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The Fallacy of Electoral Accountability

J.S. Maloy Assoc. Prof., Dept. of Political Science Oklahoma State Univ. <> (Feb. 2012)

Abstract: The proposition that regular competitive elections are mechanisms of democratic accountability still forms the basis of much empirical and theoretical research in political science, despite sporadic attacks of skepticism in recent decades. These attacks have been diffuse but well founded. This paper surveys and clarifes the empirical failures and theoretical weaknesses of electoral accountability in order to defend a radical form of skepticism: elections are suitable for purposes of selection only, not of accountability.

The idea of electoral accountability is one of the most deeply entrenched aspects of political discourse in the late-modern world, and regular competitive elections are usually the institutional center-piece of thought and action on behalf of democratic progress. Theoretical as well as empirical literatures in political science emphasize the electoral connection (e.g. Mayhew 2004) between voters and representatives: the former are supposed to control the latter by rewarding them with reselection or punishing with deselection. Scholarly efforts at improving or deepening democracy often revolve around electoral institutions (e.g. Streb 2008, Gerken 2009). Even attempts to reconceive political accountability in non-electoral terms continue to pay homage to the conventional wisdom that repeated elections remain, nonetheless, accountabilitys primary vehicle (e.g. Grant & Keohane 2005, 41; Borowiak 2007, 1003; Rubenstein 2007, 618-19). At the same time, its well known in academic circles that various considerations qualify the force of electoral accountability, and recent research has shown signs of skepticism about both its theory and practice. Studies in the history of ideas have established that elections were understood in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries to perplex rather than to promote popular power, and that other, non-electoral procedures of accountability have traditionally been preferred by democrats (Manin 1997, Maloy 2008, McCormick 2011). Studies of the empirical realities of modern elections suggest that the conditions under which they could be interpreted as vehicles of accountability are rarely present, leading to a perceived need to substitute specialized accountability agencies (Przeworski et al. 1999, 24, 50-1) or horizontal accountability (Schedler et al. 1999, 2-3, 23-5). It was over a decade ago that an edited volume entitled Democracy, Accountability, and Representation (hereafter abbreviated as DAR and cited as Przeworski et al. 1999) forced the accountability defcits of electoral democracy on our attention, yet the assumed absence of these defcits has continued to form a conceptual starting-point for much academic research on electoral processes and democratic regimes. There may be two reasons for the muted impact of electoral skepticism up to 2

now. First, there may be genuine disagreement over exactly how far its defects should lead us to qualify or modify the idea of electoral accountability, with the result that some researchers feel licensed to regard electoral skepticism as merely tentative or suggestive (and therefore negligible for the time being). Second, there may be genuine cases of cognitive dissonance, so that some researchers simply prefer to continue the inertia of long-established research agendas despite the possibility that they might now be practically futile or theoretically obsolete. What weve not seen at all, however, is either a convincing refutation or a systematic deepening of the electoral skepticism of DAR. Either of these things could be the next step in the debate, and either could beneft from a capsule survey of the precise grounds of electoral skepticism before moving forward. My purpose below is to provide this sort of prompt forward. First, I attempt to clarify the grounds of skepticism about electoral accountability by collecting its most important features from various sources in order to offer something new to the debate: a clear and concise statement of the various reasons for doubting that elections are instruments of democratic accountability. I distinguish two categories of considerations that contribute to electoral skepticism, empirical and analytical. There are empirical considerations that lead us to qualify the idea of electoral accountability by recognizing parameters that limit its practical feasibility, and there are analytical considerations that lead us to doubt the coherence of the idea itself. Second, I argue for a deepening of rather than a retreat from DAR. Electoral skepticism is defensible and compelling in more radical terms than have so far been proposed: elections arent good for accountability at all but only for selection. One contributor to DAR has already formulated a similar thesis based on the distinction between selection and sanction (Fearon 1999), but I now elaborate it in a form that directly contradicts one of the volumes main fndings: that the presence of high-quality information among voters would redeem the accountability defcits of elections (Przeworski et al. 1999, 23-4, 42-4). In other words, the very idea of electoral accountability is a fallacy. What I present below, to be more precise, is an outline of this radical form of electoral skepticism rather than a fully fedged 3

defense against possible objections. While this may not amount to a convincing proof of radical skepticism, it could take cognitive dissonance off the table as a viable response to the debate. That would be a step forward, at least. Regardless of whether we accept a qualifed, modifed version of the idea of electoral accountability on the basis of the empirical failures brought to light by electoral skepticism, or a more radical form of skepticism which rejects the very coherence of the idea, the debate over electoral accountability has the potential to transform democratic theory in important ways. In conclusion I suggest how the terms of my analysis, irrespective of which conclusions are thought to follow, illuminate basic defects in two schools of academic political theory which have recently attempted to respond to some sort of electoral skepticism: minimalism and deliberationism.

