Key message 2 – Evidence on the effectiveness of information interventions on voter actions is mixed and weaker than expected

Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and development agencies support projects that seek to produce and disseminate information on politicians’ performance before voters go to the polls, sometimes in partnership with researchers. The evidence for the effectiveness of such pre-election information campaigns on voter behaviour is mixed and generally weaker than observers expect.

Perhaps the strongest evidence for the effectiveness of information interventions comes from Banerjee et al. (2011). By distributing newspapers containing report cards on politicians in Indian slums just prior to elections, the authors found that greater transparency resulted in gains for better performing and relatively more qualified incumbents.

Chong et al. (2015) found evidence that exposing Mexican voters to corruption information – culled from independent audit reports – had a negative effect on votes for the incumbent party. However, due to unexpected effects on voter turnout, it did not translate into gains for challengers.

Humphreys and Weinstein (2012) studied a five year scorecard process in Uganda, which scored politicians on constituency work as well as work in Parliament. The areas that received scorecard dissemination did not re-elect better performing politicians.

A recent initiative involving seven coordinated studies exploring the causal relationship between information and accountability across six countries reports modest effects on voter behaviour, at best (Dunning et al. 2019). The studies – located in Benin, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Mexico, India, and Uganda – coordinated their measurement and estimation strategies, making it possible to pool their results.

As shown in Figure 1, in general the studies found a relatively consistent null effect of directly providing voters with information in private settings, though other variants of the treatment sometimes did produce positive effects in some studies. This is particularly striking because policy area experts, when given details about the interventions, generally expected quite strong effects (Nellis et al. 2019). This surprising lack of impact is possibly due to difficulties of voters to absorb information that has not been sufficiently contextualized (by experts, peers, or pundits).

These weak findings resonate with findings on campaign spending – an area that has received even more scholarly attention and one that involves high levels of investments. Examining results from 49 field experiments, Kalla and Broockman (2019) find that “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidate choices in general elections is zero.”