01 Jun 2016
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Research Brief: The High Cost of Election Expectations

by Erin Peterson

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Researchers have long known that building high levels of voter trust and participation are essential to help fragile democracies thrive. The 2013 national elections in Kenya, which followed vast government changes after a flawed national election in 2007 and a constitutional referendum, was the perfect laboratory to test initiatives designed to improve both.

Eager to showcase the country’s strengthened commitment to democracy, Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) partnered with Assistant Professor Vincent Pons and MIT’s Benjamin Marx and Tavneet Suri to study the impact of a robust get out the vote effort. The trio visited the country multiple times to develop and roll out a text message campaign to encourage voting, which ultimately reached 2 million—about 40 percent—of Kenya’s registered voters. “The commission wanted to ensure maximum participation,” says Pons. “They also wanted people to trust that the election was fair and transparent.”

The results were mixed. Voter turnout by those who received the texts did increase by up to 2 percent at some polling stations. Yet those who received the texts were 3.6 percent less likely to say they trusted the IEBC than those who didn’t. Trust was even lower among those who voted for the losing coalition.

Why the mismatch? Pons and his colleagues dug deep and discovered that part of the problem might have been due to the high expectations that the texts set, which were followed by technological flubs at the polling stations. For example, the biometric identification systems designed to prevent voter fraud were not working at all polling stations, and systems designed to publicly report real-time results crashed on Election Day.

For Pons, the larger lesson is that broken promises are even more damaging than none at all. “When you set high expectations for voters, you’ve got to make sure you deliver on them. If you want democracy to work well, you need both the winners and the losers to be on board and accept the results.”

“The Perils of Building Democracy in Africa,” by Benjamin Marx, Vincent Pons, and Tavneet Suri, HBS Working Paper.

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