Empirical Failures In its simplest, strongest form, the idea of electoral accountability rests on the proposition that voters use elections to hold representatives accountable. In empirical research, this proposition serves sometimes as a testable hypothesis and sometimes as an untested assumption. The latter role is illustrated by studies that use the assumption of electoral accountability to tell causal stories about why states that hold regular elections rarely go to war with one another (e.g. Bueno de Mesquita et al. 1999, Reiter & Tillman 2002) or tend to exhibit low levels of political corruption (e.g. Adsera et al. 2003, Tavits 2007), for example. A plausible causal story isnt a good one, however, unless the crucial assumption can itself be verifed as generally true when treated as a testable hypothesis. For much of its modern history, academic political science has tended to treat electoral accountability as a generally reliable fact about the world. Broadly speaking, there have been two ways of fnding empirical support for this assumption. First, studies of retrospective and especially economic voting have found that various measures of material well-being in various times and places have exerted a systematic infuence over the electoral fortunes of parties and candidates; here the causal story rests 4

on the assumption that voters deliberately reward or punish politicians economic performance at the ballot-box. Second, studies of the relative ideological or policy positions of voters and parties (or candidates) have found that elections tend to enforce congruence between them; here the causal story assumes that voters preferences are exerting control over politicians preferences, not vice versa. In response, DAR couldnt be accused of a radical form of electoral skepticism: the editors found mixed empirical results on electoral accountability and acknowledged that these were a signifcant let-down on conventional expectations (Przeworski et al. 1999, 22-4). But the volume as a whole does offer, through a combination of empirical and conceptual analysis, considerations that tend to undermine the proofs of electoral accountability associated with both economic voting and ideological congruence. Ill now address the former while reserving consideration of the latter for the analytical or conceptual section of this paper. The center-piece of the volumes empirical skepticism is an analysis of economic voting in all democracies between 1950 and 1990 (Cheibub & Przeworski 1999). Using the probability of survival of a government as the dependent variable, this analysis found that a wide range of economic variables had no signifcant effect. Only one variable, measuring growth in the labor force, had a modest positive effect on the likelihood of re-election. On the whole, then, plenty of governments with bad economic records survived while plenty with good records did not. A previous study was replicated which had found that clarity of responsibility (secure majority control over government, party unity, and so on) determined whether voters were able to reward and punish economic performance in systematic ways (Powell & Whitten 1993), thereby explaining away the cases for which economic-voting studies had yielded negative results. But Cheibub and Przeworski found with their expanded dataset that results didnt improve even when distinguishing disciplined parliamentary regimes with high clarity of responsibility. In empirical studies that have subsequently appeared to vindicate electoral accountability, the key dependent variable has tended to be casually conceptualized and variously operationalized. The 5

probability of re-election of individual candidates, not whole governments, has been used as the dependent variable in a study of parliamentary elections in Poland (Zielinski et al. 2005), and the actual failure of re-election has been used in a study of Italian parliamentary elections focussed on representatives involved in corruption trials (Chang et al. 2010), with the conditional fnding that electoral accountability may work in the presence of intense media coverage. Other studies with positive accountability results have measured their dependent variable in terms of changes in incumbents voteshare (Bovitz & Carson 2006), changes in incumbents approval ratings in opinion polls (Kelly 2003), survey responses about the self-reported candidate choices of voters (Jones 2011), and changes in incumbents behavior presumably intended to appeal to voters before election day (Huber & Gordon 2004). Typically these studies fail to examine the conceptual stipulations or untested assumptions that allow their causal stories to include electoral accountability as essential to the interpretation of their quantitative results. They ignore, in particular, the unifying but largely implicit theme of DAR: political elites control the institutions that are supposed to enable citizens control over political elites. In Maravalls words, an agent who has shirked, i.e. been a bad government, may also be rewarded if he is a good politician (Maravall 1999, 193). Key institutions that are prone to strategic manipulation include mechanisms for creating districts and selecting candidates; processes of voting and votecounting; and, above all in the eyes of the volumes editors, channels of information. A key weakness in studies tending toward electoral skepticism up to now, however, is the lack of a capsule overview of those facts about the political world which give cause for doubt about the operations of electoral accountability. In order to see what classes of phenomena are relevant, lets stipulate that electoral accountability involves a process of translation: from (a) some popular will or judgment by which a government is meant to be controlled, to (b) some mechanism of control, viz. the reward of reselection or the punishment of deselection. There are at least eight general types of empirical failure which thwart electoral accountability in one of these two phases, popular will or effective sanction. 6

1. Electoral Fraud. The ease and variety of methods of manipulating electoral results, particularly in mass elections involving thousands or millions of voters, pose an empirical problem for the democratic character of electoral sanctions. The basic types of fraud include voting by ineligible persons, overvoting by eligible persons, denial of voting by eligible persons, and changing the value of eligible voters votes. Though the academic literature on electoral fraud is relatively thin (Lehoucq 2003, 236-7), well known techniques include registering fctitious, deceased, or otherwise ineligible voters; using repeaters to vote more than once; imprisoning eligible voters and releasing them after the polls are closed; physically blocking eligible voters from leaving home or entering a polling station; administratively purging eligibile voters from voting lists; bribing or intimidating eligible voters before they cast their ballots; and tampering with ballots or otherwise miscounting them after theyre cast. Such techniques are amply attested in the nineteenth-century U.S.A. (Argersinger 1985), but their empirical presence is both chronologically and geographically broader in scope. Naturally the most recent cases are of most interest, and Putins Russia springs immediately to mind. Even the limited academic literature has found cases of fraud in states as various as Great Britain, Mexico, Germany, Taiwan, Spain, and Argentina (Lehoucq 2003, 237-45). More celebrated cases have appeared in relatively newer democracies like Ukraine, where in the 1990s Pres. Leonid Kuchma used his power over the careers of regional leaders to obtain fraudulent but favorable reporting of electoral results (Arel 2001). Even in the U.S.A. today, the 2000 presidential vote in the state of Florida famously failed to meet basic international standards of free and fair elections such that fraud could be ruled out (Bjornlund 2004, 3-6). Measures of the frequency of such cases are diffcult to conjure (Lehoucq 2003, 246-9), but theres reason to think that social scientists tend to under-estimate them: even in uncompetitive polls where the identities of the eventual victors arent in doubt, for instance, fraud is frequently used to increase margins of victory (Simpser n.d.). In so far as reliable electoral results are essential to 7

