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.


Do White In-group Processes Matter, Too? White Racial Identity and Support for Black Political Candidates

We find that in biracial elections (i.e., a Black candidate and a White candidate compete in an election) in the United States, in-group processes among Whites significantly decrease votes for African-American candidates and approval of the first Black president. As expected by Social Identity Theory and the existing literature, we also find that out-group processes (specifically racial resentment) are more influential when a Black candidate and a White candidate compete in an election. Importantly, the in-group processes significantly affect vote choice above and beyond the out-group processes that have garnered so much scholarly attention. We also find that white racial identity reduced President Obama’s approval, in turn reducing the vote shares of Democrats in Congressional elections across the country.

Using the full Social Identity Theory (SIT) framework, beyond the out-group negativity previously studied, provides new insights. Social Identity Theory focuses on both in-group processes and out-group processes. However, most political science research on group conflict focuses on out-group processes, the processes that result when people see “them” less positively than “us”; factors such as racial resentment and negative stereotyping of African-Americans. In contrast, we test whether in-group processes (specifically strength of White racial identity among self-reported Whites) influence vote choice in seven electoral settings.

Our findings relate to previous research. Considering such in-group processes helps political science move beyond yes or no, and gets to when, regarding debates about race of candidate effects and whether the major parties have become ‘racialized’ (i.e. perceived as the pro/anti-Black and anti/pro-White). In particular scholars have debated whether the Democratic Party was ‘racialized.’ We find that the degree to which in-group processes lead Whites to vote against Democrats varies depending on the race of the candidates. While it remains to be demonstrated if advertising and/or campaign messages can make White in-group identity influential, we show that a Black candidate can activate this in-group process. Furthermore, future research about race of candidate should consider both in-group and out-group processes.

Do Individuals Value Distributional Fairness? How Inequality Affects Majority Decisions

Jan Sauermann

Social choice theory casts serious doubts on the viability and meaning of democracy. As an example, imagine a group of three friends who want to go on a joint vacation. However, they disagree on three possible destinations: a beach vacation, a city trip, or to go hiking in the mountains. Anne prefers the beach, followed by the city trip and then the mountains. For Paul, a city trip would be the best option. Hiking is his second-best alternative and the beach is his least-preferred destination. Emily favors the mountains followed by the beach and a city trip. Of course, the decision problem of Anne, Paul, and Emily resembles the well-known Condorcet paradox. If they vote on their common destination, every alternative will beat one of the other two alternatives in a pairwise majority vote and loose against the remaining alternative. In this case, voting will not result in a meaningful collective decision, because a majority favors the beach over a city trip, the city beats the mountains, and the mountains are majority-preferred in comparison to the beach.

Several classical social choice theorems like Arrow’s Impossibility theorem have demonstrated the generic instability of majority rule. Hence, in almost all situations, majority decisions exhibit voting cycles like in the example above. In the resulting absence of an unambiguous voting equilibrium any alternative in the policy space can be reached, given the appropriate agenda. From the perspective of social choice theory, democracy could result in highly arbitrary decisions with frequent radical policy changes. Hence, the important question arises how to explain the apparent stability of real democratic decisions.

While traditional explanations highlight the importance of institutions for inducing stability in majority decisions, more recent contributions analyze how social preferences might help to overcome democracy´s theoretical instability problem. Individuals motivated by social preferences such as fairness or reciprocity maximize not only their own well-being, but also take the well-being of other actors into account. Consequently, if group members are motivated by social preferences, alternatives offering a fair distribution of benefits among group members become more popular and provide stable equilibria in otherwise unstable democratic decisions. However, there is little research on the influence of social preferences in majority decision-making.

