Members of parliament are more likely to vote along party lines if their choices are made public. That is the central finding of research by Christine Benesch, Monika Bütler and Katharina Hofer, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society''s annual conference in Brighton in March 2016. Their analysis of the introduction of electronic voting in Switzerland''s upper and lower houses demonstrates that more transparency has a clear effect on political decision-making.
Many parliaments around the world have moved to electronic voting, which makes it easier to publish each member''s voting history. But most attempts to study this have been limited by the fact that the switch tends to happen after an election, making it difficult to single out the new method as being responsible for any change.
In 2014, the Swiss Council of States switched from show of hands to electronic voting halfway through their legislative season. Instead of having to watch online videos afterwards to see how each member voted, anyone could download the results online.
The authors find that members became only half as likely to deviate from their party line as beforehand. By itself, this result still does not say much: it could be that more controversial issues were debated before the switch. But the Council of States is only Switzerland''s Upper House – the Lower House (the National Council) has voted electronically since 1994, and the individual votes have been published since 2007. This means that they would not have been affected by the change, proving that introducing electronic voting was responsible for the Council of States'' shift.
Is the change for better or for worse?, the authors ask: ''In the short term, parties are the main beneficiaries of electronic voting as they gain from having more disciplined party members. To what extent voters can benefit from the increased accountability in the long term might depend on whether and how the information is transmitted by the media.''
Should parliaments publish the voting decisions of their members? The possibility of tracing individual voting histories increases transparency and accountability both for voters and for parties. But do more transparency and tractability really make a difference? This research suggests that they do: members of parliament are more likely to vote according to party line if their choices can be observed more easily.
Many parliaments around the world have moved to electronic voting in the last two decades. The transition went hand in hand with an uncomplicated way of publishing individual voting decisions. But in most cases the introduction of the new system coincided with the start of a new legislative period. So even if changes in voting behaviour could be found it would be difficult to trace them unambiguously back to electronic voting. The altered composition of the parliament might also be decisive factor.
In 2014, in an unprecedented move halfway through the legislative period, the Swiss upper house (Council of States) switched from voting by show of hands to electronic voting. Before, legislators'' decisions could only be verified ex post through the time-consuming screening of online videos. Since then, all individual votes of legislators are recorded electronically and importantly, final passage votes are published online.
The most exciting feature of this research is that, because of the stable composition of the Council of States, the same individual legislators are observed before and after the introduction of partly published electronic voting. After manually recounting the votes from videos for several hundred parliamentary decisions prior to the change, voting decisions before and after the introduction of electronic voting could directly be compared.
Since the reform, members of the Council of States deviate from their party line only about half as often as before. But observing changes in voting behaviour before and after electronic voting is per se not enough to establish a causal link between electronic voting and higher party discipline. For example, if controversial issues were discussed in the first half of the legislative period and undisputed proposals in the second one, a change in party line deviation would be found without an underlying change in voting behaviour.
Here, another nice feature of the institutional setup kicks in. The voting behaviour in the two chambers of parliament can be compared. Switzerland''s lower house, the National Council, had voted electronically since 1994 and fully published individual legislators'' decisions since 2007.
The final passage votes analysed in this research are not only identical in both chambers but also decided on the same day. In this setting, electronic voting can be interpreted as the pill (like in a clinical trial), to be swallowed by the treatment group, the Council of States. The National Council acts as the control group.
In this setting, a causal impact of the new voting procedure on legislative voting can be found. More adherence to party line after the change reflects the enhanced observability of legislators'' decisions, which in turn increased conformity pressure exerted by political parties.
Is the change for better or for worse? This question cannot be answered easily. In the short term, parties are the main beneficiaries of electronic voting as they gain from having more disciplined party members. To what extent voters can benefit from the increased accountability in the long term might depend on whether and how the information is transmitted by the media. Whether we have the right or wrong kind of transparency clearly depends on circumstances. But the Swiss example demonstrates: More transparency has a clear impact on political decision-making.
Christine Benesch, Monika Bütler, Katharina Hofer, all at the University of St. Gallen Switzerland