In a functioning democracy, citizens do not need to know much about the everyday business of policy-making to hold their politicians to account. And voters believing they know more about politics than they do, does not harm accountability but can even enhance it.  

These are the conclusions of new theoretical research by R. Emre Aytimur and Christian Bruns published in the May 2019 issue of The Economic Journal, who also find that accountability can be high even if the electorate is polarized but the quality of media coverage can be crucial.

It is a widely held belief that elections hold politicians to account by creating the threat of being removed from office if they misbehave. However, surveys show that citizens in democratic societies know little about their elected politicians or policies they have implemented. If this is true, how can citizens hold them to account?

The researchers show that ignorant citizens can still hold politicians to account. This is because a politician’s incentives are shaped by the extent to which a policy affects the opinion of their constituents who are most likely to decide the election. In majority voting, these constituents are located in the middle of the opinions of all constituents.

The authors explain that this implies that the opinion of constituents in the middle will be based on a precise impression of the politician’s performance. Thus, the politician has strong incentives to work hard in order to impress the constituents in the middle.

According to the authors, this also applies to situations where the electorate is polarised as long as there are a similar number of voters on both sides of the political spectrum. However, if a group on one side of the ideological spectrum forms a large majority, accountability can be reduced. This is because such an ideological position reduces the importance of the politician’s performance to get re-elected.

According to surveys, voters not only do not know much about politics but also think they do – they are therefore overconfident. The authors show that overconfident voters do not harm accountability but can even enhance it by making the electoral outcome more dependent on the politician’s performance.

However, the quality of media coverage can be crucial for the level of accountability. When citizens’ opinions about a politician’s performance are only based on private impressions or ideological news coverage there are no informational issues for accountability. But when citizens also receive common information from mass media, low quality media coverage can reduce accountability.

 “Accountability with large electorates” by R. Emre Aytimur and Christian Bruns is published in the May 2019 issue of The Economic Journal

R. Emre Aytimur

lecturer in economics at University of Leicester