interpreting the popular will behind the voting, the diffculties of obtaining them make for diffculties in interpreting elections as vehicles of accountability.

2. Electoral Technique. Equally important is the fact that problems of electoral fraud, and even of unintentional inaccuracies in electoral results, have no defnitive technical solutions. Though its well known that certain types of ballot yield lower rates of voter error than others, e.g. optical-scan vs. punch-card ballots (Saltman 2006, 189), techniques for counting ballots are as important as for marking them. Computer technology, for instance, can reduce marking errors to two or three percent of all ballots cast (Herrnson et al. 2008, ch. 4), but theres no consensus about whether it offers counting procedures that are secure from fraudulent activity (pp. 111-12). As long ago as the early 1970s, when computers were frst used to tabulate results from elections in southern California, a team of computer scientists demonstrated that the voting results could be systematically skewed by technical manipulation (Saltman 2006, 166-7); the trick has recently been repeated with reference to computerized touch-screen voting machines (201-4). Even as administrative practices are refned to respond to such technical challenges, the basic problem remains that computer-processed results arent amenable to a genuine recount: as electoral technology becomes more sophisticated, the number of persons capable of certifying the results (i.e. qualifed software engineers) shrinks. Attempts to make computerized voting machines generate auditable paper-trails have had the side-effect of increasing voter error (Herrnson et al. 2008, ch. 6). Unlike a twelve-member jury or a 500-member assembly, a mass electorate makes it very slow and costly to conduct a publicly verifable recount. In short, if human nature ensures the permanence of the motives for electoral fraud, the logistics of mass elections ensure the permanence of the opportunities. At present, these frst two empirical failures have the look of ironclad constraints on electoral accountability rather than remediable defcits. In operational terms, researchers who use parties or candidates vote-share, or probability of re-election, or actual re-election, as their dependent variable in quantitative analyses 8

designed to prove the existence of electoral accountability are making themselves hostages to the possibility of fraud and to the inevitable imperfections of electoral technique on which fraud thrives.

3. Poor Information. Even if electoral results could always be certifed as accurate, their effects on accountability would depend on the informed will of the electors. Nearly all writers who address the topic of electoral accountability regard good information as essential to voters cognitive processes. But here the empirical problem of widespread voter ignorance about public policy, even in relatively affuent and educated societies (Hardin 2000), stands as one of the most visible obstacles. One attempt to study American voters information from the supply side, the news media, concluded that local newspapers ordinarily dont provide enough relevant information to allow voters to deliberately reward or punish their representatives in Congress and that there are signifcant inequalities between residents of rich and poor media environments (Arnold 2004, 251-3). Another study of electoral accountability in local contexts in the U.S.A. concluded that voters were able to reward or punish incumbents based on their performance in years when local media gave intense scrutiny to relevant issues, but not in years when the media didnt (Berry & Howell 2007). Against the theory that only a well-informed elite of citizens is necessary to enable accountability, since their opinions flter down to less attentive citizens (see e.g. Hutchings 2003), Arnold found that in much of the country the few citizens with a high demand for political information never fnd a reliable supply of it (Arnold 2004, 710). To a considerable extent, then, the failures of the modern news media translate into failures of electoral accountability. Researchers who fnd a correspondence between voters preferences and voting behavior or electoral results must be careful about using opinion data from opt-in surveys, which tend to have a selection bias toward better informed members of society (see e.g. Jones 2011), as evidence for a broad phenomenon of electoral accountability throughout a political system.

4. Weak Parties. Political scientists have often looked to parties to supply coherent ideological cues when the fund of information is too limited to allow intelligent policy judgments. Yet theyve equally often lamented the failure of parties to play this role in various contexts. One of the signal cases of such lamentation, at the conclusion of an otherwise sanguine account of the analytical possibilities of retrospective voting as an avenue of electoral control, held that collective responsibility has leaked out of the system as a result of parties lack of organizational and ideological coherence in the U.S.A. (Fiorina 1981, 202-10). A more recent version of the same empirical point fnds that a lack of partisan unity obscures the clarity of responsibility which voters need in order to use their ballots as tools of accountability (Powell 2000, ch. 3; see also Carey 2009). In some contexts, then, weak parties make electoral accountability unrealizable.

