Voting Them All Out:
Democratic Accountability and the Rise of Anti-Reelection Bias
Strengthening government accountability is one of the biggest challenges faced by countries across the globe, especially at the local level, where access to vital public services makes the problem of impunity and unaccountable government more urgent. Most scholarly explanations for failures in electoral accountability—using reelection to reward or punish performance in office—center on how voters continue to reelect corrupt or poorly performing incumbents, despite them doing a bad job, for example due to corruption or clientelism, the power of dynastic networks, or the pull of partisan or ethnic ties. Yet this emphasis on keeping poor performers in office is increasingly incongruent with the reality that across the globe, voters are rejecting all incumbents, even the good performers, thereby removing an important incentive to perform well in office to secure a second term.
This book brings together evidence from a wide set of countries to identify a new threat to electoral accountability, what I term ‘anti-reelection bias’: voting all politicians out of office, both good and bad performers alike, and rejecting the premise of reelection itself. Using original data, it shows how mayoral reelection rates across Latin America are falling, paralleling similar declines in reelection for executive office in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and beyond. In addition, even though in wealthy democracies, incumbents generally enjoy an incumbency advantage, in countries as diverse as Romania, Brazil, Guatemala, Zambia, India and South Korea, politicians face an incumbency dis-advantage, where being the incumbent lowers their likelihood of winning. Together these patterns suggest that voters are increasingly turning against incumbents and the idea of reelection overall.
Combining in-depth analysis of one case, Peru, along with comparative data from other regions, the book’s central contribution is to identify the existence of anti-reelection bias as an emerging phenomenon and trace out its implications for our understanding of democracy and accountability today. In addition, the book demonstrates that a key precursor to anti-reelection bias is voters’ perception that horizontal accountability, or inter-governmental oversight, is weak. When oversight institutions exist on paper but are ineffective, voters come to see learning on-the-job in a negative light: politicians spend their time in office learning how to evade oversight mechanisms; then, if reelected, they are likely to act on their new knowledge as they perceive little risk of sanctions for doing so. Performance is therefore seen as worsening across terms, leading voters to prefer challengers over incumbents and to question the utility of reelection overall. Anti-reelection bias thus represents a voter strategy to cope with weak horizontal accountability and to improve the likelihood of getting good performance in office.
The book begins by documenting anti-reelection bias in the setting of Peru, focusing on an incumbency disadvantage, voters’ preference for challengers even over incumbents who perform well, and a desire to ban reelection overall. The book then turns to the evidence that weak horizontal accountability is a key driver of anti-reelection bias. I show the extent to which voters believe on-the-job learning leads to greater malfeasance in a subsequent term and, as a result, their doubt that good performance in one term is likely to be repeated if reelected. I also establish the direct link between these attitudes, perceptions of weakness in horizontal accountability, and anti-reelection bias. 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, and an original survey and conjoint survey experiment.
The anti-reelection bias that this book documents calls for a shift in the focus of academic and policy research to better understand the drivers of this new voter behavior and the best ways to manage its impact. Anti-reelection bias has potentially severe negative effects. Not only does it impede electoral accountability, but it also worsens performance in office by removing politicians’ incentive to perform well and decreasing the average experience level of elected officials. A rise in disdain for politicians may also undercut political participation and demand for better governance, as well as undermine support for democracy more broadly. However, policies that aim to strengthen accountability and to mitigate these effects should start from an understanding that anti-reelection bias increasingly drives voter behavior, rather than designing interventions based on outdated accounts of why electoral accountability fails. The most promising initiatives, then, are those like strengthening non-electoral accountability efforts or improving the skills of the inexperienced challengers who increasingly get elected, as they recognize voters’ clear preference for turning out incumbents. Overall, if anti-reelection bias is here to stay, we need to better understand its existence, implications, and how to combat it.