Joshua Tucker

Joshua Tucker is a professor of Politics at New York University with an affiliate appointment in the Department of Russian and Slavic Studies and New York University-Abu Dhabi. His major field is comparative politics with an emphasis on mass politics, including elections and voting, the development of partisan attachment, public opinion formation, and, political protest.

Recent Articles

The Beginning of the End of the Putin Regime as We have Known It

When I am not writing for The Monkey Cage, I have been known to spend some time studying post-communist politics. I have also written about protest following electoral fraud. Thus recent events in Russia are of great interest to me both personally and professionally. As many of you by now know, last weekend’s Russian parliamentary elections resulted in both a dismal showing for the ruling United Russia party AND major accusation of fraud, including concerns voiced by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Protests have broken out in Russia, are scheduled throughout the country (being advertised on social media sites, e.g., here and here) on Saturday.

These developments raise some immediate challenges for our understanding of Russian politics. Is a Colored Revolution – long dreaded by the Kremlin – finally coming to Russia? Are the winds of Arab Spring blowing back to Europe? Might we finally see a true Twitter Revolution (@stopputin), growing out of the fact that the Russian state controls TV but not the blogosphere (e.g., see Jay Lyall’s post from two days ago)? Or is this just a blip along the road to politics as usual in Russia, with Putin on his way back to the Kremlin for 6 (12?) more years of the same iron grip on power? Any way you cut it, things in Russia have just gotten a lot more interesting.

With this in mind, I will be presenting a series of guest posts today on the Russian elections and reactions to those elections written by noted scholars of Russian politics. The first comes from Graeme Robertson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an expert on protest in Russia:

Most people, myself included (just ask my undergrads!), were surprised by the results of the Russian Duma elections last Sunday. But the protests that have followed, in Moscow, St. Petersburg and across the country, should be less surprising. Far from being spontaneous or unexpected, this week’s protests are the result of years of campaigning and organizing by the anti-system opposition. Street politics in Russia began (again) in earnest with the pensioners’ protests in 2005, and grew through the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg in July 2006. The campaigning and organizing continued after that, first through “Days of Rage”, then through the Strategy-31 events that have taken place on the 31st of each month (celebrating article 31 of the Constitution that provides for freedom of assembly and protest). Thousands of protest events have been organized every year. While the vast majority of these have been small, events with more than 1000 demonstrators have been frequent, and several nationally coordinated events with more than 100 000 participants have also taken place.

From the early days of the street protests, an anti-system agenda has united a broad range of groups with rapidly changing names and a bewildering array of goals. Some of the best know groups include Solidarity, Other Russia, the (banned) National Bolsheviks, Russian National Unity (also banned), Russian March, Red Front, and the motorists organization Freedom of Choice (which is one of the most active and creative groups in Russia’s protest scene). Many of these organizations have extensive and durable local networks that have survived and flourished despite years of pressure from local police and officialdom.

Protests around the Duma elections this December have long been planned, whatever the election results. The locations of election day and post-election protests were widely circulated in advance.  That thousands would turn out in Moscow and St. Petersburg was no surprise. Previous experience shows that there is a large and energetic group of both young and older people willing to turn out, and the numbers demonstrating in Moscow on Monday night (about 6000 at the highest estimate) were no larger than at other big demonstrations in the last couple of years. What is much harder to say going forward is how wide the circle will expand beyond the hardcore protesters and their immediate personal circles. Participation in this Saturday’s events already looks like it might be much higher. According to the website, more than 47 000 people have already (Thursday noon Moscow time) indicated on social media websites that they would participate. Growing indignation at the arrest of protesters (some of them underage) and the 15 day sentences handed to high profile leaders, long by recent Russian standards, seems likely to swell the numbers further. Saturday’s protests could be very big indeed.

But what would it mean if the protests do draw in more people? The Kremlin is a fortress. Literally. And up to now the opposition has not been able to mount an effective demonstration within a mile of either the Duma building or the Kremlin. This coming Saturday’s demonstration was originally planned to take place in Revolution Square, a traditional rallying point very near the Kremlin and in front of the Karl Marx statue. Karl may be disappointed though. Moscow authorities have already announced the need to conduct emergency water repair works next weekend and have offered an alternative site at the charmingly named Swamp Square, on an island in the Moscow River. Confining the protests to an easily blocked off island is a tactic used against Russian protesters before, during the G8 summit in St. Petersburg in 2007.

