inconsistent.

In our recent article in Political Behavior we aim to enhance our understanding of how and why citizen involvement affects political support. We gathered panel data in two comparable Belgian neighborhoods (with and without local referendum) in 2015. The data was collected using postal surveys in the month before the local referendum and in the three months following the referendum. This research design enables us to conduct a stronger causal test than previous cross-sectional studies with higher levels of ecological validity than experiments. We find an increase in political support in the aftermath of the local referendum. However, the driving force behind this increase is having voted for the outcome that has received the majority of the vote. As, in a direct democratic process, winners are by definition the majority, this explains the overall increase in support. Hence, the increase is not the result of satisfaction with being involved but merely with getting what one wanted as an outcome. Moreover, outcome favorability also shapes the process evaluations as winners think the referendum was fairer than losers.

Remarkably, however, and despite the contested nature of the issue, we also find that losers retained their political support. This is particularly noticeable, because a recent study in Sweden, for instance, showed that when trying to make a decision on a contested issue using a representative decision-making process, decision losers became less supporting of the political system and this negative effect proved to be remarkably stable over time (Esaiasson et al. in press). In contrast, in our study of a direct democratic decision-making process, losers’ support levels did not decline. In sum, involving citizens is not sufficient to increase their political support. Citizens deeply care about the outcomes of decision-making processes. Yet involving citizens does seem to be a powerful way to make contested decisions while keeping the support of decision winners and losers.


Phenotypic Preference In Mexican Migrants: Evidence From A Random Household Survey.

Rosario Aguilar, D. Alex Hughes, and Micah Gell-Redman

Our study explores phenotypic prejudice, which means prejudice related to aspects of appearance that denote a person’s race. We examine this topic within a group that has received little scholarly attention in this regard – Mexican migrants to the United States. Overall, our findings suggest that phenotypic prejudice does matter, and that the way prejudice works may change over time.

Ideally, voters would rely on candidates and parties’ platforms, proposals, and performance when making their electoral choice. But research on voting behavior shows that, depending on the context, non-political factors such as gender, class, and race also affect voters’ decision on the ballot. In the case of Latin America, and Mexico in particular, many scholars have hypothesized that more inclusive racial ideologies could make race less important for electoral choice. Others have begun to question this idea as evidence of racial appearance overlapping with other dimensions like socioeconomic status or political representation has emerged.

Our work contributes to this nascent research agenda on the political consequences of phenotypic prejudice in places where most people identify as members of the same racial group, like in Mexico. At the same time, we contribute to the research of the effect of new contexts on people’s attitudes as we explore the effect of tenure in the U.S. on migrants’ political expression of phenotypic prejudice.

Our results are based on an experiment that manipulated the appearance of a candidate supposedly competing for a governorship in the Mexican state of Nayarit. In total there were four conditions: the control that did not include a picture of the candidate and three conditions in which the candidate’s racial appearance was either white, indigenous, or mixed (mestizo).

The experiment was part of a random household survey of San Diego County, in which door-to-door canvassers contacted respondents who were born in Mexico and had resided in the United States for at least two months. This methodology allows us to generate a random sample, an advantage relative to many other experiments that use convenience samples. At the same time, we focus on a hard-to-reach population often neglected in academic research on vote choice.

Our findings show that migrants express a stronger preference for the indigenous-looking candidate, and they tend to think of the white and mestizo candidates as more ideologically conservative than the control. We interpret this as evidence that appearance may be signaling shared socio-economic interests which link voters to candidates. Our final result focused on migrants’ tenure in the U.S. Specifically, we find that migrants who have lived in the U.S. longer show greater support for the white candidate.

This last finding is particularly interesting, but also challenging methodologically. The ideal approach would be to conduct a panel survey, as cohorts of migrants might vary on relevant political, social, and economical factors. Data limitations force us to use a single cross section, and compare those with greater tenure in the U.S. to those who have been in the U.S. for a shorter time. The relevant theoretical question remains – how could tenure in the U.S. affect migrants’ phenotypic prejudice? Our cross-sectional evidence suggests that, as they spend longer in the United States, migrants may come to adopt a racial ideology that privileges whiteness.

This study contributes to the study of race and politics from a comparative perspective, as well as the study of the effects of migration on citizens’ political behavior. Our results underscore the need to incorporate non-political factors, such as race, into the study of electoral behavior even in societies whose racial ideology tends to be more inclusive.

Electoral discrimination of immigrant-origin candidates

Lea Portmann and Nenad Stojanović

Most of us believe we know what discrimination is and why it is wrong. After all, the term “discrimination” is omnipresent in today’s public discourse. And yet, perhaps surprisingly, defining discrimination is a very complex matter. While political philosophers, legal theorists, sociologists, political scientists and scholars from other disciplines have recently produced new insights, no consensus definition has yet been reached.

