Authors : Nahomi Ichino and Noah L. Nathan
Affiliated Organization : University of Michigan
Publication Type : Study Report
Date of publication : November 28, 2016
Political parties across the developing world increasingly rely on primaries to select legislative nominees. Parties without regular primaries also face increasing demands to open candidate selection to rank-and-file members.
Within political parties shape the extent to which voters can control elected representatives, as parties serve as important intermediaries between citizens and government. An emerging literature has only begun to examine how primary elections operate in new democracies and to explore their implications, both for the quality of candidates and for general election outcomes.
This task is complicated by the fact that candidate selection processes can vary on several dimensions, including the restrictiveness of the rules for who selects nominees and is eligible to vote in primaries. In this paper, we investigate how increasing the number of legislative primary voters affects the pool of politicians who seek office and get onto the general election ballot.
Primaries in advanced democracies are usually modeled as contests over the nominee’s location in an ideological issue space in which party leaders and grassroots party members occupy different locations. Primary elections are an opportunity to select a nominee with high valence but at the cost of greater ideological extremism. Rules such as allowing non-members to vote in party primaries (“open” primaries) can moderate the the risk of selecting ideological extremists.
Primaries in advanced democracies are usually modeled as contests over the nominee’s location in an ideological issue space in which party leaders and grassroots party members occupy different locations.
Primaries are not ideological contests in new democracies where patronage dominates policy, however. Primaries are instead contests over who becomes the most important local patron in a given constituency, which affects who will benefit from particularistic patronage goods distributed by legislators. Primaries can involve extensive vote buying-and tend to select nominees who excel in the delivery of patronage to small groups of voters, not nominees who best represent the broad interests of the party membership or general electorate.
We argue that opening up primary voting to sufficiently large numbers of party members will have positive effects on democratic representation in patronage-based polities through two changes. First, vote buying becomes more difficult, both logistically and financially, making the distribution of private goods a less viable route to a nomination. Second, the expanded primary electorate includes new voters with different preferences from the local party activists who comprise the primary electorate when the electorate is more restricted.
In patronage-dominated systems with little ideological distinction between parties, substantially expanding the primary electorate can induce changes to the number and types of politicians who compete in legislative primaries and to the types of politicians who win nominations. This section builds the argument in several steps.
We begin with three types of actors: local-level party leaders, ordinary party members who far outnumber local party leaders, and aspirants competing for the nomination. Local party leaders and ordinary members value both private benefits and local public goods. Because local public goods only benefit people who live near them, individual party leaders or members who live in different locations will have different preferences about the distribution of local public goods.
In patronage-dominated systems with little ideological distinction between parties, substantially expanding the primary electorate can induce changes to the number and types of politicians who compete in legislative primaries and to the types of politicians who win nominations.
We assume that all local party leaders and some ordinary party members belong to one social identity group, while the remainder of the ordinary party members belong to a second social identity group. We can think of these groups as genders, ethnicities, religions, or other politically relevant groupings. Democratization of primary elections is the switch from a smaller electorate composed only of local party leaders who all belong to one group to a larger electorate that includes ordinary party members from both groups.
Primaries are decided by plurality vote. Each member of the electorate has one vote and supports the aspirant who offers greater expected benefits. We assume that primary voters do not consider whether the aspirant is likely to win the general election – i.e., that there is no strategic voting. In strongholds of one party or another, the selection of a particular aspirant is unlikely to affect which party wins the general election. In competitive constituencies, choosing a more “electable” aspirant will not benefit a primary voter if that aspirant will not deliver private benefits or locate local public goods near the voter.
Aspirants face a budget constraint and choose one of two strategies to try to win the primary. The first strategy is vote buying, in which some primary voters are offered direct private benefits before the primary in exchange for support. The alternative strategy is to promise to deliver local public goods after the general election. For purposes of theoretical exposition, aspirants may choose only one of these strategies.
Where vote buying is financially and logistically feasible for at least some aspirants, it is the more effective strategy in the primary and crowds out aspirants who do not have the resources to engage in vote buying.
Expanding the primary electorate has two effects. First, it changes the dominant strategy for aspirants. When the electorate is small, individual voters have significant leverage to extract rents in the form of upfront payments from aspirants. Moreover, if primary voters are poor, they will have high discount rates, placing greater value on immediate rewards from vote selling than on later expected benefits from campaign promises.
