Clarity of voter choices: neglected foundation for ideological congruence

Luana Russo, Political Science, Maastricht University, Maastricht, Netherlands

Mark N. Franklin, Political Science, Trinity College Connecticut, Hartford, USA

Stefanie Beyens, School of Governance, Utrecht University, Utrecht, Netherlands

Ideological congruence between individual voters and their elected governments is crucial for well-functioning representative democratic systems. The argument from democratic theory states that this type of congruence indicates policy-making in line with the voter preferences, what Pitkin (1967) called substantive representation. And past research has shown that voters themselves like it, as ideological congruence is one of the most reliable predictors of satisfaction with democracy (Kim 2009; Ferland 2016). Yet ideological voter-government congruence does not appear out of nowhere, nor is it the result of just one feature of the electoral system. Rather, Golder and Ferland (2018) argue that the type of congruence we are dealing with in this paper, proximity on the left-right ideological axis between individual voters and parties making up the government, is the end result of a number of stages in the translation of voters’ preferences into votes, votes into seats, and seats into government policy. We are interested particularly, but not uniquely, in the role played by party system polarization and its seemingly paradoxical effects on congruence. Much controversy surrounds the question of how the polarization of party systems1 might affect ideological congruence between individual voters and the parties making up their governments (Belchior 2013; Dalton and Anderson 2011; Powell 2013).

For example, if all parties are competing for the center-ground (Downs 1957), then party polarization will be close to zero, as all parties will aim to attract the same voters, and it will make little difference which party or parties win office. Viewed in this light, more party polarization will increase the distinctiveness of policies offered by different parties and will make it easier for voters to choose a party close to their preferences. This reason-ing finds some confirmation when we look at studies of satisfaction with democracy: “when party systems offer more policy choices that are proximate to . . . voter positions, satisfaction increases” (Ezrow and Xezonakis 2011, 1153). But the same study also finds that, if par-ties (and, by implication, governments formed by those parties) move too far from the ideological center, satisfaction is reduced (Ezrow and Xezonakis 2011, 1165), perhaps due to reduced ideological congruence between centrist voters and more polarized government parties (Cf. Powell 2013).

This raises the question: how much party polarization is enough to ensure meaningful distinctions among parties without incurring deleterious consequences for ideological congruence? We suggest a previously unanticipated role for voter polarization in mitigating the ill-effects of party polarization. We argue that a joint increase in party and voter polarization can facilitate joint ‘sorting’ of voters and parties (as will be explained) in terms of their left-right positions, injecting a degree of clarity into the choices facing voters. We expect this clarity to promote ideological (left-right) congruence between voters and governments (as will also be explained).

And we will show that, if voter polarization does increase in step with party polarization, this indeed improves ideological congruence between voters and the parties making up their governments. Still, clarity in terms of distinctiveness of parties and of voter preferences for those parties is only one type of clarity and perhaps not the most important one. Indeed, more than minimal polarization may only be needed if other sources of clarity are absent. Such additional sources of clarity in the choice between parties include government status — whether it controls a majority of legislative seats — and party system size — the effective number of parties — as well as a component that Powell and Whitten (1993) referred to as clarity of responsibility but that we re-conceptualize as the size of the party most likely to gain control of the legislature (that is to say: the size of the largest party). This fourth type of clarity was originally seen as a basis for government accountability, but we elaborate its theoretical underpinnings so as to refocus them from account-ability to choice. We name the resulting measure ‘electoral clarity’.

We find that, when all four of these sources of clarity in the choice between parties are taken in conjunction, we are able to account for close to the full range of values that ideological congruence (left-right proximity between voters and their governments) takes on empirically, at least in European political systems — the venue for our research.In the theoretical section we elaborate our argument with reference to earlier findings and explicate the link between clarity and polarization (both of the party system and among voters) as well as the link between clarity and ideological congruence (between individual voters and the parties making up their governments). We proceed by formulating our hypotheses and describing our data. We then examine the effects of polarization and other sorts of clarity on congruence. We conclude with a discussion of our findings.


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