How do electoral incentives affect legislator behavior?

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By Alexander Fouirnaies and Andrew B. Hall

 The Democratic Goal: Electoral Accountability

Those in power don’t always do what we want them to do; this is the central challenge of governance. Democratic elections try to solve this problem by forcing our representatives to take actions today in anticipation of reelection tomorrow—that is, by creating electoral accountability.

America’s founders placed great emphasis on electoral accountability. As Madison described it in Federalist 57, regular elections assure that America’s legislators “will be compelled to anticipate the moment when their power is to cease, when their exercise of it is to be reviewed, and when they must descend to the level from which they were raised…unless a faithful discharge of their trust shall have established their title to a renewal of it.”

The Skeptic’s Take on Electoral Incentives

Skeptics reasonably suggest that electoral accountability is hard to achieve because voters are not informed enough to reward a “faithful discharge of their trust” or to punish bad behavior.  In this vein, two of the foremost scholars of public opinion, Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, recently declared: “election outcomes are essentially random choices among the available parties…it is a blunder to expect elections to deliver more.”  Voters’ lack of attention could erode the ability of electoral incentives to affect legislator behavior.

It is impossible to answer this deep question in any one study.  Here, we will start with a humble but important question: at a minimum, does the desire to win reelection alter legislators’ behavior?  Can electoral incentives make them work more on legislative activities that are visible to constituents?  Or are elections so blind that incumbents can ignore them entirely?  

New Data on the Productivity of Over 6,000 State Legislators

To answer these questions, we collected new data on the behavior of all state legislators serving in states with term limits of three terms or greater.  The dataset covers the past 30-odd years, and contains over 780,000 bills sponsored by state legislators, more than 16 million roll-call votes they cast, over 1 million votes they cast in committees, as well as their committee assignments, chairmanships, and leadership positions.  This allows us to study legislative behavior on a much larger scale than was previously possible. 

Loosely speaking, we consider a legislator to be more “productive” when she sponsors more bills, shows up to cast roll-call votes more often, and performs more committee service in the legislature.  The idea is that, while we cannot assess whether a particular piece of legislation is “good” or not, we can at least see how legislators are allocating their time as representatives.

Looking at Legislator Behavior When They Can’t Seek Reelection

To figure out if electoral incentives affect legislator behavior, we take advantage of term limits.  We follow previous work (see here and here, for example) in comparing incumbents’ actions when they face a binding term limit, which removes their electoral incentives, vs. when they do not face a binding term limit and can seek reelection.  This lets us isolate the effect of electoral incentives, separate from the other factors that may lead some legislators to work harder in these areas than others.

 State Legislators Work Harder When They Face Reelection

Using this strategy, we find that state legislators are more productive when they face reelection, and are less productive when they are no longer allowed to seek reelection.  In their final term, when they cannot seek reelection, term-limited legislators sponsor fewer bills, provide less committee service, and are absent for more roll-call votes. 

Adding to the plausibility of these results, we show that the effect of being term-limited on productivity is larger in states where the term limit is permanent, and smaller where it is only consecutive—meaning that the legislator can seek state legislative office again after sitting out a term.  Moreover, the effect is larger in state legislatures with high salaries—where the desire to win reelection may be higher—than in legislatures with low salaries.

Finally, we show more tentative evidence that term-limited legislators are less fiscally responsible in their final term.  We call this analysis tentative because we can only obtain data on the scoring of bills’ budgetary impact for four states, reducing our sample size.  Nevertheless, we find no evidence that the removal of electoral incentives encourages more fiscally responsible behavior, as some have hypothesized.

Taken together, the analyses present strong evidence that elections shape legislator behavior in important ways.  The desire to win reelection makes legislators work harder in key legislative areas that are visible to constituents. We do not know if the ways they work harder make government itself better—this remains a longstanding question in the study of democratic accountability—but we can reject the notion that elections don’t do anything.  The need to win reelection shapes legislator behavior in office in important ways.  Though our study focuses on state legislatures, it is easy to imagine that the same electoral incentives play an important role in today’s Congress, too, where elections are more salient and turnout is higher. 

Alexander Fouirnaies is an Assistant Professor at the Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago. Andrew B. Hall is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Stanford University.