Do voters reward politicians for the quality of public services? We address this question by studying voters' responses to signals of municipal school quality in Brazil, a setting particularly favorable to electoral accountability. Findings from a regression discontinuity design and a field experiment are strikingly consistent. Contrary to expectations, signals of school quality decrease electoral support for the local incumbent. However, we find the expected effect among citizens for whom school quality should be most salient—parents with children in municipal schools. Using an online survey experiment, we argue that voters who do not value education interpret school quality as an indicator of municipal policy priorities and perceive trade-offs with other services. Voters may hold politicians accountable not only for their competence but also for their representation of potentially conflicting interests—a fact that complicates the simple logic behind many accountability interventions.
This paper was previously circulated under the name Accountability backlash: Negative electoral responses to public service provision in Brazil. Presented at the 2017 Southeast Latin American Political Behavior Conference (Georgia State University, SeLAB)