Want to stop corruption? Text voters

A new study shows texting information about political corruption can improve democratic election outcomes.

BYU political science professor Daniel Nielson teamed up with three other professors to look at elections in Uganda, which suffers a range of challenges due to economic, political and social corruption. This study was done as part of a broader project, Metaketa I, which funded six studies in five countries to investigate how disseminating information about corruption impacted voting patterns.

“I am always looking for ways to understand how corruption might be addressed,” said Nielson, whose study was recently published in top-ranked journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Helping voters to hold politicians more accountable seems a promising part of the answer to that puzzle.”

In Uganda, Nielson noted, citizens struggle to vote out corrupt politicians due to state control of media, low civic education, untrustworthy institutions and uncompetitive elections.

During the 2016 Ugandan district elections, Nielson and his co-authors worked with Twaweza, a Ugandan-based organization that promotes good governance, to send mobile phone text messages to inform 16,000 voters about suspected budget fraud by local government councils.

The team was able to contact 16,000 citizens, significantly more than is typical in such studies. They found that the impact of the text messages changed citizens’ votes between 2 and 6 percent. This data would have been difficult to detect had the team only surveyed a few thousand participants, but their wide reach provided them the statistical power to detect small changes in the population’s voting behavior.

Voters who learned that suspected fraud in the political candidates was greater than they expected were 6 percent less likely to vote for incumbents. Those that learned that fraud was less than expected were 5 percent more likely to vote for incumbents.

“We see this as a bright spot that might suggest some ways forward for other non-governmental organizations when they design public-information campaigns,” said Nielson. “Our job as researchers is to point in promising directions.”

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