Elections and the Quality of Public Officials: Evidence from U.S. State Courts

Claire S.H. Lim, James M. Snyder, Jr.

NBER Working Paper No. 18355
Issued in September 2012
NBER Program(s):Law and Economics, Political Economy

We investigate the influence of electoral rules and voter information in elections on voting outcomes and the quality of public officials, using new data on state court judge elections in 39 states in the U.S. from 1990 to 2010. We find, first, that voting is very partisan in partisan judicial elections - i.e., there is a strong correlation between the Democratic "normal vote'' and the Democratic vote share for judges - but not in non-partisan or non-competitive "retention'' elections. This partisan voting behavior cannot be attributed to clear differences between Democratic and Republican judges in their sentencing decisions, since such differences, if any, are small and not consistent. Second, we find that incumbent judges' quality has little effect on their vote share or probability of winning in partisan general elections. By contrast, it has a substantial effect in non-partisan elections and partisan primary elections. It also has a noticeable effect on their vote share in retention elections, but the magnitude is often too small to affect reelection. Evidence on turnout is consistent with a simple "voting cue'' hypothesis. We find that about 83\% of the voters who vote on the top office on the ballot also vote on judicial elections in partisan elections. In contrast, in nonpartisan and retention elections, only 76\% and 67\% of those who vote on the top office also vote on judicial candidates, respectively. In addition, the amount of newspaper coverage affects voter turnout only in non-partisan elections.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w18355

Published: Hirano S, Snyder JM. Primary Elections and the Quality of Elected Officials. Quarterly Journal of Political Science . 2014;9(4):473-500.

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