- How Did Absentee Voting Impact the 2020 U.S. Election? (Joint with Jesse Yoder, Cassandra Handan-Nader, Tobias Nowacki,
Daniel M. Thompson, Jennifer A. Wu, Chenoa Yorgason, and Andrew B. Hall). 2021. Science Advances.
The 2020 U.S. election saw high turnout, a huge increase in absentee voting, and brought unified national Democratic control—yet, contrary to much punditry, these facts do not imply that vote-by-mail increased turnout or had major partisan effects. In fact, states newly implementing no-excuse absentee voting for 2020 did not see dramatically larger increases in turnout than states that did not. Focusing on natural experiments in Texas and Indiana, we find that 65-year-olds turned out at nearly the same rate as 64-year-olds, despite voting absentee at higher rates since they didn’t have to provide an excuse to do so. Being old enough to vote no-excuse absentee did not substantially increase Democratic turnout relative to Republican turnout, either. In sum, no-excuse absentee voting seems to have mobilized few voters and had a muted partisan effect despite the historic pandemic. Voter interest appears to be far more important in driving turnout.
- Kornai Goes to Kenya (Joint with Peter T. Leeson and Colin Harris). 2020. Public Choice.
János Kornai developed soft budget constraint logic to explain the socialist world’s dysfunctional economies. We extend his logic to explain dysfunctional land reform in the developing world. International development organizations such as the World Bank provide support for land privatization to developing-country governments, softening their budget constraints. Softer budget constraints encourage developing-country governments to pursue land privatization even when its social value is negative. Kenya’s land reform program illustrates the soft budget constraint syndrome.
- Polarization and State Legislative Elections (Joint with Cassandra Handan-Nader and Andrew B. Hall).
U.S. state legislatures are critical policymaking bodies and the major pipeline of candidates to national office. Polarization in state legislatures has increased substantially in recent decades, yet we understand little about the role of elections in this process. We offer the first systematic study of state legislative candidate ideology across all election stages using a new dataset on primary- and general-election results for over 84,000 candidates, 1992-2020. We find that the pool of candidates has polarized substantially in recent decades amidst consistently low electoral competition. More-extreme candidates have enjoyed a modest advantage in contested primaries that has doubled in the past decade. More-moderate candidates previously enjoyed an advantage in contested general elections, but this has shrunk to nearly zero in the last decade. The results indicate a shifting equilibrium in which more-extreme candidates increasingly seek office, win primaries more often, lose general elections less often, and face limited competition.
- State Legislatures, Term Limits, and Polarization.
How do term limits affect the ideological composition of state legislatures? While existing work documents increased polarization in term-limited incumbents’ voting records, little is known about how term limits affect the candidate pipeline, electoral selection, and incumbents’ ideology over time. Pairing a first-of-its-kind dataset of state legislative election returns for 1992-2020 with novel roll-call-based candidate ideology scalings introduced in Handan-Nader, Myers, and Hall (2021) and a difference-indifferences design, I implement the first comprehensive study of the ideological effects of term limits in state legislatures. I find that term limits generate increased polarization among candidates at all stages of the candidate pipeline, from the pool of primary and general election candidates to eventual race winners. Contrary to pundits’ expectations, I show that this effect is not mediated by asymmetric polarization. Term limits also appear to systematically shift the electorate’s preferences, resulting in a decline in the electoral return to moderation in general election races. Finally, I present evidence that term limits do not significantly induce incumbents to shift their ideological positions. In sum, term-limited legislatures simultaneously attract more extreme candidates and reward extremity at a higher rate at the ballot box. These findings have important implications for models of electoral accountability and incentives.
- Are Dead People Voting By Mail? Evidence From Washington State Administrative Records (Joint with Jennifer Wu, Chenoa Yorgason, Hanna Folsz, Cassandra Handan-Nader, Tobias Nowacki, Daniel M. Thompson, Jesse Yoder, and Andrew B. Hall).
A commonly expressed concern about vote-by-mail in the United States is that mail-in ballots are sent to dead people, stolen by bad actors, and counted as fraudulent votes. To evaluate how often this occurs in practice, we study the state of Washington, which sends every registered voter a mail-in ballot. We link counted ballots and administrative death records to estimate the rate at which dead people’s mail-in ballots are improperly counted as valid votes, using birth dates from online obituaries to address false positives. Among roughly 4.5 million distinct voters in Washington state between 2011 and 2018, we estimate that there are 14 deceased individuals whose ballots might have been cast suspiciously long after their death, representing 0.0003% of voters. Even these few cases may reflect two individuals with the same name and birth date, or clerical errors, rather than fraud. After exploring the robustness of our findings to weaker conditions for matching names, we conclude that it seems extraordinarily rare for dead people’s ballots to be counted as votes in Washington’s universal vote-by-mail system.