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It’s Not Just What You Have, but Who You Know: Networks, Social Proximity to Elites, and Voting in State and Local Elections


Individual-level studies of electoral turnout and vote choice have focused largely on personal attributes as explanatory variables. We argue that scholars should also consider the social network in which individuals are embedded, which may influence voting through variation in individuals’ social proximity to elites. Our analysis rests on newly discovered historical records revealing the individual votes of all electors in the 1859 statewide elections in Alexandria, Virginia and the 1874 municipal elections in Newport, Kentucky, paired with archival work identifying the social relations of the cities’ populations. We also replicate our core findings using survey data from a modern municipal election. We show that individuals more socially proximate to elites turn out at a higher rate and individuals more socially proximate to a given political party’s elites vote disproportionately for that party. These results suggest an overlooked social component of voting and provide a rare nineteenth-century test of modern voting theories.

Corresponding author
Matthew T. Pietryka is Assistant Professor at Florida State University, Department of Political Science, Florida State University, 531 Bellamy Building, Tallahassee, Florida 32306 (
Donald A. DeBats is Professor of American Studies and Professor of Politics at Flinders University, GPO Box 2100, Adelaide 5001, South Australia (
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We thank Sarah John, Wayne Lawrence, Sue Hesch, Anne Harrington, Beth Prior, and Leonie Hardcastle for invaluable help in creating the nineteenth century databases. We thank Daniel Maliniak, Patrick Miller, and Ron Rapoport for sharing their survey and supplemental data from the 2010 Williamsburg election. For thoughtful suggestions, we thank Quintin Beazer, Bill Berry, Bill Claggett, Erik Engstrom, Brad Gomez, Bob Huckfeldt, Dennis Langley, Oana Lup, Jessica Parsons, John Barry Ryan, Editor Martinez-Ebers, and four anonymous reviewers. This research also benefited from feedback during presentations at Florida State University, the 2015 Political Networks Conference, and the 2014 Midwest Political Science Association Annual Meeting. This research was funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, Flinders University, and the Australian Research Council.

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