Lucie Coufalová: People prefer to vote for candidates who are similar to them

25 Jan 2023 Jana Sosnová

Lucie Coufalová at Faculty of Economics and Administration MU | Photo: Peter Mikuš

Several months ago, Czechs chose their representatives for the Senate and municipal councils. Now, they are electing the president. What do voters decide on when they don’t know the candidates? Do preferential votes have any impact and to whom do people give them? This and other topics are discussed by Lucie Coufalová, a researcher in the field of electoral behaviour, in this interview.

The Czech Republic is currently holding a closely watched presidential election. In the first round, voters chose from eight candidates. Only one of them had a distinguished political career. How do voters decide in a situation where they are choosing between candidates who are virtually unknown to them?

Candidates had to adapt their campaigns to this situation in order to introduce themselves to the electorate. This strategy works precisely in the case of a presidential election with a low number of candidates in who the national media are very interested. However, the situation is very different in the case of elections to the Chamber of Deputies, for example. In the Czech system, each region represents a constituency with its own list of candidates. Therefore, one party can nominate up to 350 candidates. It is simply not possible to introduce such a large number of people to the voters.

In case of the elections to the Chamber of Deputies, however, voters do not vote primarily for individuals, but for parties.

Yes, but they can award up to four preferential votes to influence the ranking of candidates and ultimately the election of specific MPs. The possibility of influencing the outcome through preferential votes is not just theoretical. After the parliamentary elections that took place between 2006 and 2017, more than ten percent of all MPs were elected thanks to the preferential votes.

Candidates known to the wider public are often placed at the beginning of the list of candidates provided by their party. What helps candidates from lower spots of the list to get preferential votes and potentially get elected?

To make a truly informed decision, a voter would need to know all the candidates and their abilities. But this is unlikely given their numbers. Voters therefore consider supporting candidates they do not know and about whom they do not have enough information. Therefore, they often make decisions on the basis of various ‘shortcuts’ – for example, on the basis of the individual characteristics of the candidates. For example, research on voting behaviour and how people work with lists show that voters are more likely to support candidates placed in the first position on the list. In this case, they in fact delegate their decision to the political party – they trust them that their most capable candidates are placed at the top of the list.

But if voters only awarded preferential votes to candidates in the top positions, then the preferential votes should have no significant impact.

Indeed, the majority of preferential votes go to these candidates. But these are by no means all votes. It is rational for voters to support candidates who share their interests. However, these are not known to a person who is choosing from a list of essentially unknown candidates. In our research, we show that in such a situation, so-called homophily manifests itself. Voters tend to support candidates with whom they share certain characteristics, such as educational attainment. A college-educated voter may, for example, be more likely to assume that his or her personal interests will be promoted by a college-educated candidate.

Elections are secret. So how can we observe the influence of homophily on voters’ decision-making?

Much research relies on experimental methods that simulate voting behaviour in the laboratory. These methods have their advantages. However, the behaviour of people in the laboratory and in real life may differ. In our research, we focus on real voting behaviour observed at the level of municipalities, where we know the election results, the lists of candidates and the grouped characteristics of the population. Candidates who are close to voters in age and education receive more preferential votes. And, of course, candidates who themselves live in the area are particularly popular.

Does this have implications for the strategy of political parties and the conduct of electoral campaigns?

Candidates can more easily win support among voters who are similar to them. This has direct implications for the conduct of individual campaigns aimed at winning preferential votes. However, it is questionable whether homophilous preferences are strong enough to attract support not only for one candidate within a party, but also for the party as a whole.

If voters do not know the candidates, they must study the ballot papers in detail or seek additional information. Are they willing to do it?

We cannot directly observe the behaviour of individual voters, nevertheless, the election data can still tell us a lot. In the Czech Republic, ballot papers contain a lot of information about individual candidates. On the one hand, this is an advantage. On the other hand, reading the ballot paper places great demands on mental skills and, most importantly, it makes the list longer. In about a third of cases, the list is so long that it does not fit on one side of the ballot paper. Studying the other side of the ballot paper then requires extra effort.

Isn’t it is easy to turn the ballot paper over?

Yes, but the position on the other side of the ballot still means a forty percent drop in the number of preferential votes for the candidate.

So does the design of the ballot paper determine who gets to the Chamber of Deputies?

The break between the first and second sides of the ballot list is typically located deep in the field of candidates. The direct impact on the election results is therefore almost negligible. Moreover, similar research based on US data shows that voters find popular candidates on the ballot regardless of their position.

Our results are interesting in another context as well. For example, they show that it is important for firms to pay attention to the ordering of items in bids, or why it pays off to be on the first page of Google search results.

Lucie Coufalová is a graduate of two doctoral degree programmes at the Masaryk University. She is currently working as an assistant professor at the Faculty of Economics and Administration. Her research focuses on the economics of (dis-)integration and the determinants of voting behaviour.

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