How Fairer Elections Help Hold Politicians Feet to the Fire and Encourage Responsiveness

This piece, written by Adam B. Lerner, covers George Kwaku Ofosu’s, Washington University, new article, Do Fairer Elections Increase the Responsiveness of Politicians? 

As the US Congress debates Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential future attempts to subvert American democracy, the importance of free, fair and transparent elections has become increasingly clear. Fair elections don’t just ensure that constituents are able to choose their representatives unencumbered—they also hold politicians’ feet to the fire and encourage them to be more responsive to constituents.

A new article in the American Political Science Review from George Kwaku Ofosu offers strong evidence for this conclusion. According to Ofosu’s analysis, Ghanaian members of parliament (MPs) that were subject to intense election monitoring by independent observers spent 19 percent more of their discretionary funds (much of it on public goods) than those who were not. Even the possibility of future monitoring led to more responsiveness—Ofosu found that politicians who received a letter warning them of future monitoring led them to spend 5 percent more discretionary funds than their peers who did not.

This study’s findings are an important contribution to political science scholarship on how and why elections can encourage accountability and inspire representatives to meet constituents’ needs. Traditionally, scholars have understood elections as both a tool for voters to select more responsive candidates and a means of sanctioning unresponsive ones by kicking them out. Unfair elections undermine voters’ ability to choose good candidates and to hold bad ones accountable.

But, as Ofosu argues, unfair elections undermine these tools. His analysis suggests that fairer elections, as well as politicians fear of future voter sanction in fair elections, restores politicians’ incentives to respond to constituents needs.

Ofosu’s study focuses on parliamentary elections held in Ghana in 2012 and 2016. For multiple reasons, Ghana offers an ideal setting to study democratic responsiveness—over the last two decades the country’s parliamentary elections have become increasingly competitive between the two leading parties and it has a high average turnover rate for incumbents seeking re-election of 24 percent. Yet opinion surveys indicate that a solid majority of Ghanaians (63 percent) are dissatisfied with their MPs performance, indicating that politicians would have good reason to fear for their jobs in fair elections. Unfortunately, commonplace electoral fraud and violence often prevent elections from accurately conveying the will of the people.

To gather data on Ghanaian election monitoring, Ofosu partnered with the Coalition of Domestic Election Observers (CODEO), a non-governmental organization that sends thousands of uniformed election observers to polling stations both to monitor potential issues and to encourage honesty. For the 2012 parliamentary elections, Ofosu and his colleagues randomly assigned varying levels of CODEO monitoring intensity to a representative group of districts. A related study on the election found that intense CODEO monitoring significantly reduced levels of fraud and violent intimidation in competitive districts.

Ofosu supplemented his research on the 2012 election with an experiment in which he sent a random set of 30 previously-monitored MPs letters indicating that they should expect intense CODEO monitoring in the next election in 2016. This allowed him to examine how expectations about future monitoring related to past experiences with monitoring and to see whether they influenced MPs’ responses to their constituents’ demands.

Finally, Ofosu compared this monitoring with data on Constituency Development Fund (CDF) spending to determine MPs responsiveness to constituents’ demands. CDFs are spread equally among MPs and offer them discretionary funds to spent either on public goods like bridges and schools or for personal assistance to individual constituents?. Because the government requires accountability with these funds, using them is time consuming for MPs, requiring them to seek approval from multiple government officials. Between 2014-2016 each Ghanaian MP was allocated over $300,000 US in CDFs, but a significant portion of these funds went unspent and rolled over to the next cycle.

Ofosu found a substantial difference in the amount of money MPs from heavily-monitored districts spent on constituents compared to those in more lightly monitored ones (45.3 percent compared to 26.6 percent of available funds). Further, those in heavily-monitored districts spent significantly more on public goods and services or on local non-profits, and less on personal assistance payments to individuals.

These data suggest that Ghanaian MPs who believe their elections will be closely monitored have much more incentive to be responsive to their constituents. This study will prove insightful for future scholarship on democratic responsiveness, both through the robust causal mechanism it has identified and its novel research design.These data suggest that Ghanaian MPs who believe their elections will be closely monitored have much more incentive to be responsive to their constituents.

But outside the academy it will prove equally important for pro-democracy actors in countries where electoral fraud and violence are common. Ofosu has provided real evidence that their efforts are not for naught—their hard work organizing and monitoring elections has real payoff for people in need of public goods and services.