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Learning Note 10: How to find out what motivates people to vote when the outcome is all but certain? Applying the conjoint design to research around elections in Uganda

Guest post by Blair Read, Governance Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Learning Note 9 outlined the main findings from a qualitative study conducted by MIT for Twaweza in Uganda on how young people currently think about leaders, politics, and elections. That study informed Twaweza’s design of the election-related initiatives in late 2015 and early 2016. But our collaborative research agenda is wider, and the MIT team in Uganda, similarly to our joint work in Tanzania, had a dual purpose: to help evaluate Twaweza’s election-related initiatives, and also to conduct original, cutting-edge research into the often unstated reasons and motivations for how citizens vote, which gives us a deeper understanding of the citizen-state contract. This blog post outlines the innovative research conducted in Uganda, which, similar to Tanzania, used the conjoint methodology. A related power point can be found here, with some more details on the fieldwork, and also outline of the additional research questions that will be examined through this study. Results are expected in June 2016.  

With seventy-five kilograms of coin envelopes for respondents packed away, and armed with hypothetical candidate profile cards and Tupperware containers masquerading as ballot boxes, MIT GOV/LAB and Twaweza set off into the field to study citizen engagement and voting in Uganda. Packing for a field study involving voting games and financial incentives is no small feat! Over the course of three weeks, MIT GOV/LAB and Twaweza interviewed 1,200 citizens throughout the Northern and Central regions of Uganda. We designed the survey to answer several theoretical questions about political behavior, citizen engagement, and public opinion, using the period after the national election to understand how citizens conceptualize politics and voting decisions in the context of an actual national election.

To investigate our questions about citizen engagement, we aimed to replicate the real conditions under which voters participate in elections, particularly the costs of voting and the role of social influence in determining vote choice. In order to simulate the types of decisions that voters face in the ballot box, we used conjoint analysis, a survey method originally developed by market researchers to examine how consumers make purchasing decisions between competing products. Adapted from similar research in Tanzania, we developed a survey game in which respondents were asked to decide between two hypothetical candidates running for Member of Parliament in their constituency. Survey enumerators would provide citizens with a profile of two candidates that was comprised of six aspects of a candidate’s profile. Based on these profiles, respondents were asked for which candidate they would vote if these were the candidates running in an election in their community.

For more details about the set-up and motivation for this research design, please see Leah Rosenzweig’s guest post, here.

To replicate the cost of voting, we asked respondents to pay to vote in our conjoint game. For each round of conjoint decisions, respondents had to 500 shillings if they wanted to cast a vote, taken from the 5,000 shillings coin envelopes that we provided them with at the beginning of the game—hence the seventy-five kilograms of coin packets. In real life, citizens must make costly decisions if they would like to vote, including taking time off work, traveling to the polling station, and sometimes waiting in line for hours. To understand why a citizen might assume these costs of voting, we sought to tangibly capture the cost of voting in our survey.

In addition to understanding which candidate attributes voters prioritize when selecting candidates for office, we also wanted to better understand the role of social influence in voting, particularly as a motivator of electoral participation. To accomplish this, we randomly assigned respondents to one of three groups. In the first group—the control group—respondents completed the conjoint survey game in private. Respondents would fill out a secret ballot and place the ballot in a ballot box. Their voting decision was kept secret even from the enumerators. In the other two groups, respondents would play the voting game in public. In each group, we would randomly select four community members and one community leader, either a teacher or an LC1 official. Group members would then discuss the hypothetical candidates together and they would vote in public, in front of their peers and a community leader. In all versions of the conjoint game, respondents not only had the option of voting for Candidate A or Candidate B, but also had the option of abstaining from voting. Voting for either Candidate A or B was costly, yet abstaining was free.

Comparing the results in voting patterns and abstention rates between the private respondents, the “teacher group” respondents, and the “LC1 group” respondents will allow us to better understand the role of social influence in voting. While many surveys examine voting decisions and political behavior in isolation, this design simulates the inherently social nature of politics. As citizens attend rallies, engage in discussions with their community members, or even wait in line to vote on Election Day, their opinions are shaped by discussions with those around them. When engaging in politics in social in nature, even the decision to vote can, in part, be taken as a social decision, and the role of social influence could help citizens adopt the costs of voting. Incorporating this observation into our research design will help identify how exactly that social mechanism operates in shaping local politics and determining who participates. Furthermore, we will also be able to understand how particular actors shape political behavior in unique ways. Does the presence of elected official, such as an LC1, influence how people discuss and engage with politics differently from the presence of a teacher, who is less engaged with politics, but serves as an informal community advisor?

 

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