Director of the Political Science and International Relations Ph.D. program Christian Grose and USC Gould School of Law Assistant Professor Abby Wood explored the effect of government transparency on constituents in a discussion held on Wednesday in the Sol Price School of Public Policy.
According to Grose and Wood’s theory, campaign finance disclosures reveal information that leads voters to reevaluate the traits of each candidate, affecting voter behavior. Backed by the Federal Election Commission and the Bedrosian Grant, the professors tested their theory to show that audits affected not only voter opinion but also legislative behavior. Providing audits also contributed to “cleaner legislators.”
Grose and Wood also found that increased transparency of candidates reduced voter margins. In 1978, a randomized audit sponsored by the FEC was conducted across U.S. House of Representative and Senate officials, and election activity for incumbents was analyzed. The most common violations were lack of disclosure, hiding records, illegal contributions and excessive contributions and misstatements.
“Transparency leads to better voter performance,” Grose said. “The direct effect of audit on legislator votes shares suggests those who were audited did worse in the following election.”
However, legislators who had violations did significantly worse than those who did not have audit violations.
The audits conducted also subsequently affected the behavior of the legislator. Grose and Wood’s research indicated that after the audit, legislators would take more trips back to their home district in order to campaign to the constituents more often.
“If they were audited, they were more likely to travel back to their district and start hustling more in their district for votes and they are doing it in anticipation of being punished electorally,” Wood said.
In the experiment, there was an increase in retirement and resignation for incumbents who were audited. Incumbents that did not have violations were 5 percent more likely to retire or resign. In contrast, campaign finance violators were 10 percent more likely to retire or resign.
Grose and Wood concluded that through the financial audit of legislators, voters could make more informed decisions about the candidates they vote for which would result in better candidates taking the legislative seat.
“Right now, we are seeing that transparency and accountability in governance in public institutions is very important, and it’s a way to get our students and public informed about what’s going on,” said Aubrey Hicks, executive director of the Bedrosian Center said.