In my article in Political Behavior I present results from laboratory experiments examining whether social preferences influence majority decisions in committees. In the experiment, five-member groups have to select points from a two-dimensional policy space. Treatments of the experiment systematically vary the fairness properties of the alternatives in the policy space by manipulating subjects’ payout functions. The experiment is designed as a hard test for the influence of social preferences. For one, participants play for money in the experiment. Group members have ideal points in the policy space and earn more the smaller the distance between their ideal point and the outcome chosen by the committee. Secondly, subjects interact anonymously via a computer network preventing direct face-to-face communication among committee members. Thirdly, all subjects are students, most of them students of economics or related fields. All three design features should promote the influence of egoistic motivations and weaken the influence of social preferences in the decisions. However, the results clearly show that distributional concerns have an important influence on majority decisions. Committees systematically choose fair points during the experiment. Hence, my main conclusion from the experiment is that democratic theory in general and social choice theory in particular could profit considerably from systematically incorporating social preferences in their analyses.


A Behavioral Theory of Electoral Structure

Till Weber & Mark Franklin

Imagine an alien visitor sent to Earth to observe three indigenous rituals of leadership selection: the US presidential election of November 2016, the UK general election of June 2017 and the German federal election of September 2017. Our visitor knows from alien intelligence that the first-mentioned country has just undergone a campaign with the most-hated pair of candidates for its top office since the beginning of mass polling; that the second country has just dissolved its highest decision-making body in the midst of the gravest national crisis most people alive have experienced; and that the third country, infamous for its genocidal racism, has just taken in the largest number of foreign refugees in its history.

Yet our visitor finds that the organizations entrusted with governing these three countries are the same ones as before, and not even the relative level of popular support shows much sign of transformation. Earthlings, our visitor concludes, highly value order and stability in their political life.

In a recent article we aim to assist alien intelligence with explaining the surprising robustness of party systems in human democracies. The short answer to our visitor’s conclusion is that at the time of leadership selection, electoral democracy is indeed quite orderly and stable. However, this is not naturally so. Human society harbors a great deal of complexity, as can be observed whenever the quest for executive office is not on people’s minds. Party systems and electoral institutions function to restore order right in time for important leadership contests.

More technically, we theorize patterns of electoral competition as the outcome of a struggle between entropy and structure. Forces of entropy entail idiosyncratic voting behavior guided by subjective evaluations, while forces of structure entail coordinated behavior emerging from objective aspects of party preference. Our model locates determinants of party preference on a continuum spanning subjective and objective concerns. Entropy is endemic but elections for nationwide executive office periodically prime objective concerns, reinstating structure in party systems. We demonstrate the cyclical pulse of national elections in a comparative analysis of pseudo-randomized survey data from the European Election Studies since 1989. We also show how feedback from differently-sized party systems consolidates different working equilibria.

After presenting our findings at the annual meeting of the Galactic Political Science Association, we received critical feedback from alien intelligence. Apparently our visitor had also observed the French elections of 2017, and this case didn’t seem to fit our theory at all.

Fortunately we were able to dispel the doubts. Our theory posits (and our empirical evidence shows) that the forces of structure appear in different guises in differently-sized party systems. While in fragmented systems cyclical structuring is clearly visible, in systems dominated by two parties the obvious focus on which of the two will control the executive is generally sufficient to maintain structure. French two-round presidential elections have traditionally ensured the same focus, and spillover from the presidential race has structured ensuing legislative elections as well. Electoral institutions play a role here as they deter entry by third-party candidates, a phenomenon that can be most cleanly observed in the US. In France, our alien visitor was lucky enough to catch a peculiarity of the electoral system in action: An Earthling named Macron won a place on the second-round ballot with as little as 24% of first-round support. From there on the focus on executive power reliably summoned the forces of structure to chase off the forces of entropy, giving the highflyer 66% of second-round votes with close to the same turnout. Spillover to the legislative arena, another unmistakable sign of structuring, then awarded the party of the new president an absolute majority in parliament.

Party systems do change; more striking for the outside observer, however, appears to be their puzzling robustness—their seeming ability to retain structure even under adverse circumstances, absorbing pressure toward disintegration by channeling it into confined fluctuations in relative party strengths. We believe that this is an important insight for anyone interested in contemporary electoral democracy, wherever they are from.