5. Strong Parties. But there are other inhibiting conditions on electoral accountability to be found on the other side of the spectrum of party capacity. One respect in which political parties around the world tend to remain quite powerful is the preselection of candidates for offce. If Bachrach and Baratz (1962) were right that agenda-setting is an important kind of political power, and if partisan nominations amount to setting the agenda for voters to mark their ballots, then electoral results could be said to refect elite rather than popular judgments as partisan organizations become stronger and more coherent. In the U.S.A., moreover, partisan control of the boundaries of electoral districts also inject elite judgments into electoral results. The marked decline of the number of competitive or marginal Congressional districts in recent decades (see McDonald & Samples 2006) has been attributed in part to partisan redistricting (Ansolabehere & Snyder 2002). Theres a serious debate, to be sure, over whether high rates of re-election for incumbents do in fact count as an accountability defcit, since it could be the case that incumbents rarely lose because they tend to jump before theyre pushed by an angry electorate (Cox & Katz 2002). But the more general proposition that close, competitive districts are 10

better for electoral accountability (a.k.a. the marginality hypothesis), which underlies the specifc worry about incumbency advantage, seems secure (Griffn 2006). If voters cant effectively sanction a representative who faces no challengers, or no viable ones, the empirical fact of partisan control over electoral districts could be a signifcant hindrance to the operation of electoral accountability.

6. Constitutional Structures. The strength or weakness of political parties is involved in interactive effects with the basic electoral processes and constitutional structures of a given state. The most common view of this interaction among political scientists is that a system of plurality voting within single-member districts (a.k.a. SMD) is ill suited to the collective accountability of each party, whereas a system of party-list voting with allocation of seats in proportion to a partys percentage of votes (a.k.a. PR) is ill suited to the individual accountability of representatives (Powell 2000, 66-8, 86-7; Kunicova & RoseAckerman 2005; Hellwig & Samuels 2008). PR systems, on the other hand, end up exhibiting a higher rate of legislative turnover, suggesting that its easier for voters to deselect their incumbent representatives through elections (Matland & Studlar 2004). PR systems are also typically favored by other measures of quality of democracy, such as ideological congruence between government and electorate (McDonald et al. 2004, Powell 2006). Which of these measures are more and which less essential to democracy is a matter of analytic and normative dispute, but either way a number of established democracies face signifcant accountability defcits that are built into their constitutional structures. At the same time, nearly all such democracies are structured as mixed regimes with multicameral legislatures, multiple veto-points, and checks and balances among various governmental agencies; many of them are also federal systems with multiple layers of elected authority, from the national down to the regional and local. Such complex webs of power, of course, exacerbate problems of information and clarity of responsibility, as a long line of observers from Thomas Paine down to the present day has noticed (Paine 2003, 8, 249-50; Arnold 2004, 5). 11

7. Weak Incentives. The electoral connection depends on the motivation of incumbents to retain their seats on election day, but the incentives for staying in power are sometimes too weak to confer deterrent power on voters. In local governments in rural China, for example, offcial salaries are meager and elected offcers therefore little fearful of the consequences of performing below their constituents expectations (Tsai 2007, 254-5). In other countries, of course, the problem doesnt take this form: in the U.S.A., senators and representatives salaries exceed the median citizens earnings by a factor of four or fve. But non-monetary aspects of elected offce can also corrode the motivation to win re-election, and therefore the decision not to face the voters again at the next poll cant always be construed as an evasion of likely defeat by an otherwise motivated offce-seeker (cf. Cox & Katz 2002).

8. Financial Infuence. Even healthy levels of offcial compensation might be overwhelmed by monetary inducements from unoffcial sources. In theory all democracies must respect the rule of one person, one vote, but none of them enforces a similarly egalitarian distribution of economic resources. This fnancial inequality leads, at least in states where campaigns are funded by private citizens and corporations, to a presumptive inequality of infuence over elected offcers i.e. to elite rather than popular control of public affairs after election day. One attempt to analyze this control in terms of an investment theory of American electoral politics has found evidence that parties and candidates switch policies after elections in response to the interests of campaign donors (Ferguson 1995): the deterrent power of votes, in other words, might be matched or exceeded by that of dollars. It also makes strategic sense for elected offcers to anticipate the reactions to their policies of not only their own donors but also their opponents (Ball 1999). Interactive effects have been observed between economic inequality and other empirical failures of electoral accountability. The poor diet of information offered to American voters by local media has been found to improve only when a well-funded candidate challenges an incumbent member 12

of Congress (Arnold 2004, 253). But the diffculty of challengers in gathering funds against an entrenched incumbent, in turn, has been identifed as one of the principal causes of the decline in competitive elections for Congress (Abramowitz et al. 2006), and the weakness of state-level campaignfunding regulations (which are usually meant to reduce funding inequalities) has been found to play a similarly anti-competitive role in sub-national elections (Hogan 2004). If good information and electoral competition are among the premises of electoral accountability, funding inequalities are a prime cause of their violation. In some contexts the interference of pecuniary infuence with the electoral connection is even more direct. In the 1990s Peru had the typical institutional accoutrements of electoral democracy: periodic and competitive elections, an independent judiciary, and privately owned media. But between elections it operated as a one-party state, thanks to the elaborate scheme of bribery of Vladimiro Montesinos, Pres. Alberto Fujimoris intelligence chief. The monthly cost of a deputy from another party was about $20,000; of a non-partisan judge, $10,000; of the owner of a television network, $60,000 (McMillan & Zoido 2004). Under these cirumstances the notion that voters infuence policy, much less have any idea how policy is really made, was problematic, but so too was the notion that replacing one offcer with another could amount to accountability. When the cash nexus dominates politics, the incentive of re-election and the likelihood that the electoral winner will govern differently from the loser are both reduced. The man atop this whole scheme was still subject to re-election, of course. The broader account of Fujimoris reign in Peru by Stokes (2001) is one of the most thorough empirical case-studies available of the troubled relations between elections and accountability. Fujimori ran for the presidency in 1990 as an opponent of neo-liberal economic reforms that would impose fscal austerity, shrink the welfare state, and introduce foreign investment on easy terms. Yet after his electoral victory he implemented the very reforms hed campaigned against. Despite this betrayal of his mandate, he successfully cultivated the image of a leader whose hands had, unfortunately, been tied. He also launched two initiatives that 13

