Research - 27.06.2024 - 11:00 

Do elected officials vote in favour their constituents or special interest groups?

Elected representatives are supposed to look out for the interests of their constituents. But when they vote on issues, do they actually do so, or do they support the special interest groups that financially support their campaigns? University of St.Gallen Assistant Professor Ulrich Matter along with postdoctoral researcher Patrick Balles and Professor Alois Stutzer, both from the University of Basel, closely examine this topic.

In their study “Special Interest Groups Versus Voters and the Political Economics of Attention” Matter, Balles and Stutzer look into whether the votes of elected legislators from the U.S. House of Representatives are influenced by special interest groups. By examining 666 roll call votes from 2005 to 2018, the study found that elected representatives are more likely to vote against their constituents' preferences if they receive significant financial contributions from special interest groups. Moreover, the influence of special interest money is more pronounced in relatively safe districts, where representatives do not fear strong competition from challengers.

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Times of distraction

The findings also suggest that majority party leaders may exploit times when the media is focused on other major events, such as natural disasters, which distract from political coverage. During these times, these politicians push through controversial bills more quickly capitalizing on the lack of public scrutiny.

As we know, in democratic systems, elected officials need to secure votes to be re-elected. Tied to that, these politicians need to be seen as supporting the policies that their constituents’ favour. However, special interest groups have an agenda and they are willing to sway the votes of elected officials by donating money to their re-election campaigns. As one can imagine, this can create a conflict of interest when the desires of special interest groups clash with those of the constituents of a given area. 

Important role of the media

With this in mind, the study highlights the critical role of media attention in the context of holding politicians accountable. Notably, the media's ability to hold representatives accountable for their voting behaviour.
This study is the one of the first that provides large-scale empirical evidence that representatives indeed strategically support special interests during periods of low media coverage to avoid negative public perception.

The researchers created two measures. One is called "Alignment", which indicates whether a representative's vote on a bill matches the dominant preference of their district. The second assesses the amount of special interest group pressure on a specific representative by reflecting the donor or interest group and the amount of money given to them. By combining these measures, voters and media would be able to track voting behaviour more closely.  

The study's robust data set, encompassing individual voting decisions and campaign donations, allows for a comprehensive analysis of the interplay between media attention, special interest influence and legislative behaviour.

The study can be found at:
And also here:

Image: Adobe Stock / Ingo Bartussek