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Arceneaux: The federal face of voting

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Arceneaux. 2007. The federal face of voting: Are elected officials held accountable for the functions relevant to their office?. Political Psychology 27 (October): 731-754.

In Brief

A new literature asks whether citizens use federalism as a cue--do they (1) make distinctions among levels of government as to what issues they handle and (2) use these distinctions when making voting decisions. Arceneaux agrees with the federalist argument: Voters do use federalism as a cue, but only under certain circumstances. In particular, the issue area in question must be highly accessible to the respondent.


Arceneaux conducts his own survey, using Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing (CATI), which allows him to measure the response time for each question in milliseconds. For each respondent, an issue is more "accessible" if the respondent answers more quickly than when answering questions on other issues. Presumably, this reflects whether the respondent has thought or heard about the issue lately.

Respondents are asked to attribute responsibility to the federal, state, or local government for three distinct issue areas: unemployment, education, and traffic congestion. They are then asked whether government policies (at any level) were having a positive/negative/non effect on that issue area. Credit or blame is 'causal responsibility' (who is to credit/blame in the issue area); the first question targets 'functional responsibility' (who's in charge of the issue area).


When accessibility is not controlled, the federalist voting hypothesis looks quite weak. But when stricter and stricter measures of accessibility are used (ultimately limiting the analysis to those who answered a particular question 2 standard deviations faster than other question), the federalist voting hypothesis gains increasing support. This demonstrates the importance of salience/accessibility to the federalist voting hypothesis.