Roadmaps to Representation: An Experimental Study of How Voter Education Tools Affect Citizen Decision Making

Abstract

Efforts to educate citizens about the candidates and issues at stake in elections are widespread. These include distributing voter guides describing candidates’ policy views and interactive tools conveying similar information. Do these voter education tools help voters identify candidates who share their policy views? We address this question by conducting survey experiments that randomly assign a nonpartisan voter guide, political party endorsements, a spatial map showing voters their own and the candidates’ ideological positions, or both a spatial map and party endorsements. We find that each type of information strengthens the relationship between voters’ policy views and those of the candidates they choose. These effects are largest for uninformed voters. When spatial maps and party endorsements send conflicting signals, many voters choose candidates with more similar policy views, against their party’s recommendation. These results contribute to debates about citizen competence and demonstrate the efficacy of practical efforts to inform electorates.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Like Lupia (1994), we distinguish extensive fact-based information (encyclopedic) about candidates’ policy views from recommendations of knowledgeable information providers (shortcuts) that are easily acquired and allow voters to infer the consequences of their choices.

  2. 2.

    Kuklinski et al. (2001) and Boudreau (2009) experimentally manipulate information in surveys or in laboratory settings. Lupia (1994) examines whether voters who know an information shortcut make different choices than voters who do not in a real-world direct democracy election.

  3. 3.

    Other studies examine voter guides’ effects on turnout (Bedolla and Michelson 2012), ballot initiative outcomes (Rogers and Middleton 2015), or candidate evaluations (Lodge et al. 1995).

  4. 4.

    Previously, we examined the effects of a randomly-assigned voter guide relative to a control group receiving no information. Here, we build on that design by comparing the effects of two information shortcuts—party endorsements and spatial maps (both separately and together)—with the voter guide. We assess the effects of information on: (1) informed versus uninformed voters and (2) voters whose policy views and partisanship are aligned versus at odds.

  5. 5.

    The Republican Party’s webpage recommended “not Eric Mar” as a means of endorsing Lee without setting him up for a backlash from an overwhelmingly Democratic electorate.

  6. 6.

    202 of these letters were “returned to sender” by the Post Office.

  7. 7.

    The other 185 surveys were for a separate study. The number of observations in our analyses is 344 after excluding those who fail to indicate a party or a preference between Lee and Mar.

  8. 8.

    52% of respondents reported spending “1–5 minutes” viewing the guide, while another 36% spent longer. 95% found the voter guide to be “somewhat” or “very helpful.”

  9. 9.

    Bridging the profiles with these candidate and voter responses enhances the precision of the estimated ideal points, making it more likely that they reflect respondents’ true policy views.

  10. 10.

    See the OA for randomization checks and models that include control variables.

  11. 11.

    We also omit Ideology, as the variable Control * Ideology is coded to take the value of the respondent’s ideal point for respondents in the control group and zero otherwise.

  12. 12.

    We used the pscl package in R to analyze candidate and voter responses to 65 policy questions. We estimated a one-dimensional model with uninformative priors for all model parameters. The first dimension correctly classifies 75.1% of candidate and voter responses. Adding a second dimension did not improve the model (see the OA for details).

  13. 13.

    See the OA for models with an alternative measure of political knowledge.

  14. 14.

    A naïve spatial model with no partisan bias would predict that among respondents with ideal points equidistant between Mar and Lee, support for Lee would be 0.50. We observe support levels significantly below 0.50, suggesting some bias in favor of Mar, the incumbent.

  15. 15.

    We observe this effect despite the fact that our model includes Republicans and Independents. In the OA, we show that this effect is magnified when we exclude these respondents.

  16. 16.

    Specifically, the effect of receiving a voter education tool on the effect of Ideology among low-knowledge respondents is 0.39 higher than among high-knowledge respondents (p < 0.05). The difference in the effects of the voter guide (0.35), spatial map (0.36), and party + map (0.51) is also significant (p < 0.10) and the difference in the effect of party cues (0.31) nearly so.

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Acknowledgements

We thank participants in the “New Developments in the Study of Political Persuasion” conference at UC Irvine for valuable feedback. Thank you as well to the anonymous reviewers and the Editor for their excellent suggestions.

Funding

This research was generously funded by an Interdisciplinary Research Grant from the University of California, Davis. We are grateful to Danielle Joesten Martin for outstanding research assistance.

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Correspondence to Cheryl Boudreau.

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All procedures involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in this study.

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Data and replication files are available on Dataverse (https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/U6YTI5).

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Boudreau, C., Elmendorf, C.S. & MacKenzie, S.A. Roadmaps to Representation: An Experimental Study of How Voter Education Tools Affect Citizen Decision Making. Polit Behav 41, 1001–1024 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-018-9480-6

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Keywords

  • Voter guide
  • Party cues
  • Survey experiment
  • Ideology
  • Local elections
  • Citizen competence