proved more popular: a counter-insurgency campaign against the Shining Path militia and, less than a year before the next election, a public-works program that reduced unemployment among the lower classes (Stokes 2001, 142-8, 152-3). Fujimoris re-election in 1995 bears an important lesson about electoral accountability: as Stokes sums it up, through intensive and politically targetted expenditures ... a politician may mislead voters to win offce, abandon his mandate, and be re-elected even without persuading people in any lasting way that the unmandated course was the right one (153).

Analytical Doubts The case of Fujimori in Peru happens to illustrate some of the most important empirical realities of the world of politics which have a signifcant bearing on the idea of electoral accountability. Since this case has even been cited as proof of electoral accountability by way of economic voting (Kelly 2003), it also illustrates the timeless nostrum that empirical data alone dont reveal the truth about politics. How data are interpreted depends on conceptual stipulations and analytical assumptions, as well as complementary empirical assumptions. One of the great revelations of the DAR volume is that, in terms of careful and deliberate theoretical treatment, electoral skepticism has no robust anti-skeptical position to argue against. Some of the volumes most notable contributions (i.e. Fearon 1999, Ferejohn 1999) spell out the various ways in which the theory of electoral accountability has already been limited and qualifed by what some political scientists might presume is the most friendly methodological approach to the subject: principal-agent theory within a rational-choice framework. Indeed, when we turn to conceptual or analytical foundations, we fnd that key elements of skepticism have long been recognized in some of the classic treatments of the concept of electoral accountability in American political science. Keys Retrospective Voting in American National Elections (1966) is famous for its claims that the fear of loss of popular support powerfully disciplines the actions of governments and that the only really effective weapon of popular control in a democratic regime is the capacity of the electorate to 14

throw a party from power (Key 1966, 10, 76). But these claims were in fact severely qualifed, if not defeated entirely, by the conceptual framework in which Key suggested that his results should be interpreted. His opening chapter revolved around an echo-chamber metaphor for electoral politics: parties frst put noise into the chamber, and voters then return the echo in the form of electoral results; the contours of the chamber, as it were, change over time according to circumstances. Remarkably, Key was convinced that social science itself had a role to play in the messages put into the chamber in the frst instance, since parties and candidates would alter their pitch according to their operative theories of voters behavior one of the domains, of course, of psychologists and political scientists. Socialscientifc theories affect political operatives perceptions of voters, Key suggested, and in turn those perceptions determine the nature of the voice of the people, for they determine the character of the input into the echo-chamber (7). This strikingly constructivist account of public opinion calls into question, in a fundamental way, the meaning of electoral accountability: in a sense it becomes the accountability of political elites to their own rhetorical constructions. And this conceptual framing may explain why, by contrast with his famous statements to the contrary, Key also hinted that the function of voters in elections wasnt so much control as infuence (77). Nonetheless, Keys fnding that several American presidential elections in the middle twentieth century were decided by voters deliberate changes of mind about policy was hailed as a vindication of the rationality of the American electorate (Key 1966, vii-xv). Barro (1973) is often credited with having planted a more analytically rigorous seed for the rational choice theory of electoral accountability, but hes less often given credit for the way, like Key, he qualifed the strength of the theory: the basic conclusion here is that, even with a competitive supply of potential offce-holders, electoral control is only partially effective as a mechanism for inducing the offce-holder to advance the interest of his constituents (19-20, emphasis added). In addition to the assumption of competitive elections, Barro kept his theoretic model simple by assuming that incumbents have no control over the electoral process itself (26) and are unaffliated with political parties (41). Ferejohn (1986) noticed two other basic 15

assumptions of Barros and deliberately modifed them by introducing (a) asymmetric information as between voters and incumbents and (b) diversity of evaluative standards among voters themselves (10). Ferejohns conclusion was that these new assumptions would allow incumbents (a) to exploit their superior information by masking their real failings and (b) to play off the voters against one another in order to maximize chances of re-election (see also Ferejohn 1999, 132-4). The result, in other words, vastly reduc[ed] the level of electoral control unless citizens could undertake sociotropic voting by abandoning their self-regarding motives in favor of some unitary criterion of public welfare (20-2). In other words, as the rational-choice model of electoral accountability became more realistic, expected levels of popular control got weaker. Not only did Barro interpret the results of his mathematic model as showing relatively weak electoral control; subsequent research (as we saw above) has turned up good empirical reasons to weaken Barros fve key assumptions competitive elections, independent electoral structures (such as the drawing of districts), symmetric information between voters and candidates, unitary evaluative standards among voters, and the absence of political parties. Only the last of these assumptions could be revised in accord with empirical reality in such a way as to strengthen rather than weaken electoral control, but even here scholarly opinion is mixed about actually existing parties net effects on accountability. These qualifcations of the conceptual force of electoral accountability can be extended into the realm of radical skepticism. If Pettit (2008) is correct to identify an analytic distinction between institutional control and causal infuence which refects the language of Keys retreat from control to infuence we might use these terms to explore how far either type of power can be realized through electoral accountability. Analyses of the conceptual dimensions of democratic accountability typically distinguish two phases, a process of scrutiny and judgment (or will-formation) and a subsequent process of sanction. The analytic assumption that I now wish to defend is that accountability as a function of human relations is distinct from selection; how we conceptualize processes


of sanction is essential to making this distinction. Ill also suggest that several important propositions follow from this distinction.

