Norms versus Action: Why Voters Fail to Sanction Malfeasance in Brazil

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Authors Taylor C. Boas, F. Daniel Hidalgo, Marcus André Melo
Paper Category
Paper Abstract We show that Brazilian voters strongly sanction malfeasant mayors when presented with hypothetical scenarios but take no action when given the same information about their own mayor. Partnering with the State Accounts Court of Pernambuco, we conducted a field experiment during the 2016 municipal elections in which the treatment group received information about official wrongdoing by their mayor. The treatment has no effect on self-reported voting behavior after the election, yet when informing about malfeasance in the context of a vignette experiment, we are able to replicate the strong negative effect found in prior studies. We argue that voters’ behavior in the abstract reflects the comparatively strong norm against corruption in Brazil. Yet on Election Day, their behavior is constrained by factors such as attitudes toward local political dynasties and the greater salience of more pressing concerns like employment and health services. Replication Materials: The data, code, and any additional materials required to replicate all analyses in this article are available on the American Journal of Political Science Dataverse within the Harvard Dataverse Network, at: Malfeasance by elected officials is an important problem in democracies around the world. Some politicians engage in actions that are corrupt: accepting bribes, diverting public funds into personal bank accounts, or otherwise using their office for private gain. Others stop short of outright corruption but engage in gross violations of the law, such as failing to pay pension contributions for state employees or ignoring mandated budgeting targets for social services. Both forms of malfeasance impinge upon citizens’ welfare and impose significant economic costs on society. They can also contribute to disillusionment with democracy and support for authoritarian alternatives. Taylor C. Boas is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Boston University, 232 Bay State Road, Boston, MA 02215 ( F. Daniel Hidalgo is Cecil and Ida Green Associate Professor of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Room E53-470, Cambridge, MA 02139 ( Marcus André Melo is Professor, Departamento de Ciência Polı́tica, Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, Centro de Filosofia e Ciências Humanas, Rua Acadêmico Hélio Ramos – s/n – 14° andar, Cidade Universitária – Recife, PE – Brasil, CEP: 50.670-901 ( We are grateful to Mariana Batista for invaluable help throughout multiple phases of this project; to Marcos Nóbrega and the State Accounts Court of Pernambuco for their partnership; to Amanda Domingos, Julia Nassar, and Virginia Rocha for research assistance; and to seminar participants at Boston University, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, University of Notre Dame, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, Real Colegio Complutense, and the 2017 International Congress of the Latin American Studies Association. Thanks to Alejandro Avenburg, Jacqueline Behrend, Spencer Piston, Fabrı́cio Pontin, and Matthew Singer for comments on previous versions. This study is part of the Metaketa Initiative on Information and Accountability, funded by Evidence in Governance and Politics (EGAP), and is preregistered with EGAP (ID 20151118AA). Approval was obtained from the institutional review boards of Boston University (protocol 4094X), MIT (protocol 1604551604), and the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco (número de parecer 1571592). Democracy offers a solution to the problem of political malfeasance: vertical accountability. Provided that voters obtain credible information about official wrongdoing, they will have an opportunity to sanction politicians who break the law. Vertical accountability requires that voters condemn malfeasance by elected officials, versus believing that politicians are entitled to govern as they see fit, that accomplishments excuse illegal behavior, or that lawbreaking while in office amounts to a minor transgression. It also requires that voters act upon this norm when they go to the polls, rather than being constrained by personal loyalties, partisanship, clientelism, intimidation, or a belief that the opposition is no better than the incumbent. American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 00, No. 00, xxxx 2018, Pp. 1–16 C ©2018, Midwest Political Science Association DOI: 10.1111/ajps.12413
Date of publication 2019
Code Programming Language R

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