What I learned from… Sarah Birch

Academic departments conceal libraries of cutting edge research so it is virtually impossible to read everything. But let’s ‘aim to the moon hit the sun’ (or was it upside down?). Here’s what I learned from…

Birch, S., 2008. Electoral institutions and popular confidence in electoral processes: A cross-national analysis. Electoral Studies, 27(2), pp.305-320.

You know an article is relevant when despite been written almost a decade ago it immediately makes you think of the challenges we face today. I mean, just take a look at the following extract:

… electoral systems can be designed so as to favor one actor (or one type of actor)… voters’ choices can be manipulated, through inequalities in access to information about the electoral options on offer… the voting process itself can be rigged through electoral administrative practices that benefit some contestants…

Am I the only one immediately thinking about the referendum in the UK and/or the election in the US?


As evident from the title, the article is about the trust that people in different countries have for elections (measured through ‘perceptions of electoral fairness’ – which is the dependent variable – from a single cross-national survey – which she admits is not ideal but also much better than the lack of data). The general hypothesis is that confidence is greater when institutions level the playing field amongst contestants. The main interest is placed in three institutional variables: proportional representation and public financing, and independence of electoral committee.

I found particularly puzzling the note about there being very little research about confidence in elections. She notes herself that elections are indeed one of the, if not the, most salient democratic mechanisms. And yet, the legitimacy of numerous other institutions is given preference when it comes to research.

She notes that a lack of data about it made research hard. Fair enough. But data can always be gathered. She also notes that legitimacy of elections in the US was given for granted. Also true. And yet, many research projects have always focused on non-US realities. There ought to be a deeper underlying reason (or maybe not – I honestly wouldn’t know).

Anyway. Glad that the issue eventually got more attention it deserved.

Open question.
I would love to know the ratio of countries surveyed where the previous election was likely fair and those where elections were dubious. Would that ratio make a difference?


The article convincingly argues for a number of potential drivers of confidence (aka. independent variables). At the individual level: education, income, gender, identification with loser party, lack of party identification, identification with ‘the left’, identification with ‘the right’ (other variables like religion and culture were discarded due to lack of data). Aggregate variables refer to whether there is proportionally representative, whether there is public funding of parties, the independence of the electoral commission, the margin of victory, the level of corruption (through Corruption Perceptions Index), the level of socio-economic development (through Human Development Index), and the level of democracy (through Freedom House Political Rights).

I’m a bit hesitant about the assumption regarding wealthier citizens being less tolerant to political manipulation (and she finds higher economic levels to be associated with higher likelihood of considering elections fair). The cost of repairing electoral failures is higher when the society is wealthier. Ceteris paribus, richer people are less likely to complain.

Interesting fact!
Turns out that the direct financing of elections by the state was a Latin American invention (in the 1950s) that was then exported to Europe (in the 1970s).


Some results are not surprising. For example, >50% of people typically consider elections to be utterly fair (which is funny because ~>50% voted for the winner). Also, the losers and those without party affiliation are less likely to deem elections as fair.

Things start to get interesting when looking at the results of individual level variables. Whilst the findings reflect the assumptions, it also finds that ‘right’ and ‘left’ affiliation do not affect the result greatly. This supports the idea that both ‘right’ and ‘left’ voters end up as angry or happy when they win or lose an election.

I am still uneasy with the whole wealth thing. She finds that high levels of socio-economic development are correlated with perceptions of fairness. The way I read it this shows richer people are more rather than less complacent with fraud. But I’ve been wrong before.

Regardless, this is not relevant to the main objective of the study, which was the role of the three institutional variables noted (proportional representation and public financing, and independence of electoral committee). It is at this level that the real surprise comes in. The first two behaved as expected, but the study found that independent electoral bodies actually decrease the likelihood of an election being deemed fair. That’s extremely interesting!

Final Thoughts

I learned a lot. Prior to reading this article I definitely thought that independent electoral committees increased the faith in the process of elections.

Birch believes that electoral independence could be associated with low levels of confidence as a result of the fact that independence typically results from previous lacks in the elections. Sounds fair! There ought to be some path dependency here. Maybe they also help to highlight inconsistencies in elections that would not be highlighted in a system without an electoral independent body – thereby making elections with independent elections more likely to provide evidence of electoral lacks.

I am also superbly impressed at the fact that a lot of what she writes could be transposed to the UK referendum and Trump’s election. Makes you think that this issue truly deserves A LOT more research (which also seems to have derived from the article, as evidenced by the ~130! citations that it has amassed since then).

I can’t lie, I haven’t read any of the following, but the abstracts of some of those ~130 papers sound utterly interesting! For example: