ATLANTA – More citizens are less likely to vote for candidates of any party when corruption – real or perceived – is the incumbent office holder’s legacy, according to a study of Mexican voters published by Georgia State University economist Alberto Chong and his colleagues.
“Prior voting models have assumed that transparency – offering more information to voters about their incumbent’s performance – strengthens electoral accountability,” said Chong, a professor in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. “Our field experiments show that information about incumbent corruption more often disengages voters from the political process.”
Chong and his colleagues ran their field experiments before, during and after Mexico’s 2009 municipal elections. One week before the elections – a period in which the candidates were by law no longer able to campaign – they randomly distributed flyers detailing three voter information campaigns to voting districts. Each flyer listed the mayor’s public responsibilities, the amount of resources available to invest in public services and the amount the mayor spent. The information then changed per flyer:
- Corruption – Included information on the percentage of resources the mayor spent in a corrupt manner (for example, irregularities such as over-invoicing, fake receipts, diverting resources, fraud, etc.).
- Budget expenditure (placebo) – Included only information about the percent of resources spent by the end of the fiscal year.
- Poverty expenditure (placebo) – Included only information about the percent of resources directed toward improving services for poor people.
Using electoral data at the voting precinct level, they found that when mayors were linked to corruption information, voter turnout decreased 2.5 percent. Votes for the incumbents’ and challengers’ parties also decreased 2.5 percent each. These declines are substantial, given the average margin of victory was 8 percent with a standard deviation of 4 percent.
The research included survey results that reinforced their findings and showed corruption eroded partisan attachments.
“Our results suggest that voters’ evaluations of an incumbent frame their evaluations of other politicians,” said Chong. “Voters use an incumbent’s performance to evaluate the political environment. When corruption is pervasive, informed voters may conclude that no candidate can credibly withdraw from that environment. Voter perception and action suggest they believe corruption taints all candidates.”
Transparency helps hold politicians accountable and fight corruption. However, while information on a politician’s fraudulent and dishonest behavior is necessary to improve accountability, it is not sufficient in and of itself, according to Chong and his colleagues.
“It is not sufficient because voters may respond to it by withdrawing from the political process,” he said. “Anticorruption efforts, to be effective, must learn how citizens’ prior beliefs and institutional realities influence the effect that information has on voter decisions and eventual reform.”
Chong, a professor of economics in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University, was at the University of Ottawa when he co-authored the article, “Does Corruption Information Inspire the Fight or Quash the Hope? A Field Experiment in Mexico on Voter Turnout, Choice and Party Identification,” published by the Journal of Politics. It is available for download at https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/678766.
Georgia State University Expert
Department of Economics
Andrew Young School of Policy Studies
[row]Alberto Chong is a Professor in the Department of Economics at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies and holds a joint appointment with the College of Education and Human Development. He pursued graduate studies in Economics at Cornell University and Harvard University, and received his Ph.D. degree from Cornell. His current research interests include a broad range of areas in economic development, political economy and public policy including private sector, information technologies, and governance. Before coming to Georgia State University he held faculty appointments with the University of Ottawa and George Washington University and spent about a dozen years working in multilateral organizations in particular, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.[/row]