In dominant-party states, why do individuals vote in elections with foregone conclusions when they are neither bought nor coerced? I propose that a social norm of voting motivates turnout in these least-likely contexts. Motivated by the belief that regimes reward high turnout with public goods, citizens view elections as an opportunity for community-wide benefit and use social sanctions to enforce the norm. Using lab-in-the-field voting experiments together with survey data, I document the strong influence of a social norm of voting in two semi-authoritarian states in east Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. I find that norm compliance is driven by those most dependent on their local community. This project helps to explain high turnout in elections, individual-level variation in voting behavior, and authoritarian endurance. The results suggest that rather than government accountability, elections may instead be about local accountability to one's community.
Leah is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse, France and a research affiliate at MIT GOV/LAB. She received her PhD in political science from MIT in 2018. Leah studies political behavior in sub-Saharan Africa and examines questions of citizen engagement, compliance, and government accountability. Her current book project investigates how social norms of voting help to explain high turnout in dominant-party states in East Africa. She is also working on a project on urban informality in Lagos, Nigeria. Before starting graduate school, Leah worked as the program manager at Columbia University’s Earth Institute in Nigeria.