By Benjamin Egerod (Copenhagen Business School) and Martin Vinæs Larsen (Aarhus University)
Can citizens make an impact on local policy by changing whom they vote for in local elections? In a new study of local governments in Denmark spanning 35 years, we find that voters’ electoral input has a sizeable effect on what policies local governments’ pursue. Our findings, together with a number of other recent studies from the United States, upends the conventional wisdom that local government is unresponsive to citizen demands.
Commentators and researchers have long been skeptical that citizens are able to navigate the intricacies of local politics. Voters, the conventional wisdom goes, are not able to steer policy in any meaningful way through selection of local officials. And even if they were able to pick politicians who wanted to change policy in the direction desired by the voters, city policy is constrained by other factors. National and state level programs and priorities often limit what cities are able or even allowed to do. Competition with other jurisdictions also curb the city’s decision-making power. Businesses and high-income individuals can easily move across local borders, more easily than national borders anyway, which makes it a risky prospect to pass new regulations or increase taxes. Finally, irrespective of what kind of services the average voter demands, the socio-demographic composition of high-cost groups is hugely important for how local government spend money – if the population is older, then health care costs will be high, if there are many school-aged children, then public school expenditures will be high.
In spite of these constraints, recent studies have found that cities where the average voter is liberal in the US tend to have more liberal policy than cities were the average voter is conservative. However, these studies tell us little about whether local governments respond to citizens’ demands. It could just as easily be that more conservative citizens have moved to places that are more conservative, or that citizen preferences are a function of city policy: people thinking that the way things are done in my city is the best way to do things.
In our study, however, we are able to show that when the average voter becomes more conservative – when support for conservative parties increase – policies follow suit. That is, we are able trace, over time, changes in demand for conservative city policy, and show that when this demand increases, policy changes within the next four years. Importantly, these changes – once implemented – are sticky and remain for an additional four years.
In order to conduct this study, we leverage unique data availability in Denmark to construct an index of municipal policy conservatism based on 14 different policy indicators. These indicators cover everything from local tax rates to percent of city services that are privately operated. We then show that changes in support for conservative parties at local elections predict future changes in municipal policy conservatism within each municipality.
The timing of responsiveness yields important insight into why municipal policy reacts to voter preferences. Since it takes some time for policymakers to react to the changes in the public mood, it does not appear that politicians continuously change policies in response to public opinion. Instead, they learn from election results and correct municipal policy according to how the public mood has changed.
While it is up for discussion to what extent these results can be generalized, our study is definitely good news for the prospects of local democracy. Many countries around the world have decided to delegate a lot of power to local governments, and it seems like this democratic experiment has worked—at least to some extent. If you give voters an opportunity to express their preferences at municipal elections, they are able to use this opportunity to direct policy.
Benjamin Egerod is an assistant professor in the Department of International Economics, Government and Business at Copenhagen Business School. His research focuses on representation, interest groups, and money in politics.
Martin Vinæs Larsen is an associate professor in the Department of Politics at Aarhus University. His research focuses on representation, electoral accountability, and the politics of housing. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Political Science Review, Journal of Politics, and the British Journal of Political Science.