Do Electoral Quotas Work after They Are Withdrawn? Evidence from a Natural Experiment in India

This is a review of Do Electoral Quotas Work after They Are Withdrawn? Evidence from a Natural Experiment in India (2009) by Rikhil R Bhavnani. American Political Science Review 103 (February): 23-35. You can find the original in Google Scholar.

Women are five times more likely to win in post-quota seats than in other seats. Chew on that. Five times more likely.

Women and minorities have a tough time winning American elections. Although half of Americans are female, only 15% of Congress is. Although only 69% of Americans are white, 89% of state legislators and 84% of House members are white.

This problem is not unique to the states. Some countries have adopted a quota system to combat such underrepresentation. Obviously, if you reserve a quarter of Congressional seats for women, then you’ll end up with more women in Congress. But the question is, do these quotas actually help change the status of women in politics? What if we imposed a quota for a while and then withdrew it–would women see an enduring improvement?

Turns out we would.

The Indian Experiment

I finally got around to reading Bhavnani’s article, published last February, in which he exploits some fascinating data to show that even if you impose a quota for only one election, in the following (quota-free) election, women will still have much better odds of winning after the quotas are removed than they did before the quotas were put in place.

India uses a quota system to ensure representation of women in local offices. Prior to each election, 33% of local seats will be reserved for women; only women may run in these races. These reservations are made through a genuinely random lottery system.1 So a seat might be reserved for women in one election but then open to anybody in the following election.

These rules create an honest-to-goodness natural experiment. Bhavnani looks at unreserved seats in the 2002 Mumbai elections. He compares those that were reserved in 1997 (the treatment group) to those that were not (the control). He’s not comparing reserved seats to unreserved seats; he’s comparing unreserved seats that were previously reserved to unreserved seats that were not previously reserved. This technique enables him to estimate the long-term effect of quotas after they are withdrawn.

Even after quotas are removed, women are five times more likely to win in post-quota seats than in other seats. Chew on that. Five times more likely.

Here’s some more comparisons between the treatment and control groups. In the control, only 3.7% of winners are female; in the treatment, 21.6% are. In the control, only 35.8% of wards had a female candidate bother to run; in the treatment, 73% did. In the control, only 4.4% of candidates were female; in the treatment, 11.9% were.

There are several reasons that (withdrawn) quotas could have these enduring effects. Bhavnani points to two as most likely. First: Women realize that they can win elections, so they keep running. Not just incumbents, though; you also get more rookie women choosing to run in the treatment than in the control. Something about seeing successful women makes other women realize that they can run. Second: Parties realize that women can win, so they start nominating women to represent them in the election.


Hillary's problem in 2000?

Hillary's problem in 2000?

I have no methodological or theoretical critiques of this paper. That’s unusual, if you read my other posts. However, I do have lingering questions that I hope future research addresses.

Bhavnani shows that quotas continue to help women in the first election (only) after they are withdrawn. How long does it take (if ever) for these effects to disappear? Unfortunately, it appears that Bhavnani could not find data to test that. I’d love to see it though. A short term effect is interesting, but not the end of the story.

These quotas apply only to local elections. I’d be curious to look at all the women in state/national office and see how many got their start under (or immediately after) a quota. Does getting your start under a quota make you look like a weaker candidate when you run for office later? Recall that many thought Hillary Clinton had an unfair advantage winning her first Senate election, so she had to work very hard to prove herself as something more than Bill’s shadow. Do women who start out under a quota have a similar problem?

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One Comment

  1. Blanca Heredia Unregistered
    Posted November 10, 2010 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    The findings in this article are GREAT !!! I will be using them and publicizing them as much as I can. Thanks for finding it and summarizing it ! best, Blanca Heredia, political scientist, Mexico