Electioneering in Weak States: Accountability and the Long-Term Consequences of Political Competition in Sub-Saharan Africa

Existing research in African political economy suggests that elections can serve as an accountability mechanism even when they occur in the shadow of low state capacity and weak parties. My book project explores voters’ accountability demands in these environments by focusing on two important but understudied questions about electoral accountability: what do candidates in Africa actually say and do over the course of an election, and what do voters learn from the strategies they observe? While recent work has focused on one particular strategy—the giving of cash or gifts prior to an election, commonly referred as vote-buying—candidate strategies are complex, multi-dimensional objects about which we know surprisingly little. How often, for example, do candidates make promises of post-election provision, and what goods do they promise to provide? Are promises and gift-giving complements, or are they substitutes? Do candidates fulfill their promises, and to whom? We also know relatively little about how voters respond to these strategies in the real world, or even how frequently they observe them. Do voters use the strategies they observe to make inferences about other political actors, or the value of electoral politics more generally? How informative are they about candidate quality and future behavior?

The book project seeks to answer these questions by combining observational and experimental data with a theoretical framework that emphasizes the role of state and party strength in determining what strategies are viable and what information they communicate to voters. Using original observational and experimental data from over 11,000 voters in Uganda and Ghana and survey experiments on more than 500 current and former Members of Parliament in both countries, I examine how party and state strength shape candidates' electoral strategies and how those strategies drive voter expectations of post-election performance. To measure the frequency and effects of electoral strategies, I use a combination of novel observational measures as well as list and conjoint experiments. This mixed-methods approach allows me to capture the full range of electoral strategies while avoiding social desirability and reporting bias.

In the first portion of the project, I argue that weak-state, weak-party environments cause voters to adopt a logic of extraction, demanding pre-election gifts from candidates whose promises lack credibility. This, in turn, drives politicians to finance widespread vote buying via rent-seeking and personal debt. As a result, vote buying signals to voters that future goods provision is unlikely and that candidates will engage in future corruption to service their debt. Vote buying thus has a dual effect for candidates. On the one hand, it improves their electoral performance by fulfilling voters' demands for a material payoff, encouraging them to reward the offering candidate to ensure future gifts. On the other, because offers signal a higher likelihood of future corruption, they are also reputationally costly. Using a combination of four original datasets in Uganda and Ghana, I find strong support for both major empirical implications of my theory: vote buying damages candidate reputation even as it improves their electoral performance. These large, negative reputational effects constitute a significant and understudied negative externality to political competition in low credibility environments.

In the second portion of the project, I study the class of strategies that are often played alongside vote buying: promises to provide local public goods after the election. Formal models predict that such promises should have little value in low-credibility environments, and thus that candidates in weak states should substitute away from them and towards clientelist strategies such as vote buying. I find, however, that candidates engage in promise-making much more frequently than would be predicted by these models, and that, while voters heavily discount these promises, they do not treat them merely as cheap talk. I show that this produces a time-inconsistency problem for candidates: while voters reward promise-making in the pre-election period, the strategy also anchors voter expectations of post-election performance. This, in turn, causes candidates to suffer large reputational effects from non-fulfillment after the election has occurred. I hypothesize and find suggestive evidence that this dynamic may account for the anti-incumbency bias observed in many developing countries.


Is Language Destiny? The Origins and Consequences of Ethnolinguistic Diversity in Sub-Saharan Africa with Leonard Wantchekon, Palgrave Handbook of Economics and Language (2016), pp. 513-537

The strong, negative relationship between ethnolinguistic diversity and economic outcomes is one of the most robust findings in the empirical political economy literature, and many of its most important entries come from analysis of sub-Saharan Africa. In this chapter, we identify several distinct mechanisms by which ethnolinguistic diversity affects economic performance in Africa, including, among others, an increased likelihood of armed conflict, the underprovision of public goods, and political dysfunction and instability. We then provide a two-part explanation for why Africa in particular is home to such high levels of ethno-linguistic diversity. Drawing on work in anthropology, political science, economics and history, our explanation emphasizes Africa's unique role in early human evolution and the arbitrary borders of its modern states. We conclude by offering suggestions for fruitful future research and discuss of the policy implications of existing work.

Paper can be downloaded here.

Misunderstandings about the Regression Discontinuity Design in Close Elections with Kosuke Imai, Annual Review of Political Science (2016), 19:375–96

The regression discontinuity (RD) design has become increasingly popular among social scientists. One prominent application is the study of close elections. We explicate several methodological misunderstandings widespread across disciplines by revisiting the controversy concerning the validity of RD design when applied to close elections. Although many researchers invoke the local or as-if-random assumption near the threshold, it is more stringent than the required continuity assumption. We show that this seemingly subtle point determines the appropriateness of various statistical methods and changes our understanding of how sorting invalidates the design. When multiple-testing problems are also addressed, we find that evidence for sorting in US House elections is substantially weaker and highly dependent on estimation methods. Finally, we caution that despite the temptation to improve the external validity, the extrapolation of RD estimates away from the threshold sacrifices the design’s advantage in internal validity.