And even if we were to agree on what discrimination is, another difficult challenge would remain: how can we empirically measure it? In our article we focus on what we call “electoral discrimination.” It describes the phenomenon of significant electoral penalties incurred by candidates from minority groups running for political office, when majority voters prefer candidates who share their own identity traits. In the US context, numerous studies have explored the supposition that white voters tend to support white candidates over black and Hispanic ones. In the Swiss context, the Electoral Discrimination thesis holds that immigrant-origin candidates, bearing non-Swiss names, face potential discrimination in elections.

It is particularly inviting to explore Electoral Discrimination in Switzerland, because its electoral system (free-list proportional representation) allows voters to cross off candidates from their ballots. In other words, Swiss voters can allocate not only positive but also negative preference votes to individual candidates. For our study, we collected data from real ballots cast in six municipal elections in the Canton of Zurich. We used an open-access database to classify the names of all candidates into two categories: “Swiss” and “non-Swiss”. We then examined whether, all else being equal, candidates with “non- Swiss” names were at a disadvantage.

Our results provide evidence that immigrant-origin candidates did incur a significant electoral penalty in the 2014 municipal elections in Zurich. That is, they received more negative preference votes compared to similar candidates with typically Swiss names. The effect was stronger for candidates who were running on lists of right and center-right parties than for those on lists of left parties. Surprisingly with respect to a previous study, we did not find that candidates with “Western” non-Swiss names (e.g. those from England, Spain or Scandinavia) fared better than candidates with names from the former Yugoslavia or Turkey.

The novelty of our study is that our unique dataset allowed us to explore the phenomenon of Electoral Discrimination in a real-world environment. Compared with prior studies on the same topic – which have typically relied on aggregated electoral data, experiments or surveys – our analysis mitigates some important methodological concerns that have plagued this field of research. We hope that our results and our method will mark a step change in the study of Electoral Discrimination.

Can Political Participation Prevent Crime? Results from a Field Experiment about Citizenship, Participation, and Criminality

Alan S. Gerber, Gregory A. Huber, Daniel R. Biggers, and David J. Hendry

Proponents of participatory democracy frequently invoke the “transformative” effect of political participation. Such engagement, they argue, encourages the development of a democratic character that leads to a heightened political efficacy, less anti-social behavior, a realization of one’s stake in the existing system, and an improved respect for the democratic process and legal institutions. One anticipated consequence of this new character is a reduction in the inclination to partake in criminal activities. Prior studies provide modest evidence supporting this expectation, finding that those who report previously voting are less likely to report being convicted of a crime, and that those who vote after previously engaging in criminal activity are less likely to recidivate than those who do not.

Our recent article in Political Behavior challenges those findings through an improved empirical approach. While those who vote are much less likely than those who do not vote to be convicted of crimes, this does not demonstrate that participation causes a reduction in criminal tendencies. Instead, there are many ways in which those who choose to vote differ from those who do not, and those differences (such as greater engagement in community life or greater educational attainment) might also be directly related to the propensity to engage in criminal behavior. This concern is common with research based on observational data, as the treatment (voting) is not randomly assigned to individuals, and scholars are often unable to control for the myriad factors that influence both the decision to vote and the decision to commit a crime. As such, it is impossible to know whether the observed large, negative effect of participation on one’s criminal inclination derives from the act of voting or those other, unobserved factors.

We address this concern by exploiting a voter mobilization field experiment prior to the 2010 midterm election involving over 550,000 non-white individuals aged 18-20, in which some subjects were sent a non-partisan registration mailing. The experiment provides an ideal population for our study, given that among those who eventually engage in criminal behavior, criminality largely begins prior to turning 20. Its successfulness (turnout in the treatment group was higher than in the control group) allows us to overcome the issue of nonrandom treatment assignment; that is, we do not need to rely on naturalistic variation in participation, as the assignment to receive the letter was unrelated to any differences in expected participation and criminality.

After merging administrative records on incarceration to our field experiment sample, we confirm the results of prior work that those who vote are less likely that those who do not vote to partake in subsequent criminal activity. When we (through an instrumental variables approach) use the randomly induced variation from the experiment to assess the effect of participation on the risk of being incarcerated, however, we find that voting does not, in fact, reduce criminality. This is true for the overall sample, as well as for those estimated (based on pretreatment covariates) to be at the lowest and highest risks of incarceration. Furthermore, the results are robust to limiting the sample to states where we know that incarceration postdates the 2010 election or for which we have information about a broader set of state supervision statuses (e.g., parole and/or probation).

