Do roll call votes influence member reelection prospects?

By Ben Highton

Political scientists and political analysts have a keen interest in knowing whether the roll call votes Members of Congress (MCs) make concerning significant public policy influence their reelection prospects.  In a recent article I analyzed how voters responded to MCs votes on five important policy proposals during President Obama’s first term, including the Affordable Care Act.  The other four high profile votes are: a cap and trade bill to limit pollution and respond to climate change (the ‘‘American Clean Energy and Security Act’’), an amendment to the Department of Defense budget authorization that would allow gays to openly serve in the military by eliminating the ‘‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’’ policy, the ‘‘Dodd-Frank’’ financial reform law intended to regulate the behavior of financial institutions that contributed to the Great Recession, and a roll call vote to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

By linking a large national survey of over 30,000 respondents to their MCs I compared the roll call positions of MCs to the preferences of their constituents.  Overall, I found little relationship between roll call votes, voter policy preferences, and voting for incumbent House members.  For example, whether a voter supported or opposed repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and whether his or her MC voted for or against it was largely unrelated to whether the voter cast his or her ballot to reelect the MC.  The one exception was with regard to the Affordable Care Act.  Voters opposed to the Affordable Care Act who were represented by an MC who voted for it were about 10 percentage points less likely to vote to reelect their incumbent. 

In light of the findings regarding the Affordable Care Act, the vigilance with which Members of Congress monitor their constituencies and the electoral concerns they have about the impact roll call votes have on their reelection chances are at least partially vindicated.  But, the apparent lack of electoral effects for the other roll call votes considered in my article suggests a fair amount of leeway (or lack of constraint) when it comes to electoral accountability.  This is especially true, when the results from my article are considered along with findings from other published political science research.  Thus the notion that there is a nontrivial ‘‘electoral blind spot’’ where voters ‘‘do not enforce their preferences’’  appears to be the case.  The general implication is that the constraining force of voters on the discretion incumbents have in the positions they take may be quite limited. On particular roll call votes Members of Congress appear relatively free to take the position they want without much negative repercussions, at least in so far as their voters are concerned.

Ben Highton is a professor of political science at University of California, Davis.