Campaigns and elections

Why Some Politicians Stop Buying Votes

May 18 '13

The next installment in this week’s presentation of NSF-funded research is this piece from Brown University political scientist Rebecca Weitz-Shapiro.  The importance of the piece is straightforward: vote-buying is alive and well in many countries — including in Latin America, which Weitz-Shapiro focuses on — and the practice subverts democracy in various ways.  So what might lead Latin American politicians to reject this practice?  Weitz-Shapiro provided this summary of her research:

While the practice of buying votes with public goods and services (sometimes known as “patronage” or “clientelism”) has declined in the United States, it is alive and well in many parts of Latin America. But not all public officials rely on patronage.  This study details the circumstances in which city mayors in Latin America will opt out of vote buying.  Two conditions are necessary to get public officials to reject patronage.  First the community must have a large share of higher income voters and second the offices must be politically competitive.  Higher local income means that more voters dislike patronage.  Intense political competition leads politicians to be responsive to these higher income voters. Absent these conditions, clientelism will be common.

Where patronage or clientelism persists, policies are perverted, ballot secrecy is put in doubt, and voters may become disillusioned with democracy.  Latin America has seen some reversals of democracy in recent years, which makes it especially important to understand conditions that may increase the risk of such reversals.

I’d also note that better-functioning governments in places like Latin America serve the economic and national security interests of the United States.

[For more NSF-funded research recently published in the American Journal of Political Science, see here, here, here, and here.]