Lame Ducks and Divided Government: How Voters Control the Unaccountable (rational Voters and Their Strategic Use of the Separation of Powers)

Mark Schelker (University of St. Gallen)

Abstract: Voters’ ability to make use of the electoral instruments at hand is crucial for the workings of democracies. We show that voters take the institutional environment into account when making electoral decisions. Voters recognize that executives who face a binding term limit, i.e. ’lame ducks’, have incentives to deviate from voters’ preferences, since they are not subject to a reelection restriction. This weakened accountability can be counterbalanced by an alternative mechanism, namely divided government. By dividing government control between the executive and the legislative voters can force a lame duck to compromise on policy with an opposing legislature. In a panel data analysis for the US states from 1975-2000, we show that the probability of divided government is 10-15 percent higher when governors are lame ducks. This effect remains robust and significant even after controlling for many relevant covariates. The finding is evidence for voters’ considerable capacity to process information and use alternative electoral instruments to control an otherwise unaccountable executive.

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