FIG. 1



ACTION choice

SIGNIFICANCE consent: authorization control: incentives to act in targetted ways

personal character, comparative, past conduct, dichotomous; one future pledges yes, others no individualized, continuous (poor, fair, good, etc.)



The basic similarity between selection and accountability involves the element of scrutiny and judgment which is common to both; the difference involves what happens next, as between choice and sanction. To be an object of choice is to be grouped with other alternatives, to be judged not necessarily on ones own account but primarily in comparison with others, and then to be either selected or passed over. To be an object of sanction, by contrast, is necessarily to be judged in isolation and then either rewarded or punished. Both retrospective and prospective considerations, affecting what kinds of information are brought to bear on judgment, may be part of scrutiny in either case, but the actionphases of selection and accountability are what make a clean distinction between the two. The actionphase of choice is to confer authority, or to grant license toward future conduct, i.e. prospectively; of sanction, to reward or to punish for past conduct, i.e. retrospectively. To speak somewhat more grandly, selection is a power whose normative moorings lie in consent; accountability, in control. Of course theres some conceptual overlap between selection and accountability, or else categories like the electoral connection would never have gained currency in the frst place. Selection often appears to involve control as well as consent: in other words, the moment of choice does at times look equivalent to a moment of sanction. These presumptions supply the foundation for the argument that periodic elections are a vehicle of accountability. Authorizing one actor in preference to another often does have some causal effect over which actions ultimately ensue the choice makes a


difference, so to speak. But Pettits (2008) distinction between causal infuence and institutional control is relevant here: whatever makes a difference is exercising the former, whereas the latter also requires some intention or target. In the absence of evidence of a target or of movement toward it, we can have infuence but not control. Pettits terminology points up the analytic signifcance of accountabilitys two phases, will or judgment (choosing the target) and effective sanction (causing movement toward the target). Using some prominent recent elections in the U.S.A. as food for thought-experiment, we can see how regular competitive elections typically fail to identify a target and to move government toward it. Few would dispute, in retrospect, that the selection of George Bush the younger rather than Al Gore as president in 2000 made a difference, perhaps a very large one, over the following four or eight years. But this difference was the result of, in Pettits terms, causal infuence rather than institutional control. The consequences of the election werent within anyones control to the extent that no one couldve adequately assessed in advance either the propensities of the candidates (however hard we may try during the campaign) or the fuctuations of events. Whatever target the popular will might theoretically have settled on during the 2000 campaign (say, reducing the chances of adultery among high offcials), events in the world soon made it irrelevant: the electoral result helped to cause one set of actions rather than another, but not by dint of setting any target toward which the actions were driven. Another interesting example is the bid of George Bush the elder for re-election in 1992. There were not two but three major candidates in this poll, and therefore the citizenry sorted itself into four camps: supporters of each of the three candidates plus supporters of none of them (including nonvoters). Among voters for Bush, suppose that many of them were satisfed with his performance and wished to reward him by reselection, but also that some of them wished to punish him with deselection but were deterred from doing so by their unhappiness with his rivals. In both the Clinton and Perot camps, suppose that many of these voters wished to punish Bush, and that some of them probably didnt but were enticed for one reason or another to vote for one of the challengers. Among non-voters, suppose that some wished to punish Bush but didnt like the alternatives, that some wished to reward 18

Bush but were kept away from the polls by accident, circumstance, etc., and that some had no desire in either direction. If we could obtain reliable information about the exact proportions of these different wills and judgments within the electorate, only then could we estimate the accountability result of the 1992 election. The important point, however, is that the electoral process itself obviously isnt designed to yield such a result: it allows (untargetted) infuence but not control; its function, in other words, is selection not accountability. Even if mass voting results could be reliably associated with a targetted popular will, a counterfactual question about 1992 accentuates the weakness of the effective translation of this will into sanctions: what if a quirky Texas millionaire had decided not to launch a self-funded national campaign? Its likely that Perots advertising elicited discontent with the incumbent which otherwise wouldve remained latent, and its possible that, in the absence of Perots candidacy, Bush wouldve narrowly defeated Clinton. Would we then have been forced to say that the American people rewarded Bush through electoral means? If Perot himself constituted such a decisive factor in the nations political judgment, it hardly makes sense to speak of the electoral process in terms of democratic accountability. The Perot-less counter-factual for 1992 seems all the more plausible when we consider Bush the youngers bid for re-election in 2004. Public discourse in the mass media was fxated on the decision to invade Iraq and the conduct of the subsequent occupation, though of course voters were anything but united around this issue as the sole criterion of electoral judgment. If a conservative anti-war candidate say, Pat Buchanan had entered the race that year, its conceivable that John Kerry wouldve played Clinton to Buchanans Perot, and Bush the younger wouldve followed Bush the elder to electoral defeat. In the absence of a Buchanan fgure, however, Bush the younger earned a narrow victory, showing what the elder mightve achieved in the 1992 race without Perot. Even with only two candidates, however, the target indicated by this result was unclear, given that American voters appeared to disagree whether the Iraq war or the legalization of homosexual marriage (among other issues) was the most important standard for evaluating the candidates that year. While many observers considered 19

