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Is Voter Competence Good for Voters?: Information, Rationality, and Democratic Performance


A long research tradition in behavioral political science evaluates the performance of democracy by examining voter competence. This literature got its start arguing that voters' lack of information undermines a defense of democracy rooted in electoral accountability. A more recent literature deepens the debate, with some authors claiming that voters effectively use cues to substitute for information about candidates and policies, and other authors claiming that voters are insufficiently rational to do so. We argue that, regardless of its conclusions about voter competence, this literature’s single-minded focus on voter behavior is misguided. We use a sequence of formal models to show that traditional intuitions are incomplete because they ignore the effect that changes in voter behavior have on the equilibrium behavior of politicians. When this strategic interaction is taken into account, increases in voter information or voter rationality sometimes make democratic performance better and sometimes make democratic performance worse. One simply cannot assess the implications of voter characteristics for democratic performance without also studying how those characteristics affect the behavior of politicians.

Corresponding author
Scott Ashworth is Associate Professor, Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago (
Ethan Bueno de Mesquita is Professor, Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago (
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American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
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