Constituents’ Responses to Congressional Roll-Call Voting

This is a review of Constituents’ Responses to Congressional Roll-Call Voting (2010) by Stephen Ansolabehere and Philip Edward Jones. American Journal of Political Science 54 (July): 583-597. You can find the original in Google Scholar.

Voters really do hold members of Congress accountable for their voting records.

Turns out that democracy works, at least when it comes to voters holding members of Congress accountable for their voting record. For accountability to happen, we need to see three things: (1) Voters need to have specific opinions on specific issues before Congress; (2) voters need to know how their member of Congress actually voted on those issues; and (3) the voter’s agreement with the member’s voting record should have a strong effect on the voter’s decision to vote (or not) for the member of Congress.

Political scientists have spilled a lot of ink over the past several decades debating whether all that really happens. Ansolabehere and Jones ran a survey to find out. Surprisingly, that hadn’t been done before. Turns out democracy isn’t quite perfect, but it works well enough. They look at each of the three steps listed above:

  1. Most voters offered an opinion on most of the specific issues (from 2005-2006) that the authors asked about (partial birth abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research, capital gains tax cuts, ratifying CAFTA, immigration reform, bankruptcy reform, the Patriot Act).
  2. Most voters ventured a guess as to how their representative actually voted on each of this issues. The guesses weren’t perfect. On average, the guesses were accurate about 72% of the time. That’s not perfect, but it’s enough to produce accountability in the aggregate. As the authors remind us, “One need only require that the average perceptions of constituencies square with the [actual] voting records of Representatives. The law of large numbers would make the electorate as a whole act as if individuals were highly informed” (see pg 587).
  3. To the extent that a voter’s policy preferences are similar to the member’s roll call record as perceived by the voter, voters are more likely to support their representative.

That “as perceived by the voter” bit is critical. Still, the articles goes a long way toward showing that voters really do hold members of Congress accountable for their voting records.

Comment and Criticism

I have only one quibble with the article. They are asking people about bills that already came before Congress in the previous year. It’s possible that people changed their position on these bills after seeing how their Representative (and other Representatives from their preferred party) voted on it. This is a central part of the Michigan school’s “funnel model,” which says that voters start off with a partisan attachment, and they then adopt the issue positions that they perceive are consistent with that partisan attachment.

So, if we believe The American Voter, then maybe voters had different views about all these issues before Congress addressed them, but when they saw how their party took a side on each issue over the course of 2005-2006, their views shifted to match the party line. Thus, members of Congress aren’t responding to voters–voters are responding to members of Congress.

I’m not a huge fan of this line of argument from The American Voter, but it’s still an influential view within political science, so I expect that Ansolabehere and Jones may take some flack from Michigan loyalists.

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