the war to be very unpopular, Bushs campaign was able to invoke other criteria of judgment to discourage deselection. On the terms of Ferejohns analysis of electoral control, the incumbent used informational advantages and cognitive diversity within the electorate to fend off accountability. On the terms of Stokes analysis of Peru, Bush 2004 was Fujimori 1995 redux. What lies behind the intuitions Ive tried to elicit through these examples is a basic analytic difference between accountability and selection, i.e. between sanction and choice, which poses insurmountable obstacles to translating judgment into sanction by electoral means. As is well known, certain assumptions about the psychology of voters and candidates must be in place in order for the threat of removal to act as a genuine deterrent to some behaviors and a spur to others; moreover, voters information about candidates must be good for the threat or spur to be applied effectively. But there is another stringent condition that Figure 1 brings to light, under the heading of judgment: unless the voting is done for a plebiscite or retention election, in which the incumbent is isolated for purposes of scrutiny and judgment and the choice is purely and simply between reselection and deselection, voters cant truly be said to exercise a power of sanction. Contested elections with multiple candidates always mingle prospective with retrospective considerations (Fearon 1999, 58-60) because even voters wanting to remove the incumbent must frst weigh whether the alternative candidates would bring any improvement. But in fact its not the prospective or retrospective as much as the comparative character of electoral judgments which inhibits accountability. Thats why representatives whom voters would like to punish often get re-elected anyway: the decision depends more on the challengers than on the incumbent. Negative campaign advertising, designed to sully ones opponents reputations, is controversial for its effects on voter turn-out and for its ethical implications, but its primary purpose is to defeat democratic accountability. It does this by actively discouraging voters from doing what we expect accountability to do: judging the incumbent. Its an analytic dead-end, therefore, to expect a competitive election to do the job of translating a clear judgment into an effective sanction; and, ironically, the less is known about a victorious 20

challenger, the more entitled we are to say that electoral accountability has been realized. A voter who decides to study carefully the character, conduct, and plans of every candidate is neutering any sanctioning potential inherent in the vote. Only if all voters in a particular election decide to ignore the challengers, or at least a majority who are solidly united in their judgment about the incumbent do so, can they be said to be using their votes for accountability. In exchange, of course, theyd be surrendering the function of selection to fate. Voters can use an election for selection or for accountability, but not for both. When voters try to use elections for both, as in any sizeable electorate they inevitably will, the result is the mutual attrition of both: rather than doing one job well, they do two jobs badly. We can now see that regular competitive elections are in theory a mechanism of pure selection, not of accountability. The electoral thesis of accountability requires elections to carry more than they can bear. Skepticism about the electoral connection between voting for representatives and holding them accountable has been advanced on both empirical and analytical grounds before now (Przeworski et al. 1999, 22, 24, 44, 50), and my analysis so far clarifes and reinforces those doubts. But Ive also developed reasons for radicalizing the skepticism: even the remediation of all the empirical failures, from electoral fraud to party activities to pecuniary corruption, couldnt remove the analytical weaknesses inherent in the electoral thesis of accountability. A particularly striking implication of my analysis is that improving information, though necessary to the processes of scrutiny and judgment which both selection and accountability have in common, is radically insuffcient for the latter. In this connection, one ambiguity about the new accountability agencies recommended by Przeworski et al. (1999) is whether theyre to be robustly punitive institutions or merely clearing-houses of high-quality information. If the latter, were still caught in a trap: information alone cannot supply the accountability defcit of the electoral thesis. If the former, however, we need to consider the institutional-design possibilities for non-electoral mechanisms of sanction.


Theories and Institutions Electoral skepticism within democratic theory has in recent decades thrown up two alternatives to the conventional wisdom that regular competitive elections make governments accountable to citizens. Both the minimalist and the deliberative schools of democratic theory are grounded in some sense of electoral accountabilitys inadequacies, whether empirical or analytical. The minimalist theory of democracy surrenders the very notion of popular control through accountability, building on Schumpeters redefnition of democracy as a forum of competitive partisan struggle which enables popular authorization of governments but not sanction or control (Schumpeter 1942, ch. 22). Whereas Schumpeter dismissed the idea of democratic accountability in primarily normative terms, Przeworski (1999) is less scornful than mournful: given the ease with which political elites manipulate electoral processes in order to avoid accountability, democratic theory has no choice but to retreat to more modest goals. Hardin (2000) reaches a similar conclusion by emphasizing the informational and epistemological limitations of citizens attempts to hold their representatives accountable through elections. But elections at least have the saving virtue of allowing peaceful transfers of power from one set of elites to another, which is no small matter, considering the alternative of civil war (Przeworski 1999). They also offer subjects the existential drama (Dunn 1999, 342) of the occasional humbling of one set of elites for the beneft of another. Thus the operational focus of minimalist democracy turns to using elections as instruments of stability, e.g. through understanding the conditions of losers consent (Anderson et al. 2005). Reform elections by all means, the minimalists say, but with an eye to psychic assurance and social peace rather than democratic power. The deliberationist theory also proposes reforms around the edges of existing electoral institutions, and in some variants is also primarily motivated by the norm of ameliorating disagreement in pluralistic societies. But the deliberationist impulse is basically resistant to the notion that citizens cant be well enough informed, as either an empirical or analytical matter, to govern themselves. Accordingly, the focus of deliberative reform has been to create opportunities for citizens to learn about 22

