Behavioral Voters in a Decentralized Democracy

Authors: Vimal Balasubramaniam, Apurav Yash Bhatiya, Sabyasachi Das


Voters in decentralized democracies make voting decisions in multiple elections across tiers, often on the same day. Theories of decentralization implicitly presume that they have sufficient cognitive capacity to follow separate decision-making processes for different elections. Exploiting variation in the timing of Indian national and state elections, we find that voters’ cognitive costs are significantly higher when they need to vote for multiple elections at the same time than otherwise. We estimate the importance of cognitive constraints shaping voters’ decision-making processes, final decisions, and electoral outcomes across tiers. Consistent with the predictions of a model of behaviorally constrained voters, we show that simultaneous elections increase political parties’ salience among voters and increase straight-ticket voting, without significantly affecting turnout. Consequently, the likelihood of the same political party winning constituencies in both tiers increases by 21.6%. We rule out alternative mechanisms that might explain this result. Our findings suggest that, in the presence of behavioral voters, election design can shape the experience of decentralization in democracies.