Paper can be downloaded here.


Why Voters Reward Strategies They Dislike: Explaining the Prevalence of Vote Buying in Sub-Saharan Africa Job Market Paper

Why do we observe vote buying under the secret ballot? Prevailing wisdom suggests that candidates use vote buying to signal their willingness to provide desirable goods post-election. In contrast, using a combination of observational and experimental evidence from two large, original datasets in Uganda and Ghana, I find that offers of cash or gifts before an election have an unambiguously negative effect on candidate reputation and the reputation of closely aligned political actors. I argue that we observe widespread vote buying in low-credibility environments because voters attempt to maximize the value of current and future elections by demanding offers as the price of their turnout. These results suggest that elections in low-credibility environments may cause candidates to sacrifice long-term reputation for short-term electoral gain, and may lead voters to reward one-time offers of cash or gifts at the expense of long-term public goods provision.

Currently under revision but available on request.

Owning It: Accountability and Citizens' Ownership over Oil, Aid and Taxes with Lucy Martin, Helen Milner and Daniel Nielson. Under Review.

Governments that rely on taxation, rather than non-earned revenues such as aid or oil, have better outcomes along a range of governance measures. However, it is not clear whether all forms of taxation are equivalent; in particular, there may be significant differences between direct and indirect taxation. Indirect taxes such as VAT are often seen as less visible than direct taxes; indirect taxes may also not “bite” in the way that direct taxes do, as an individual typically gets a good in return at the moment of paying the tax. This has led to a perception that the accountability gains from taxation may hold more strongly for direct taxes. However, there is little evidence on whether this is indeed the case, or if so which mechanisms predominate. This paper addresses these concerns. We first use survey experiments from Uganda to show that indirect taxes are typically not visible to consumers when purchasing. We then use lab-in-the-field experiments, conducted in Uganda, to show that when an indirect tax is less visible, it has a smaller effect on citizens' demands on leaders. Finally, we use cross-national data to show that while direct taxes are associated with lower corruption, indirect taxes are not.

Paper can be downloaded here.

Do Indirect Taxes Promote Accountability? Testing the Effects of Revenue Modality on Citizen Behavior with Lucy Martin, Helen Milner and Daniel Nielson

Governments that rely on taxation, rather than non-earned revenues such as aid or oil, have better outcomes along a range of governance measures. However, it is not clear whether all forms of taxation are equivalent; in particular, there may be significant differences between direct and indirect taxation. Indirect taxes such as VAT are often seen as less visible than direct taxes; indirect taxes may also not “bite” in the way that direct taxes do, as an individual typically gets a good in return at the moment of paying the tax. This has led to a perception that the accountability gains from taxation may hold more strongly for direct taxes. However, there is little evidence on whether this is indeed the case, or if so which mechanisms predominate. This paper addresses these concerns. We first use survey experiments from Uganda to show that indirect taxes are typically not visible to consumers when purchasing. We then use lab-in-the-field experiments, conducted in Uganda, to show that when an indirect tax is less visible, it has a smaller effect on citizens' demands on leaders. Finally, we use cross-national data to show that while direct taxes are associated with lower corruption, indirect taxes are not.

Preliminary draft available on request.

Does Source Matter to Citizens? Experimental Evidence on Aid, Oil and Taxes from Ghana and Uganda with Helen Milner, Daniel Nielson and Steve Knack. Under Review.

This study tests whether citizens will more readily demand accountability from governments for taxes than for non-tax revenue from oil or aid. Two identical experiments on large, representative subject pools in Ghana and Uganda probe the effects of different revenue types on citizens' actions to monitor government spending. A similar experiment on more than 500 members of parliament from the two countries examined their views toward these revenue sources. Roughly half of all citizens willingly sign petitions and donate money in order to scrutinize all three sources. However, neither Ghanaians nor Ugandans are more likely to take action for tax revenues than for oil or aid when the money is delivered directly to the government. Members of parliament in both countries likewise saw no difference among the three sources. Results also suggest no differences among taxes, oil and aid in citizens' perceptions of misappropriation risk or public-goods provision. However, citizens do differentiate more between revenue delivered directly to the government compared to money given to an NGO. Findings are robust to numerous alternative specifications and subgroup partitions including taxpayers vs. non-taxpayers. Focusing on individual citizens and elites, we show little evidence that taxes strengthen citizens' demands for accountability in two developing countries or that MPs perceive differences in control or public benefits across revenue sources.

