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Making Elections Work with Prof. Vincent Anesi

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Published on Wednesday, 21 July 2021

In a representative democracy, the accountability of elected officials to their constituents stems from elections. Scholars have argued, however, that elections present important limitations that constitute a barrier to political accountability.

In particular, they pit voters against better informed politicians; they constitute coarse “contracts,” restricting voters to a binary decision to replace or retain an incumbent; and voters cannot commit to these decisions until they are standing in the voting booth. Some worry that this lack of commitment precludes the use of elections to select competent politicians and control their behaviour; others worry about the coarseness of the voter’s binary decision, “express[ing] doubts that voters, even rational and well-informed voters, could exercise control over the elected official with such a crude instrument” (Ingham, 2019).

Prof. Vincent Anesi from the Department of Economics and Management at the Faculty of Law, Economics and Finance, has teamed up with Harvard University political scientist, Peter Buisseret, to study these important issues. In an article forthcoming in one of the prestigious Economic journals, the American Economic Journal: Microeconomics, the researchers ask whether the deficiencies of the electoral mechanism are to blame for imperfect political accountability.

Using a formal model of dynamic elections, they establish a positive and remarkable result: despite the shortcomings of the electoral mechanism, voters are able to closely approximate their “first-best,” i.e., what they would obtain in an idealised benchmark, where they could perfectly observe both politicians’ actions and their characteristics, and commit to richer types of contracts (involving, for example, monetary rewards and punishments). The authors conclude that failures of accountability derive not from intrinsic limitations of the mechanism, but rather from how it is used in practice.

This article is available online.