Voters tend to reward or punish governments on the basis of how well the economy has been doing. But would the handling of the electoral process also affect how people vote in the next election? Andrea Fumarola shows that it does, and that this effect is in part dependent on people’s party identification, as well as on how clear government responsibility is and how free and open the press is.
By Andrea Fumarola*
Electoral accountability is an important dimension of the quality of democracy because it represents the ‘vertical linkage’ connecting citizens to representatives. It also allows voters, through the contestation of free and fair elections, to hold governments responsible for their decisions and actions. The literature has extensively analyzed this link, mostly through the lens of the retrospective economic voting theory. Here, the idea is that citizens’ preferences on certain issues converge towards the socially preferred goals (often a ‘good’ economy). However, the economy may not be the only possible valence issue, i.e. an issue on which voters normally share a common preference, that is relevant in the study of electoral accountability.
Electoral integrity – i.e. the efficient performance of electoral procedures and processes – could in fact be considered a valence issue as well; It represents a dimension of government evaluation on which voters hold a uniform position. It could be especially true in newer democracies, such as those in Latin America or Central and Eastern Europe, where the management of the electoral cycle might represent a policy issue on which citizens evaluate government performance through their vote.
Note: Elaboration on WVS 6 data. The question was as follows: ‘V133: Please tell me for each of the following things how essential you think it is as a characteristic of democracy: People choose their leaders in free elections’. (Respondents =38,708; Countries =23).
Do public perceptions of electoral integrity shape attitudes and political behavior, specifically in terms of performance voting? And are they influenced by individual characteristics (e.g. partisanship) as well as contextual differences (e.g. government clarity of responsibility, and freedom of the media) between countries? These questions are central to my recently published article in Government and Opposition.
I analyzed how electoral integrity shapes the vote for the incumbent government, and how the accountability link is moderated by voters’ partisanship and the characteristics of the current government and the freedom of the media. To do so, I use data from the 6th round of the World Values Survey which was collected between 2010 and 2014. This is a cross-national survey that covers 61 countries, including 23 democracies worldwide in which the electoral integrity battery is administered. The broad comparative sample, covering well-consolidated democracies and newly democratized countries gives the analysis the potential to uncover dynamics that are common to all groups of countries.
The survey includes an ‘electoral integrity battery’ with questions capturing individual perceptions about the way in which the electoral process is managed. It deals with different and relevant stages such as vote count, media coverage of electoral campaign, characteristics of the electoral management bodies (EMBs), and electoral competition among political parties. Using these variables, I created an explanatory variable that measures individual perception of electoral integrity. As dependent variable I used the standard question asking respondents their vote intention in the next national election. Further, to study the potential conditional effect of individual and contextual factors I include moderating variables for partisanship, and country-level indicators for government clarity of responsibility (0-1) and freedom of the media based on data from Reporters Without Borders.
The empirical analysis supports the theoretical statement about the existence of a direct ‘accountability effect’ of citizens’ perception of electoral integrity on their support for the incumbent parties: voters seem to be influenced by their perceptions of how elections are managed in the country, punishing or rewarding governments almost in the same way as the use of retrospective judgments on the national economy. The result is robust to several tests and highly consistent across the sample countries.
I therefore looked at the moderating effect of voters’ partisanship, finding that even in presence of a cross-cutting valence issue like electoral integrity, citizens tend to make their voting decision by relying most on their partisan shortcuts: even when the perceived level of electoral integrity is extremely low, people are highly likely to vote for those already in power if they identify with that party politically.
Moving to the ‘contextual’ level, I found that the characteristics of the government in office are relevant for the way in which electoral integrity influences the support for the incumbent. As long as voters deal with one-party (or cohesive coalition) government, they will be able to punish incumbent parties for potential problems concerning vote count, gerrymandering or electoral campaign that may affect the electoral process. When problems arise, they simply blame the national government, but if this is composed of several parties or it counts on informal support by other parties in parliament, then they may find it difficult to appropriately sanction those representatives. The analysis show how clear the difference is between countries with high ‘government clarity’ (e.g. Ghana or Taiwan) and those with ‘low clarity’ (e.g. Romania or the Netherlands): in the first group voters’ perception of electoral integrity has a marginal effect on the probability of voting for the incumbent five times larger than the corresponding effect in the ‘low clarity’ group.
Finally the analysis revealed that a relatively independent system of mass media has a strong and positive influence on the link between electoral integrity perceptions and voters’ preferences. The gatekeeper and watchdog function of the press has the power to inform the public and make the electoral process more transparent. More information, in turn, creates a virtuous circle that contributes to enhancing the government’s clarity of responsibility and more broadly the quality of democracy. The difference is clear looking at the results in terms of predicted probabilities: in contexts characterized by higher rates of media freedom (such as the Netherlands) the effect of electoral integrity on voting for the incumbent vote is almost 6 times larger than for countries characterized by less free and plural media system.
In conclusion, these findings have important implications for the study of how people hold their government accountable. While the economy is a crucial predictor of voters’ behavior, the results of my study suggest that other issues can also be decisive to understand why and how governments are punished at elections. Both in well-established and in new democracies worldwide, voters are sensitive to the way in which the electoral cycle is managed, and they consider it important enough to help determine their evaluation of the incumbent government. However, the article also emphasizes the influence of the political context on the accountability link. The clarity of responsibility of the government and the degree of freedom of the media revealed their power to condition what it has been defined ‘electoral integrity performance voting’. The extent to which governments are held accountable by voters is indeed contingent upon the identifiability of their action as shaped by formal and informal institutions.
* Andrea Fumarola is postdoctoral researcher at the department of Comparative Politics, University of Bergen