Prime: Vote - Jessica Trounstine Transcript

Are You Listening, Incumbents?
Jessica Trounstine
Assistant Professor of Political Science
UC Merced, March 2012


When incumbents run for reelection they usually win. This is true in federal, state, and local elections. An obvious reason for this is that incumbents are simply good at doing their jobs. Serving in office gives incumbents experience and expertise in governing; they learn how to represent their constituents effectively and are rewarded at election time. So, in and of itself, the high rate of incumbent reelection isn’t worrisome. In fact, it may be a sign of a healthy democracy, of voters holding their elected officials accountable. Political science research has found that this is a pretty good approximation of how many elections work in the United States...but not all elections.

My research suggests that, at least at the local level, there are some environments that favor incumbents regardless of how well they represent their constituents. I’ve found that incumbents are more likely to get reelected when voters have limited information about the election and when fewer voters participate. And incumbents who win reelection in these circumstances tend to be less responsive to their constituents. So, citizens who are engaged and active in the political process are much more likely to see that their interests are well-served.

At this point you might be thinking that this is sort of an obvious thing to say – when citizens pay attention and turn out to vote, elected officials are held accountable, and when they don’t, elected officials may behave in ways that we don’t like.

But what isn’t so obvious is understanding that there are certain institutional settings and election rules that affect the likelihood that constituents will learn about elections and exercise their right to vote. What this means is that we have the power to design political institutions that can improve the functioning of our democracy.

So, what institutions improve the functioning of democracy? Well, there are many. In my recent work, I’ve studied five. I’ve looked at two institutions that ought to affect voters’ access to information – the mailing of sample ballots and the presence of a local newspaper. In only four states are local officials required to mail sample ballots to voters prior to elections and only about one in four cities has a daily newspaper. When voters aren’t mailed sample ballots or don’t have access to a local newspaper, it becomes more difficult to learn about the challengers in local elections. In these environments voters often just pick the one candidate they know -- the incumbent. Just as you might expect, my research shows that incumbents have higher rates of reelection in cities that aren’t required to mail sample ballots and those that don’t have newspapers.

I also analyze three institutions that affect voter turnout: whether voters are mailed the location of their polling place; whether voters can register within a month of the election, and whether the local election is held at the same time as elections for higher levels of office. Cities are required to mail polling locations in only eight states, in 21 states voters have to register at least a month before the election, and only about eight percent of local elections are held concurrently with federal elections. When it is more difficult to figure out where to vote, to remember to register to vote, and to make it to the polls, fewer people cast ballots. I find that in these environments, incumbents do significantly better.

But as I said, high rates of incumbent reelection aren’t necessarily a bad thing. What we really want to know is whether these incumbents are doing a good job of representing their constituents. This is a complicated question to answer, in part because there is no exact way to measure good representation. But we can look at different policy areas, and guess about what the majority of citizens would want, and then see whether the information or participation environment affects spending in these areas.

I argue that when voters are uninformed, incumbents will be more likely to try to shift policy toward their own preferences. To see if this is the case, I analyze city council pay. I assume that elected officials prefer higher salaries, but that in high information environments, they are reluctant to give themselves raises for fear of being voted out of office. I find that in low information environments, when voters don’t receive sample ballots and/or do not have access to a local newspaper, city council members DO pay themselves significantly higher salaries.

My second policy argument is that when voting is made more cumbersome, incumbents will shift policy toward groups that are likely to participate anyway, even when the hurdles are high. I use municipal employees to represent this kind of group. I predict that in low turnout environments, policy will be beneficial for municipal employees. I find that when voters are not mailed their polling location, when they must register at least a month before any election, and when local elections are held separately from federal elections, municipal employee payroll and retirement make up a significantly larger share of city budgets.

So, in the end I conclude that institutions that curb voters’ access to information and the ballot box can affect the reelection rate of incumbents. And this can have serious ramifications.

In short, research suggests that policies and circumstances that encourage active and engaged citizens are key to increasing the responsiveness of local government.

I’m Jessica Trounstine.
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