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Do Corruption and Transparency Drive Down Voting?

Learning how the sausage is made can turn your stomach, more so when you can see the reconstituted meat bits. Which may put people off their appetite for politics.

voting ballot

 

The other day it was reported that Chicago’s voter registration is the lowest since 1942, the farthest back our information goes. Granted, the city’s population has declined all but one ten-year period since the 1950 census, so some attrition is to be expected. Mary Schmich also found that the city has far fewer dead voters than in the past, which is actually progress. Her thesis was stasis: a falloff from the Obama honeymoon, frustration with the government.

By the numbers, we’re actually pretty average. In 2008, 71 percent of Americans voting-age citizens were actually registered voters, compared to about 70 percent of Chicagoans in 2011.

With corruption on the brain, I came across an interesting paper, via Suzy Khimm: “Looking Beyond the Incumbent: The Effects of Exposing Corruption on Electoral Outcomes,” a working paper from the NBER. The authors actually conducted their own public-information campaign in 2009 Mexican mayoral elections.

Our field experiment consisted of a randomly assigned corruption and public expenditure information campaign conducted one week before the 2009 local elections in Mexico. The campaign
distributed flyers door-to-door in selected voting precincts with information about the mayor’s responsibility for the provision of public lighting, safe water, sewage, and local roads.

In one group of voting precincts, the flyer also included information about the percentage of resources mayors spent in a corrupt manner (i.e. spending where some form of irregularity was identi ed such as over-invoicing, fake receipts, diverting resources, fraud, etc.).

In others, they went with a technocratic, goo-goo approach:

In another group, the flyer included information on the total amount of resources available to mayors to invest in public services and the percentage actually spent by the end of the prior year. In a third group, the flyer included information about the percentage of total resources that mayors spent in poor areas.

What they found was not terribly surprising:

We show that exposing rampant corruption leads to incumbents’ vote losses, but it also leads to a decrease in electoral turnout, and a decrease in challengers’ votes. Furthermore, exposure of corruption weakens partisan identi cation with the corrupt incumbent’s party, and increases share of voters who do not identify with a political party. Thus, under some circumstances, information about corruption disengages voters from the political process.

I have to confess I’m a bit skeptical of the limits, that the outcomes can be isolated from history and specific political milieus. It’d be interesting to see the experiment repeated in, say, municipal elections in different countries. But there’s a lot of neat stuff in the margins, such the 2011 paper “Seeing the State: The Implications of Transparency for Societal Accountability,” presented last year at the Midwest Political Science Association Conference in Chicago, which asks the question: does transparency actually work?

Many authors have followed Bentham’s lead in claiming that transparency breeds confidence in governing institutions. Our analyses add to the growing doubt regarding the general validity of these claims. We suggest, for example, that increased government transparency, in sharp contrast to most other types of improvements in government institutions, may reduce rather than increased institutional trust, and may demobilize rather than mobilize public interest in collective endeavors to bring about change.

I can see a logic behind this. There’s a reason pornography is more popular than sex ed. On one hand, you have “Every Man a King”; on the other, data portals. It’s not an argument against the latter, just recognition of the barriers.

 

Photograph: vxla (CC by 2.0)

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