Where vote buying is financially and logistically feasible for at least some aspirants, it is the more effective strategy in the primary and crowds out aspirants who do not have the resources to engage in vote buying. When the primary electorate is sufficiently large, however, securing support through private benefits can become prohibitively expensive.
The second change is to the types of voters in the primary electorate. The small electorate is restricted to local party leaders who all belong to the first social group. Even if aspirants from the excluded group have the financial resources to compete in vote buying, they may lack social connections to local party leaders needed to effectively monitor and enforce vote buying. Many aspirants from this second group will thus be deterred from contesting the primary.
But the expanded electorate will contain ordinary party members from both social groups. If shared group membership enhances the credibility of promises to deliver local public goods that reflect primary voters’ preferences, aspirants from this previously excluded group will have a better chance of winning the nomination. When combined with the shift away from vote buying, more aspirants from the previously excluded group will enter the primary.
Finally, increased diversity in the aspirant pool creates an opportunity for the party to elect a nominee from the previously excluded group. Whether this happens in practice depends on several factors, including the population shares of the groups, coordination among potential aspirants from the same group, and the extent to which group membership corresponds to vote choice.
Depending upon the context, expanding the primary electorate can increase the probability that the primary winner is from the excluded group. Below, we develop more specific predictions for how the expansion of the electorate will affect the outcome of primaries in Ghana.
National-level leaders of both parties have gradually adopted competitive primary elections to select parliamentary nominees. Primaries were initially held selectively, with national party leaders imposing favored nominees in some constituencies. But as the primary system has become institutionalized, competitive primaries have become more widespread.
Under the system used by both parties to select candidates for the 2012 elections, the primary electorate was restricted to local party branch leaders from each polling station in each constituency. Ghana’s parties are among the most densely organized in Africa, with a committee of branch executives for nearly every one of Ghana’s 26,000 polling stations.
For the NPP, the polling station-level executives form a primary electorate numbering between 200 and 800 in each constituency, with 5 branch leaders voting from each polling station. The NDC primary electorate in 2012 was similarly constructed. By contrast, general electorates range from 12,000 to 120,000 registered voters per constituency.
Applying our theory to the Ghanaian case, we have four main hypotheses on the effects of the NDC’s reforms on the primary aspirant pool (H1 – H4). First, expanding the electorate will increase the number of aspirants (H1). Aspirants who do not have the resources or networks to win a primary characterized by vote buying will see a more viable path to the nomination if the electorate is larger and vote buying is less feasible.
Hypotheses H2 – H4 build on our conjecture that expanding the electorate will increase the number of aspirants from groups underrepresented in the small primary electorate. Hypothesis H2 is that NDC’s reforms will increase the number of female aspirants. Similar to many other new democracies, there are significant gender gaps in the representation of women in leadership positions in Ghana, including in local party organizations.
The only women holding local leadership positions in the parties in most constituencies are the women’s organizers in each branch, an official position set aside for women. When 5 local executives vote in a restricted primary, this usually means that 1 woman and 4 men vote from each branch. But when the primary electorate is expanded to include all members, up to 50% of the electorate may now be female.
The only women holding local leadership positions in the parties in most constituencies are the women’s organizers in each branch, an official position set aside for women.
Even if women turn out at lower rates than men, the proportion of the primary electorate that is female will increase substantially, and female aspirants should believe they are more likely to win. Moreover, by being excluded from local leadership, female aspirants are less likely than male aspirants to have the resources and social connections needed to effectively buy the votes of male party leaders. As vote buying becomes less important in primaries, female aspirants become more viable.
When the primary electorate is small, the ethnic composition of the electorate may also be unrepresentative of the party’s broader membership in two ways. First, ethnic groups in the party’s core national coalition are often overrepresented in local leadership, even though the rank- and-file party membership in each constituency usually also includes supporters from other ethnic groups.
To their population size, including in political parties. When primary voting expands to include ordinary party members, members of ethnic groups that were previously excluded – from outside the party’s core coalition or from local minorities, particularly those not indigenous to the area – will likely comprise a larger share of the electorate.
Because aspirants from these groups are more likely to believe they can win when they do not face an electorate that is as strongly dominated by other groups, we expect that the reforms will increase the number of aspirants from ethnic groups not traditionally associated with the party (H3) and from non-plurality ethnic groups in the constituency (H4).
