Voting Them All Out:
When Re-Election Fails to Create Accountability
Conventional academic wisdom holds that the “carrot and stick” of re-election offers voters a relatively easy tool to reign in poorly performing politicians. Scholars know that voters may be unable to use that tool effectively if, for example, they lack accurate information about incumbent performance. Yet in many new democracies, incumbents are increasingly unlikely to win re-election even when voters perceive them to have done a good job in office. Voter rejection of strong performing incumbents and of the premise of re-election itself runs counter to scholarly understanding of voting and accountability. This book both shines a light on the prevalence of this particular type of electoral accountability breakdown, while also offering a new explanation for why accountability may fail: without effective government oversight of incumbents in a subsequent term, voters come to push for accountability not by rewarding good performance, but by punishing all incumbents, even good performers, and by rejecting the idea of re-election overall.
Existing scholarly explanations for weak electoral accountability argue that voters lack the information about incumbent performance they would need in order to effectively sanction. Other scholars have emphasized that even if voters know how incumbents perform, they may downplay the relevance of that performance in favor of other candidate characteristics, like party affiliation or identity, when they head to the ballot box. Yet neither of these explanations question the underlying assumption that voters, to greater or lesser extents, want to both punish poorly performing politicians and reward strong performers with a second term.
Anchored in an extensive, sub-national study of mayoral politics in Peru, the book begins by demonstrating how the assumed dynamic between politicians and voters of rewarding and sanctioning has broken down. It shows not only how Peru’s mayors face an extreme incumbency dis-advantage, but also that voters favor challengers even over incumbents who perform well. A majority of voters even reject the premise of re-election itself, preferring to eliminate the possibility of incumbents running rather than risk them securing a subsequent term.
Why might voters be so disdainful of re-election, despite the beneficial incentivizing effects of allowing incumbents to seek and win a subsequent term in office? Rather than being an irrational strategy, the book demonstrates how voters are responding to their institutional environment, particularly the lack of constraint on politicians’ behavior in office.
The core of my argument is that where parties are weak, frail government oversight leads voters to reject incumbents and re-election overall. Strong parties are instrumental in maintaining voter support for incumbents, such as by incentivizing good performance to continue to run on the party label, or through partisan loyalty or clientelist exchange. In frail party systems, however, incumbents become vulnerable to an erosion of voter support. In such settings, lack of effective sanctions can lead to persistent poor performance in office, causing voters to question politicians’ inherent goodness and motivation. Crucially, voters become increasingly skeptical of incumbents in particular. While on-the-job learning is typically seen as leading to better performance, incumbents may also be viewed as using their time in office to develop knowledge and skills to better evade the government systems design to detect shirking and corruption. Incumbents may be perceived as especially likely to act on these new skills precisely where sanctions are ineffective and voter disdain for politicians is high. In these contexts, voters see incumbents as lacking both intrinsic motivation to serve and, if re-elected, facing lower external constraints on their behavior than challengers who, by default, will be in their first term. The result is a preference for challengers and a disdain for re-election overall that causes electoral accountability to fail.
The main empirical analysis in the book centers on the case of Peru. Using a mixed methods approach, the book employs qualitative interviews, statistical analysis of existing and original datasets, including census, public opinion and electoral returns data, an original survey, and conjoint survey experiment, generated through 18 months of fieldwork.
The book also demonstrates how the theory extends beyond Peru. It is where parties are weak, I argue, that frail oversight institutions then undercut electoral accountability. I provide support for the book’s main argument and the generalizability of the theory by using descriptive data from across Latin America and delving into shadow cases of settings with weak parties and ineffective oversight.
By offering a new explanation for why voters fail to hold politicians accountable, the book contributes to ongoing scholarly efforts to understand the drivers of weak electoral accountability. A main contribution of the book is to question the assumptions behind widely accepted models of political accountability. Standard models treat accountability as an information problem: if voters have enough information to distinguish between good and bad performers, only good types will survive. However, I show how increasing information may not generate accountability without strong oversight of elected officials. The book also suggests the importance of the relatively unaddressed role of non-electoral oversight institutions on electoral accountability, and thus more broadly, contributes to our understanding of how institutions impact voter behavior and political outcomes.
Overall, the consequences of the voter-politician dynamics documented in this book are severe, limiting accountability and weakening democracy more broadly. A low likelihood of being rewarded reduces politicians’ incentive to perform, worsening already meager levels of public service provision in low- and middle-income countries. Persistent disillusionment with politicians, such as the anti-incumbent attitudes the book uncovers, may generate a self-reinforcing pattern whereby voters assume the worst about incumbents who then increasingly live up to those poor expectations. As the concluding chapters show, other countries with similarly weak parties and frail oversight institutions may be headed toward the same voter-politician dynamic. The Peru case, then, offers important insights about the drivers of this particular type of failed electoral accountability, its political consequences, and ways it may be repaired.