Book Project

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Why bother: Voting in non-competitive elections

Why do citizens vote in elections with foregone conclusions when they are neither bought nor coerced? How does an individual’s reliance on their local community influence their likelihood of voting? This book tackles these questions in the context of dominant party states—where a single party has ruled for decades—focusing on rural voters. Moving beyond conventional paradigms that the poor are either bought or coerced, I suggest that a social norm of voting helps to explain high turnout in less-competitive elections. Driven by the belief that high turnout might be rewarded with public goods, community members use social sanctions to enforce the social norm of voting. Individuals’ reliance on other community members helps to explain individual-level variation in norm compliance. 

At a time when authoritarian rule appears to be on the rise, understanding why poor rural citizens decide to vote or abstain has implications for the endurance of these regimes. Because elections serve as legitimacy-enhancing opportunities for rulers who point to high turnout as a signal of their popular mandate, poor citizens—who often comprise a majority of the population and vote at higher rates than their wealthier compatriots—have the ability to grant the regime greater legitimacy by turning out, or reduce it by staying home. I examine the existence and influence of a social norm of voting in two dominant-party states in East Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. Using a mixed methods research design, the book presents analysis of survey data, lab-in-the-field voting experiments, and administrative electoral data. I find that citizens associate voting in elections with getting public services, respect voters, and socially sanction abstainers.

This book brings scholarly attention to the role of social pressure and norms in semi-authoritarian elections. While social norms of voting have been documented in competitive democracies, how these norms arise and endure in places where electoral systems lack legitimacy remains untested and under-theorized. This book expands upon empirical work in the US, and other consolidated democracies, by providing a rationale—independent of a shared sense of duty to the state—for why and how a social norm of voting can persist in this improbable context. Filling a notable gap in the literature, this book sets aside ethnic politics and other information heuristics that are frequently used to explain vote choice in the African politics literature, to consider other social motivations to vote in dominant-party states. In addition to improving our understanding of why rural citizens vote in less-competitive elections, this book provides broader insights into democratic accountability and the endurance of authoritarian regimes.


Job Market Paper

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Social Voting in Semi-Authoritarian Systems. Under Review.

In dominant-party states, why do individuals vote in elections with foregone conclusions when they are neither bought nor coerced? I propose that a social norm of voting drives turnout where citizens believe that high turnout may be rewarded with collective goods. Local communities overcome free-riding by socially sanctioning abstainers. Using survey data and lab-in-the-field voting experiments, I document the influence of social pressure to vote in two semi-authoritarian states in east Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. I find that norm compliance is driven by those most dependent on their local community. This study reveals that a social norm of voting can exist even where a sense of civic duty to the state may be absent. The findings help to explain high turnout in elections, individual-level variation in voting behavior, and authoritarian endurance. Rather than government accountability, the results suggest that elections may instead be about local accountability to one’s community.