Paper can be downloaded here.


Promising the Moon: Why Politicians Make Promises They Can’t Keep Dissertation Paper

Existing research in clientelism has paid special attention to the provision of cash and gifts before elections. Yet candidate strategies also frequently include promises of to provide public goods after the election, even in states where resource and capacity constraints make such provision unlikely. What do candidates promise, and how often are those promises fulfilled? This paper uses a combination of survey and experimental data in Ghana to evaluate the causes and consequences of making promises in a low-credibility environment. First, I show that promises of ex post provision are by far the most common strategy observed by voters, surpassing in their frequency all other remaining strategies, including vote buying and the provision of quasi-public goods such as scholarships. I then demonstrate that promise-making produces anchoring effects among voters, as voters price the expectation of future provision into their evaluations of candidates. Given that over-promising creates such strong anchoring effects, why do politicians continue to do it? I argue that the prevalence of over-promising is due to a time-inconsistency problem facing candidates during the campaign period. Using a conjoint experiment, I demonstrate that politicians are unlikely to suffer electoral costs for over-promising, and in some cases can actually benefit from doing so. This dynamic gives candidates few incentives to reign in their promise-making during the pre-election period, particularly when the financial returns to holding office are very large.

What Do Poor Voters Learn from Poor Performance? Estimating Information Effects with a Two-Stage Conjoint Design Dissertation Paper

What do voters in Africa learn from poor performance? Existing observational work suggests that, when clarity of responsibility is sufficiently high, voters will reward politicians for increases in the quality of local public goods. At the same time, several large-scale information-accountability interventions have found that the provision of performance information has a null or, at best, weakly positive effect on voting behavior. I suggest that these seemingly contradictory findings are due to two complementary features of weak-state, weak-party environments. First, when the state lacks the technical expertise or resources to deliver large-scale public goods, poor performance is a noisy and potentially uninformative signal of candidate quality. Second, voter priors about candidate quality are both low in absolute terms and strongly determined by candidate behavior during pre-election campaigns. As a result, performance information often confirms voter priors about (low) candidate quality, yielding no change in voting behavior. To test this argument, I field a modified conjoint design that exploits the sequential revelation of information during the pre- and post-election periods. Using two new quantities of interest not available under current designs, the modified conjoint is able to (1) causally identify the informational value of post-election performance information in light of prior beliefs; (2) manipulate voter priors over candidate quality in a precise and externally valid way, facilitating the estimation of conditional effects under good- and bad-type priors; and (3) investigate the potentially mediating effects of low priors over the state's ability to performance concrete tasks such as the building of roads and delivery of healthcare. For policymakers considering information interventions, the design allows for a more nuanced understanding of when and under what conditions performance information will be valuable to voters, and when the reputational effects of that information will yield changes in voting behavior.

Enumerator Effects in Experimental Research: Causes and Consequences for Inference in Survey and Lab-in-the-Field Experiments with Lucy Martin and Jim Qian

Existing work on enumerator effects has focused largely on survey contexts where enumerators have been shown to activate social desirability bias and affect non-response rates. In experimental settings, however, enumerators do far more than administer surveys; they lead discussion groups, implement complex experimental protocols, and deliver key pieces of information to subjects. Yet relatively little attention has been paid to the consequences of enumerator-induced variation in the delivery and efficacy of a treatment. In this article, we evaluate the inferential consequences and substantive magnitude of enumerator-induced treatment effect heterogeneity. We first show that, contrary to conventional wisdom, enumerator effects have inferential implications under nearly all of the most common experimental designs. We then use a combination of original and publicly available data from 12 experiments—including survey, lab-in-the-field and large-scale field interventions—to provide what is to our knowledge the first systematic evidence of the size and distribution of enumerator effects in experimental studies. We conclude by proposing a split-pot design and accompanying treatment assignment algorithm designed to reduce enumerator effects.

Causal Inference in the Forced Choice Conjoint with Naoki Egami and Kosuke Imai

Conjoint analysis, which is a type of factorial design, has become popular among social scientists as a tool for measuring multidimensional preferences across several attributes. Because such experiments are based on multiple factors, each of which has several levels, researchers often focus on the average causal effect of a single attribute while marginalizing over the other attributes. What has been overlooked, however, is the fact that this so-called average marginal component effect (AMCE) critically relies upon the distribution of other attributes. This is problematic because most researchers use the uniform distribution when randomizing factors, and yet the population distribution of attributes in the real world is often far from uniform. Using an existing conjoint experiment and a simulation study, we demonstrate that the standard estimate of the AMCE can suffer from a substantial bias when the population distribution of attributes differs from the randomization distribution used in experiments. We address this problem by proposing a new experimental design and estimation method. The proposed methodologies are implemented through an open-source software package.