New U.Va. Study Will Re-examine Assumptions About a Truly Secret Ballot

October 11, 2011 — The ballot is the fundamental instrument of democracy in the modern world. But not that long ago in many democracies, casting one's ballot was a semi-public act.

Voters would pick up a premarked ballot outside the poll provided by campaign workers for one of the parties or candidates. A community leader, or perhaps a landlord or employer, would be outside the poll watching closely, and often promised a reward – or retribution – for voting one way or another.

Gradually, most countries adopted what we now take for granted – a uniform ballot paper permitting the selection of any registered candidate, printed and distributed by electoral authorities – a reform known as the "Australian ballot." 

Political scientists have long considered this reform crucial to de facto voting secrecy, with significant consequences for electoral campaigns, local power structures and electoral outcomes. But there is relatively little hard data to support those conclusions.

Daniel Gingerich, an assistant professor of politics in the University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences, plans to remedy that data deficiency with a new study recently awarded $145,000 by the National Science Foundation.

The study will examine how the introduction of the Australian ballot in Brazil in the 1960s affected the fundamental structure of party politics, said Gingerich, whose research focuses on understanding the causes and consequences of corruption in Latin America.

Past studies have claimed that introducing the Australian ballot tends to undermine the electoral strength of incumbent state party machines and conservative parties representing interests of the wealthy; diminish the electoral control and influence of local vote brokers; and reduce voter turnout. Gingerich's study will shed new light on each of those claims, thanks to a fortuitous fluke in how Brazil implemented the Australian ballot in federal deputy and senate contests between 1958 and 1966.

By 1958, the Australian ballot was in use throughout Brazil for senatorial contests, but it was extended to deputy contests in a staggered, piecemeal fashion, first (in 1962) in all state capitals and throughout the state of Sao Paulo (the most populous state), and then (in 1966) in all counties with more than 100,000 inhabitants. The staggered rollout created "a natural experiment of history of exceptionally rare purity," that will provide unprecedented leverage to estimate the causal impact of the Australian ballot, he said.

"This project gets back to some of the basics. It asks a very big question about how the historically most important changes in the machinery of democracy affected the relationship between citizens and politicians," said Gingerich, who is working on a book tentatively titled, "Stealing for the Team: Political Institutions and Party Directed Corruption in South America." The book is based on his dissertation, which won the American Political Science Association's 2007 Leonard D. White Award for the best dissertation in the field of public administration.

"I believe that given the advantages of the Brazilian case, the study has the potential to provide not only the cleanest empirical evaluation of the impact of the Australian ballot as implemented in Latin America, but probably the cleanest such evaluation in the entire social science corpus on the subject," he said.

The study has implications well beyond Brazil. Conditions there before the Australian ballot, particularly what Gingerich described as "institutionalized local bosses and vote brokering," have also been described in electorates as diverse as Colombia, Chile, India, Italy, Mexico, Peru and various parts of contemporary Africa, as well as 19th-century England, Imperial Germany and even ancient Rome.

The project's findings are likely to contribute to ongoing policy debates about the attractiveness of adopting the Australian ballot within the 15 or so countries that have not yet done so, including Brazil's neighbor, Argentina, Gingerich said.

The manifold expected effects of Gingerich's study, "Can Institutions Cure Clientelism? Assessing the Impact of the Australian Ballot in Brazil," earned it a seed grant this winter from U.Va.'s Quantitative Collaborative, which helped Gingerich win the larger National Science Foundation grant, said Karen Parshall, associate dean for social sciences in the College of Arts & Sciences.

Gingerich's study is part of a recent revolution in social sciences (especially economics and political science) commonly called the "credibility revolution" – a new focus on the rigorous design of studies with quantitative data robust enough to justify causal inference, Parshall said. Social scientists are revisiting some long-held assumptions, and U.Va. aims to be at the forefront of that revolution through studies like this one, she said, supported by initiatives like the Quantitative Collaborative.

— By Brevy Cannon

Media Contact

H. Brevy Cannon

Media Relations Associate Office of University Communications