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Novel study finds links between politicians’ behaviour and votes

Good news for Canadian democracy: voters do in fact care about what members of Parliament do on the job

November 7, 2013 — 
Royce Koop, political studies

Royce Koop, political studies

Proving whether or not representative democracy works is surprisingly difficult to do, but University of Manitoba political studies professor Royce Koop found a way: private member bills.

Koop and his international co-authors found that MPs who introduced a private member bill had a seven per cent greater chance of winning their seat again; introducing just one bill increased the MPs votes in an election by 2.5 per cent.

This is the first study to show experimentally that citizens respond to, and reward, the activities of their elected MP. The study will be published in the American Journal of Political Science, widely considered the discipline’s top journal.

“We were pretty shocked by this, shocked in a good way,” says Koop, noting that study after study reveals Canadians are disenchanted by how they’re represented in Ottawa. “It does seem that people are paying attention, maybe more than we give them credit for. Politicians should be aware of that.”

Proving whether or not representative democracy works as it’s designed to is difficult. A key component of this political model requires citizens notice and respond to the behaviour of their elected officials. But studying this is challenging because so many variables exist.

Koop and his colleagues (from Toronto, San Diego, Calif., and Williamsburg, Va.) pioneered a way to eliminate these variables. They recognized that the way private member bills are awarded to Canadian MPs provides the element of randomness required for a natural experiment. The Speaker of the House of Commons draws from a hat the names of those chosen to present a bill dealing with an issue of the MP’s choosing. The 308 MPs have an equal chance of being chosen. Since they aren’t picked based on other factors—like how good a communicator they are—it creates a level playing field to measure research outcomes.

“This random element provided us with a natural experiment where we could observe whether acquiring the right to introduce a private member bill had any effect on subsequent vote shares for MPs,” says Koop. “When we looked at the numbers, we were shocked to find that there was a clear effect: government MPs received a 2.5 per cent boost (in votes) solely as a result of winning the lottery and introducing one bill.”

The study stretched five years and covered the 2006 and 2008 federal elections. The researchers also compared their findings with Election Canada survey results which showed MPs who introduced bills experienced additional benefits: more campaign donations and greater likability among constituents.

Researchers south of the border have done a lot of this type of observational research but that hasn’t been the case so far in Canada. “We’re trying to be trailblazers in this area,” Koop says.

Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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