PhD defense of Dieter Stiers

On 20 May 2020, Dieter Stiers successfully defended his dissertation “Quality of the Vote Choice. Accountability and Congruence in Electoral Democracies” at the University of Leuven. Dieter was co-supervised by Marc Hooghe (KU Leuven) and Ruth Dassonneville, and the dissertation committee included André Blais, Richard R. Lau, Michael S. Lewis-Beck, Jean-Benoit Pilet and Stefaan Fiers.

Here is a summary of Dieter’s dissertation:

Elections are one of the main institutions of representative democracies. Through elections, citizens can voice their opinions about past policies and future prospects. For a representative system to work effectively, it is important that voters send political signals with their votes. Only if the vote choice contains a political message, election results form an effective representation of the electorate’s political preferences. Therefore, in this dissertation, I investigate to what extent voters indeed cast votes in line with their preferences, and which factors moderate whether or not they do so. Investigating the “quality” of the vote choice, the focus is on two main determinants of the vote: retrospective evaluations of the incumbent’s performance, and congruence between the voters’ and the parties’ ideological position. According to the retrospective voting theory, voters retrospectively evaluate the performance of the incumbent government and decide whether or not to vote for an incumbent party based on this evaluation. Whereas satisfied voters are expected to support an incumbent party, dissatisfied voters are more likely to turn to the opposition. The results presented in this dissertation provide strong support for this theory. First, the results show that voters evaluate government performance over a long length of time, and bring all these evaluations to bear on Election Day. Whereas previous research held rather negative perceptions of the time horizon of voter evaluations – finding them to be myopic – the findings show that voters look back many years when they decide which party to vote for. Furthermore, while I find evidence of fluctuations in voter attention to punishing or rewarding the incumbent, they seem to be attentive during most of the electoral cycle. Second, I find considerable variation in the strength of retrospective voting between individuals and across different contexts. On the individual level, voters need to hold sufficient levels of political information to be able to hold incumbents accountable for their performance. However, importantly, the amount of information available in the context determines to what extent voters can bring that information to use. Furthermore, although negative accounts of increasing polarisation are plenty, it seems that ideological polarisation between the government and opposition helps voters to distinguish the alternatives they have. It is thus very important to create a context in which voters can gather the information they need and use their judgements to reward and punish the correct actors accordingly. Third, I strongly broaden the retrospective voting theory by showing that voters take into account the performance of political parties specifically – and of parties in opposition as well. The results indicate that voters have perceptions about opposition performance, and that these help explaining their choices between incumbent and opposition parties respectively. This mechanism allows going beyond the traditional model that can only explain why a voter chooses to support an incumbent party or not. However, future research remains necessary to examine how voters construct their evaluations, and how exactly they bring them to bear. The second major theory under investigation is spatial voting. According to this theory, voters compare their own political views and opinions with those of the different parties, and vote for the party that is closest to them. While this has been one of the dominant views on voting behaviour in the literature, there is also substantive pessimism with regard to voters’ ability to match their own opinions with a party. To investigate the congruence of the vote, I focus on proximity evaluations as determinants of the vote for stable and volatile voters respectively. The results show that volatile voters take into account ideological proximity considerations when they decide what party to vote for. Furthermore, while they are less likely to vote for the “correct” party than stable voters, the act of switching is more likely to increase the congruence of their vote than vice versa. Hence, the original rather pessimistic picture of volatile voters to be changing party choice rather randomly does not receive empirical support. Second, I investigate whether compulsory voting systems come with a trade-off between increasing the representativeness of turnout but decreasing the representation of voter preferences. The results seem to support the hypothesis that voters who only turn out because they are obligated to do so cast votes that are less in line with their political views and opinions than voters who turn out because they want to. However, there seems to be considerable variation in this result, which future research could explore. It is important to continue investigating this trade-off given the strong appeal of compulsory voting. Being presented as the most straightforward way to involve the whole electorate in the political process, it is important to test whether it has negative effects as well. Third, besides compulsory voting, another way to involve citizens more in the democratic process that has been debated more recently, is to grant the right to vote to 16- and 17-year-olds as well. Investigating the consequences of possible youth enfranchisement, the results show that adolescents seem to be able to cast a vote that is congruent with their political opinions as well – at least to the same extent as their parents’ generation. Furthermore, it seems that being allowed to vote increases adolescents’ attention for politics. However, it does not seem to be sufficient to increase their political engagement overall. Taken together, these results seem to allow for mostly optimistic conclusions regarding the function of elections in representative democracies. Voters, it seems, do use elections to express their political preferences – both retrospectively and prospectively. Hence, the electoral result provides a good overview of the political views and opinions of the electorate. Thus, the vote choice seems to be of sufficient “quality” to safeguard accurate representation from the side of the voter. It is then up to other political actors – most notably political parties – to take up this signal and to use it to provide accurate and effective representation of the voters’ political preferences.

The full text of Dieter’s dissertation can be accessed here.

Congratulations to dr. Dieter Stiers!

This content has been updated on 16 June 2020 at 11 h 25 min.