Our findings have several important implications. For one, it does not appear that the direct effect of voting produces a measurable reduction in criminal activity. It also does not appear that voting immediately triggers the development of a democratic character, at least sufficiently to reduce the propensity of incarceration. This does not mean that proponents of participatory democracy are necessarily wrong about the transformative effects of participation. That transformation, for example, may require multiple participatory acts. Or, voting may be too weak a form of participation, with only more involved and engaging types of participation in the process of debating, governing, and compromising encouraging the development of that character. Either way, while voting may be good for people, it does not appear to stop them from

Durable Democracy? Economic Inequality and Democratic Accountability in the New Gilded Age

Benjamin J. Newman and Thomas J. Hayes

A central question in the study of democratic politics is whether citizens hold their elected officials accountable for their voting decisions, policy outcomes, and prevailing societal conditions—otherwise known as “democratic accountability.” Indeed, in his classic work on congressional behavior, R. Douglas Arnold argued that the extent to which individuals are able to control their government in a representative system “should be one of the central questions in political science” (Arnold 1990, p. 265).  In our forthcoming article, we address a question of pressing importance that has yet to be assessed in the congressional voting and accountability literatures: do voters hold legislators accountable for economic inequality?

We offer a theory of inequality backlash, which begins with the assertion that voter punishment of elected officials for economic inequality is likely, as prior research firmly documents Americans’ dislike for inequality, poverty, and unfairness.  Given this predisposing factor, we argue that punishment of elites will occur among voters as a function of their level of exposure to inequality in their local residential context.  We theorize that residence in contexts where inequality is high, and is thus a visible feature of daily life, will enhance the probability of voting against incumbents.  We argue that voter punishment for inequality is heightened by an officeholders’ culpability for inequality, which in coarse form can be comprised of their record of voting for inequality-enhancing economic policies.

Relying upon multiple large-N national survey datasets, we uncover consistent evidence of punishment of inequality-enhancing incumbents among voters exposed to high levels of local economic inequality. Interestingly, we also uncover evidence of reward for inequality-attenuating incumbents among voters exposed to high levels of local inequality. Importantly, we find that while our results do not vary by incumbent party or voter party or income, they do vary by voter’s level of political information.  The results from our study provide intriguing initial evidence of the resilience of democracy—in the form of voter backlash against growing and visible inequality in their daily lives. Voters enact punishment for inequality upon elected officials, thus providing some push-back against market forces generating unequal outcomes.


Ethnic Inequality and the Strength of Ethnic Identities in Sub-Saharan Africa

Masaaki Higashijima and Christian Houle

Ethnic inequality has been argued to have numerous pernicious effects. Among other things, scholars have argued that ethnic inequality breeds civil wars and coups, destabilizes democracies, impedes economic development, reduces the provision of public goods, and encourages individuals to vote along ethnic lines.

The arguments developed by these literatures, however, rely on the implicit assumption that ethnic inequality increases the degree to which individuals identify with their ethnicity. If ethnic inequality does not strengthen ethnic identification, there is little reason to believe that it should, for example, increase people’s willingness to vote along ethnic lines. Although based on an influential literature, this key assumption has yet to be tested empirically at the individual-level. We have no large-N quantitative evidence supporting the claim that ethnic inequality strengthens ethnic identification.

Our forthcoming paper in Political Behavior addresses this question. We argue that between-group inequality (BGI) strengthens citizens’ ethnic identity but only when within-group inequality (WGI) is sufficiently low. That is, individuals identify most strongly with their ethnic identity when ethnicity is reinforced by inequality. This relationship is driven by two mechanisms. First, when WGI is low, BGI increases the salience of ethnicity: individuals share similar living conditions as them but have very different living conditions than members of other ethnic groups, drawing a clear demarcation between “insiders” and “outsiders.” Exploiting this fact, political entrepreneurs appeal to ethnicity and mobilize co-ethnics, which further strengthens ethnic identities.

The second mechanism operates through policy preferences. BGI increases the gap in the preferences over economic policies between ethnic groups. For example, members of poor groups will be more supportive of pro-poor policies, such as a public health, than members of richer groups. At the same time, when WGI is low, members of the same ethnic groups tend to share similar policy preferences. Under such conditions, individuals will be more likely to identify with their co-ethnics because they perceive themselves as having fundamentally different preferences than members of other groups.

We test our argument with individual-level data from the Afrobarometer surveys (Rounds 3-5). The analysis covers 21 sub-Saharan African countries and 85 ethnic groups. We find strong support for our hypothesis: when WGI is low, BGI increases the likelihood that a respondent identifies as member of his/her ethnic group (as opposed to his/her nationality). We also provide evidence in favor of the two causal mechanisms.

Our analysis thus suggests that, as assumed by the previous literature, between-ethnic group inequality strengthens ethnic identification. However, we show that the magnitude of its effect is contingent on how income is distributed among members of the ethnic group: BGI’s effect is strongest when WGI is low. This finding implies that patterns of social cleavages constrain people’s repertoire of identity: in societies in which ethnic cleavages are reinforced by inequality, people tend to identify with their ethnicity. Yet, in societies with cross-cutting cleavages, people are more likely to identify with their nationality.