Donald A. DeBats — 2018 Heinz I. Eulau, APSA Award Recipient

The American Political Science Association (APSA) will present the Heinz I. Eulau Award to Dr. Donald DeBats at the 2018 APSA Annual Meeting & Exhibition, the world’s largest gathering of political scientists and source for emerging scholarship in the discipline. The $750 award, supported by Cambridge University Press, recognizes the best article published in American Political Science Review and Perspectives on Politics.

Donald DeBats is Professor and Head of American Studies at Flinders University in Adelaide Australia; he is a Visiting Professor at the University of Virginia and a Residential Fellow at Virginia Humanities. His research work is based around the North American poll books, the official records of the viva voce (by voice) elections of the nineteenth century, and is supported by a Collaborative Research Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. These records hold important keys to the meaning, structure, and outcomes of that long history of American politics from colonial days to the end of the nineteenth century, during which there was no secrecy, elections were conducted in public, and all votes were knowable. This recent work is reflected in his interactive website Voting Viva Voce, Unlocking the Social Logical of Past Politics

DeBats and Pietryka’s article in American Political Science Review, “It’s Not Just What You Have, but Whom You Know: Networks, Social Proximity to Elites, and Voting in State and Local Elections,” leverages the as-yet unmined historical data to analyze the impact of individuals’ social networks on their likelihood to vote and on their partisan choices. The authors reconstruct  voters’ social proximity to elites in 19th-century statewide and municipal elections in Virginia and Kentucky by pairing newly discovered records of viva voce voting in those elections with archival data from public sources and church memberships, and show that individuals that are more socially proximate to elites are more likely to turn out to vote, and individuals that are more socially proximate to a given political party’s elites are more likely to vote for that party. Pietryka and DeBats’ strategy of analysis allows them to evaluate the network effects on a much broader set of connections than the few most immediate social connections of each individual.The authors also distinguish between the effect on voting participation of individuals who are centrally placed in the network and the effect of social proximity to elites. The former effect is not unequivocally positive and depends on the voting behavior of those central individuals: it is positive if they vote, but negative if they don’t. By contrast, social proximity of individuals to elites consistently encourages voting, by giving individuals more access to political information, reducing their cost of voting, strengthening their sense of political efficacy and putting social pressures on them to vote. Pietryka and DeBats’ analysis of historical datasets bear out their general hypothesis, which is also supported by the analysis of a contemporary dataset on municipal elections in Williamsburg, VA. The article by Pietryka and DeBats constituted an impressive piece of scholarly research, and a worthy winner of the 2018 Eulau Award.