public policy and then to communicate their informed, rational judgments to their representatives and fellow citizens: focus-groups and deliberative panels ought to issue advice to the general public before elections and to the elected offcers after elections (e.g. Fishkin 1995, Gastil 2000). By offering citizens forums in which to become better informed and through which to offer advice to policy-makers, deliberative reforms are often explicitly aimed at soothing disenchantment and healing disagreement within a particular society (e.g. Gutmann & Thompson 1996). Despite marked differences in tone and method, the minimalist and deliberationist responses to the accountability defcits of electoral democracy seem to share a fundamental premise: the end is consent, not control. This premise is made explicit only in minimalism, but the citizen of a deliberative democracy is promised the power of advice, not of sanction. There accountability means merely the right to ask questions and to receive answers, and persuasion and shame are citizens only means of infuencing their political superiors. If we relax the analytical assumption that this verbal or discursive exchange counts as popular control over government, or the empirical assumption that it will proceed from the formation of a genuinely popular and coherent will, a rapprochement between minimalism and deliberationism is possible. The presence of deliberative forums might, under the right circumstances, be more likely than their absence to promote civic harmony: solidifying winners consent before elections and losers consent after. Theres a third possible response to electoral skepticism. Instead of keeping elections while jettisoning the norm of control which formerly supplied their rationale, or injecting elections with some participatory ideal while leading them into the analytic dead-end of more or better information, we might consider a radical alternative: popular control might be achieved through non-electoral institutions. In other words, it may be possible to retain electoral forms for purposes of selection but to implement non-electoral processes for purposes of accountability. For this there is long-standing historical precedent (Maloy 2008, McCormick 2011), according to the extant records of ancient and 23

Renaissance politics, as well as surviving practices in Anglo-American law. The two basic forms of nonelectoral accountability in the Western tradition are audit and impeachment: the frst involves a thorough review of an individuals conduct at the end of a defned period of time; the second, an ad hoc review on some emergent occasion. The classic case of the former is the review (euthyna) given to each magistrate in ancient Athens at the end of his one-year, non-renewable term; of the latter, the indictment and trial of offcers of state for high crimes in British and American constitutional history. Both audit and impeachment allow persons holding authority to be scrutinized and sanctioned by persons granting authority. Neither involves a cognitive process of comparison among several candidates who engage in campaigning to infuence the result; unlike competitive elections, therefore, neither allows the structure of incentives of an authoritative fgure to be skewed by the vagaries of a multi-player game of manipulating information. In the roster of democratic institutions now recognized by popular and scholarly standards alike, versions of audit and impeachment are relatively invisible compared to electoral institutions. Yet analogs do exist in modern constitutional republics. In the U.S.A., for example, committees in Congress are supposed to perform audits, or oversight, with respect to other departments of the federal government. And the power of impeachment which Congress holds over executive and judicial offcers has been invoked on two occasions in the last 40 years. Procedures like these offer some means for governmental offcers to be held accountable independently of elections and therefore offer a concrete starting-point for thinking about the possibilities of non-electoral accountability. Yet there are two related limitations on the potential of these already existing versions of audit and impeachment in American national politics to remediate the accountability defcits of regular competitive elections. First, ordinary citizens have no agency in these processes, which are essentially vehicles of intra-elite as opposed to mass-on-elite accountability. Whats important about congressional oversight and impeachment is that Congress thereby acquires some control over other players within the federal government. As James Madison made abundantly clear in 1788, the basic aim 24

of the U.S. Constitutions checks and balances is that they frst enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place oblige it to control itself (Wootton 2003, 247); they shouldnt, obviously, enable the governed to control the government. Secondly, the saving democratic feature of congressional oversight and impeachment powers can only come from some connection between the controllers (i.e. Congress) and the controllers controllers (i.e. voters). But in regular competitive elections the one mechanism allowed by Madison to enable the people to control the government weve already seen a mechanism ill-suited to the job of accountability. As currently constituted, then, audit and impeachment within the American federal government continue to beg our original question.

Conclusion Shortly after his successful bid for re-election in 2004, George Bush the younger was asked whether his administration would hold anyone in the American government accountable for faulty intelligence and poor planning for the invasion of Iraq. His response was negative, because we had an accountability moment, and thats called the 2004 elections (VandeHei & Fletcher 2005). Its unsurprising that the idea of electoral accountability is popular among the established governments of the world: its meant to give them what they want, which is popular consent as a substitute for popular control. But Ive attempted to show that consent and control arent the same thing, and that these separate political functions happen to require distinct institutional arrangements. Unfortunately, it appears that the only applications for which the idea of electoral accountability is suited are the rhetorical and the naive. Democratic accountability has to be pursued beyond electoral bounds, or not at all.

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