Moreover, the Russian state’s counter-mobilization capacity is extremely strong. Nashi, Mestnie, Moldaya Gvardia and other pro-government youth groups have been organizing large events in key locations in Moscow. On Tuesday, some 17 000 young people participated in a pro-government meeting in front of giant pictures of outgoing President, Dmitrii Medvedev (an unlikely subject for a personality cult if ever there was one!). In addition, more than 50 000 police reinforcements and 2000 additional troops were brought into the city even before the elections. And just as the opposition has honed its tactics in repeated protests since 2005, so have the Russian security forces, especially the OMON units charged with maintaining public security. The OMONovtsy have shown extraordinary professionalism in using force to break up demonstrations and can be expected to be brutal but disciplined in dealing with crowds.

The final key element in this story is the Russian political elite, which to date remains strongly behind the Putin/Medvedev project. Aside from a few high profile liberals who have resigned from state institutions in protest at the elections, Russia’s political elite remains firmly behind the elections and is pushing ahead to the presidential contest in March. In this regard, the current situation in Russia is completely different from events in Serbia, Ukraine or Georgia. There is no credible political alternative to the current administration and defections from the ruling party are highly unlikely. In Ukraine, the Supreme Court refused to ratify the Presidential election results and ordered a rerun. There is no sign of anything analogous happening in Russia.

So it is unlikely (not impossible – but don’t bet on it) that this week’s protests will prevent the new Duma taking its seats, or Vladimir Putin returning to the presidency. Nevertheless, the events of this week are significant. The opposition that was born in the pensioners’ protests in 2005 has come of age, and protest in the streets is signaling the beginning of the end of the Putin regime as we have known it.

Keep the Facts Straight: Congressional Portfolios do *not* Outperform the Market

Insider trading in Congress is back in the news, this time because Congress is trying to set up more stringent regulations against it. The reason:

Almost all of the 173 House members cosponsoring the legislation signed on following a 60 Minutes broadcast last month reporting that congressional lawmakers can enrich themselves through investments without fear of prosecution.

Congress in Action

For your weekend viewing pleasure, from official Monkey Cage cartoonist Ted McCagg:

More on Mandatory Voting, Which Does *Not* Necessarily Make Electorate Less Informed

In response to the lively debate between the New York Times and The Monkey Cage (1, 2, 3), we are pleased to welcome Victoria Shineman, a Ph.D. candidate in NYU’s Politics Department who is writing a dissertation on the effects of compulsory voting. In this guest post, she offers both a clarification of how participation requirements are implemented in modern democracies, and a discussion of how this affects political information and polarization.

The positive effect of mandatory voting laws on turnout is well documented, and its success in reducing the disparities between voters and non-voters is more or less settled. Next: what is the effect of participation requirements on political information and informed voting? Brennan campaigns against increased turnout, pointing out that non-voters are less informed than voters, and arguing that increasing the number of uninformed votes worsens electoral outcomes. I disagree. Before I respond to this argument, a clarification is necessary.

1. Compulsory Voting as Compulsory Balloting

The names “mandatory voting” and “compulsory voting” (CV) are both misleading. Modern democracies using this voting system do not force all citizens to vote, nor do they penalize citizens who cast invalid ballots.

Rather than combining voting as a single stage, a more accurate model of voter behavior recognizes that balloting and voting are 2 different decisions. Citizens first choose whether to acquire a ballot (including all the costs of registration, transportation, and time spent traveling to the polling place) and then, only if the citizen chose to acquire a ballot, choose whether to mark a valid vote for each contest on that ballot. The widespread existence of secret ballots prevents democratic governments from monitoring if (and how) a person marked their ballot. Therefore, non-participation penalties are attached to the balloting stage, not the voting stage. Citizens are therefore able to submit a blank, spoiled, or invalid ballot without penalty.

Therefore, a better name for the voting system currently practiced in 31 democracies is Compulsory Balloting (CB). CB can be defined as a penalty for not casting a ballot, which allows citizens to ballot and abstain without penalty.

2. CB, Political Information, and Informed Voting

Full voter turnout sounds appealing, but should uninformed citizens cast votes? Most of us would agree this would be counter-productive. However, the argument that CB encourages uninformed voting is based on a misperception of how the institution works. In theory, CB should not increase uninformed voting. The reason is explained just above: CB does not penalize actors for not marking valid votes. It only penalizes actors for not casting ballots. If marking a random vote would hurt the expected outcome of an election, an uninformed voter should rationally abstain from voting, and submit the blank ballot. This suggests that CB will not increase uninformed voting.

Would all insufficiently informed citizens cast blank ballots under CB? Probably not. Ballot order position effects would not exist if some people weren’t willing to vote at random. However, roll off voting trends and other comparative studies demonstrate that uninformed citizens are capable of rationally abstaining.

There’s more. Imagine all the informed people who don’t vote. If incentivized to submit a ballot, most of them would probably invest the extra few seconds to mark votes on that ballot. So the number of informed votes would increase. Furthermore, because CB penalties effectually sink part of the cost of voting, CB makes it more likely that a previously uninformed voter will find it rational to invest in both information and informed voting.