Second, ethnic groups indigenous to a local area often wield local power disproportionate.
A second set of hypotheses concerns the characteristics of the nominee (H5 – H9). Hypothesis H5 is that the reforms have no effect on the probability that the nominee will be the incumbent MP or have other party or government leadership experience. In Ghana, these types of politicians have resources that are useful for winning nominations under either set of primary rules. I
ncumbents and senior government or party officials have had opportunities to amass wealth in the public sector that can be deployed for vote buying in the primaries. They also have name recognition and a record of past performance in the delivery of local public goods, reputational assets that help win nominations even when vote buying is a less viable strategy.
But Hypothesis H6 is that the reforms will decrease the probability that the nominee has significant wealth but no government or party experience. As described above, political newcomers who can personally fund vote buying have been able to win small-electorate primaries even without long-standing ties to their party or constituency. The ability of these outsiders to buy nominations helped prompt the NDC to reform its rules. We expect the reforms to make it less likely that aspirants who have vote buying capacity but no other reputational assets will win nominations.
Expanding the primary electorate to all rank-and-file members may also increase the probability that the nominee is a member of a group under-represented in the branch-level leadership by bringing more voters from these groups into the electorate. While whether this happens depends in part on constituency-level factors that are specified below, we expect the reforms to increase the probability that the nominee is a woman (H7), from an ethnic group outside each party’s ethnic coalition (H8), or from a local non-plurality ethnic group (H9).
We examined reforms in Ghana’s ruling party to extend the primary electorate. Using optimal full matching to create sets of similar primaries in the NDC and NPP, we found that expanding the electorate increased both the overall number of aspirants seeking legislative nominations and the number of aspirants from groups likely to be underrepresented in local party leadership, including women.
These reforms also increased the probability that the party’s nominees would be female or members of excluded ethnic groups. The reforms decreased the probability that nominees were wealthy individuals with little political experience but with the private resources to buy nominations.
These reforms are part of an ongoing process of the development of political party institutions in a consolidating democracy. Party leaders in Ghana initially relinquished their power to select nominees in some constituencies in the face of demands from local party leaders. But this created a system that advantaged aspirants with private resources, even if they had little political experience, and also generated acrimony among losing aspirants about allegations of corruption and vote buying that ultimately weakened the ruling party in general elections. These unintended developments spurred the reforms studied in this paper.
Progressive Era primary reforms had similar initial consequences, also increasing competition in American elections and bringing a broader pool of politicians into elected office. These similarities exist despite reforms being adopted by very different actors for different reasons in each case
This piecemeal development of internal party institutions raises questions about the future of democratic development in Ghana. The American historical experience provides instructive parallels for understanding this trajectory and helps show the broader relevance of the Ghanaian case for theorizing about the effects of related changes to internal party institutions in other contexts. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, American political parties adopted similar institutional reforms to the NDC, introducing direct primaries of rank-and-file party members for most offices.
Progressive Era primary reforms had similar initial consequences, also increasing competition in American elections and bringing a broader pool of politicians into elected office. These similarities exist despite reforms being adopted by very different actors for different reasons in each case. In Ghana, powerful national party leaders have expanded primary electorates to try to improve upon the decisions made by local party leaders.
In the US, good governance activists operating largely outside the party system pushed state governments to legally mandate the adoption of primaries to restrain powerful party bosses. But advocates of rule changes in each context seem to have shared a similar belief that “the cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy”, a central slogan of the Progressive Era reformers. Advocates in each context viewed the adoption of primaries with electorates of all rank-and-file members as a means to reduce clientelism and other patronage-based practices that dominated the selection of candidates by local party leaders.
American primary elections became much less competitive over time, however, with incumbents eventually coming to win renomination at high rates and crowding out most challengers. Our results for Ghana hint at the possibility of a similar future trajectory. We find that the reforms did not reduce the probability that nominees would be incumbent MPs, party leaders, or government officials.
Ghanaian politicians and voters may adapt their strategies and behavior to these new rules in future primaries, much as American politicians and voters did, and the parties are likely to keep gradually changing their rules in response. Research on future interactions of primary aspirants and voters will be crucial for understanding the implications of the continued evolution of intra-party institutions in new democracies like Ghana.
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