Information levels are not static. They are dynamic, and adapt to the cost and incentive structures shaped by electoral systems. When we allow the decision to become informed to be endogenous to participation costs, this demonstrates that lower costs of participation increase incentives for uninformed actors to invest in both information and informed voting. The net result is that CB increases informed voting among previously informed people, increases informed voting among previously uninformed people, and theoretically does all of this while not increasing uninformed voting at all. See this paper (pdf) for an extended demonstration of this effect.

Again, there’s more. Information environments aren’t static either. Campaigns are dynamic and respond to the incentives shaped by electoral rules. Introducing non-participation penalties will shift the composition of the electorate, and campaign strategies should adjust accordingly. A likely effect is that moving from voluntary voting to CB will shift campaign strategies from a focus on mobilizing the base to a focus on persuading the centrist, undecided, and most uninformed people. These people have weaker prior commitments and are the easiest to persuade. This might, in effect, make information more readily available to populations who need it most, further increasing aggregate information. This paper (pdf) discusses the mechanisms that link CB to increased information and demonstrates that Austrian citizens who lived in CB provinces had more political information than those in voluntary vote provinces.

3. CB and Polarization

The information effect also ties into the polarization debate. A person will vote when their perceived benefit of voting exceeds their perceived cost of voting. In a 2-party system, people on the extremes experience a bigger benefit differential between the two candidates, as compared to people in the middle. This suggests that extremists naturally have more at stake in an election, and so have a higher perceived benefit from voting. This difference increases with polarization, as the candidates are placed further apart.

When voting costs are high, it is difficult to motivate a centrist citizen to endure the cost of voting, since that actor has little to gain from affecting the outcome of the election. As voting costs decrease, the probability that a moderate can be incentivized to vote increases. Because CB effectually decreases the considered cost of voting, it should also increase the participation among moderates.

However, if you buy my argument above that CB would increase aggregate information, this might cause individual-level extremism to increase as well. A la Converse, one might argue that increased information will decrease internal inconsistencies and increase ideological constraint. A la Zaller, one might argue that extreme citizens require information in order to realize their true preferences.

4. CB and Left-Wing Advantage

Are non-voters more moderate? Probably. Are they more liberal? Usually. One possible exception worth noting: Austria used to practice wahlpflicht (CB) nationwide, but later left this policy up to the provinces. If left-wing citizens are more likely to be voluntary non-voters, conventional wisdom would suggest that the liberal provinces would keep CB in place and conservative governments would eliminate CB. But in fact, just the opposite occurred. The four provinces that kept CB the longest (Tyrol, Vorarlberg, Styria, and Carinthia) are among the four most conservative provinces in the country.

The explanation? A colloquial rumor I heard several times was that conservatives put CB in place after women were granted the right to vote. Why? Conservatives were concerned that only “liberated” (aka left-wing) women would vote, and this would shift victories to the left-of-center SPO. Whereas with CB in force, all women would vote equally, and conservative parties like the OVP would maintain their majority within the active electorate.

I asked Erhard Busek (OVP, Vice Chancellor of Austria 1991 – 1995) about this theory, and he told me it has no merit. His explanation: The OVP has always been more likely to not only provide rights but also to expect obligations from citizens, and voting is just another such duty. A third explanation I heard: after reversing the embarrassing laws that stripped voting rights from Jews, the Republic instituted wahlpflicht in order to make a strong statement: not only do all persons now have the right to vote, they also have the obligation to vote.

5. Full Turnout and the Composition of the Electorate

Another comment: In the debate over full turnout, a common strategy is to simulate previous elections as if everyone had voted. These studies are clever and useful in many ways, but I note two common assumptions to watch out for in this area of research.

First of all, these simulations assume that non-voters would have the same preferences if they were voters. However, if we accept that campaigns and information acquisition are dynamic and endogenous to electoral systems, we must accept that measured preferences might be different under a full turnout scenario. Information and preferences under one electoral system are not necessarily a good estimate of preferences under another system.

Second, even if all preferences remained the same, a full turnout simulation should go beyond comparing partisan victory totals. Especially when one considers the number of non-competitive districts within the US, it is not too surprising if the number of districts changing party control is small.

However, maintaining party control while significantly changing an expected margin of victory is still an important difference. This would, in turn, cause existing candidates to adapt by either (with a smaller margin) being more attentive to the voters, or perhaps (with larger margin) by being more attentive to their own policy agenda. Furthermore, primary elections should adapt too; as a party increases or decreases its margin of general support, the pool of potential candidates it can successfully nominate will also adjust to include more extreme members.