The Encyclopedia of Electoral Research

V.Ya.Gelman

Abstract

Review on the book "The Routledge Handbook of Elections, Voting Behavior, and Public Opinion, edited by Justin Fisher, Edward Fieldhouse, Mark N. Franklin, Rachel Gibson, Marta Cantijoch, and Christopher Wlezien (Routledge, 2018)"


The amount of scholarly literature increased so dramatically in recent years that even professional researchers, not to mention students, need a kind of navigators that will allow them to orient in the sea of publications and choose their own must-read – the most significant works that set up the agenda of further research in terms of theory, methodology, and empirical data analysis. This navigation function in political science now performed by encyclopedic reference handbooks, which are published by the major international academic publisher Routledge, alongside with Oxford University Press. The volume under review, devoted to the study of elections – the central institution of modern democracy – has become a logical continuation of this trend. It has been edited by a group of renowned British and American scholars, who in the recent past served as co-editors of the Journal of Elections, Public Opinions and Parties, one of the most authoritative specialized scholarly journals on electoral politics. The result of their work is a 550-page survey with more than forty chapters prepared by leading international experts in relevant research sub-fields [1]. These chapters, in turn, are grouped into six sections of the book. They are devoted, respectively, to theoretical approaches to the study of voting behavior, the study of voter turnout, the determinants of vote choice, the role of context and election campaigns, the nature of public opinion, as well as to methodological challenges and new developments in electoral research.

The publication of the Handbook of Elections has become a kind of milestone that sums up the development of electoral research in political science since the beginning of the 1960s until nowadays. However, it coincided with a surge of public attention to electoral studies caused by the unexpected results of the Brexit referendum and the outcome of the presidential election in the US in 2016, won by Donald Trump. Not only the methods of electoral forecasting were questioned (in the handbook, a chapter by Stephen Fischer is addressed to the related issues), but also the theoretical foundations of electoral studies were challenged. However, as the editors of the Handbook of Elections rightly note in the foreword, these challenges, despite their political urgency, do not only require an expert answer “here and now”, but also necessitate systematic, thorough scholarly work on improving existing research tools and developing new methods and approaches of election research.

Readers will appreciate the chapters that dealt not only with “classical” issues of electoral studies (such as sampling in mass electoral surveys or the changing role of class and religious cleavages), but also chapters about the use of field experiments and Internet surveys in electoral research or about the effects of online campaigns on electoral outcomes. Besides, the claims of a number of critical commentators that predict the coming end of electoral democracy, which entails the “undesirable” consequences of voting, ranging from Trump to Brexit, can hardly be considered justified. Responding to these attacks, Ian McAllister in his chapter points out the connection between the theory of democracy and electoral behavior. He believes it necessary not so much to criticize the elections from the normative viewpoints as to suggest the adaptation of political theory to the current realities based evidence and conclusions from positive empirical research. It is true, that the political and technological shifts of the twenty-first century change the voters’ perception of elections and the incentives for their behavior, but the central principles of elites’ competition for the popular vote remain an integral part of democratic politics. Therefore, the scholarly community of election researchers has no grounds for pessimism about the topics of their research, and the need to respond to new challenges only bolsters the further progress of scholarship.

Why is the Handbook of Elections useful for Russian readers? Understandably, our country got more than a modest place on its pages: in the book, Russia is mentioned only five times, and twice – in connection with the discussion on Russian meddling in the presidential elections in the United States. At the same time, to understand the role of elections in a non-democratic political context, it is worth reading the chapter by Pippa Norris, who presents the results of the large-scale international Electoral Integrity Project that she leads. According to the expert survey conducted within its framework, the quality of elections in Russia in 2016 was assessed at the same level as in Tanzania, Iraq and Armenia (p.226). These harsh assessments reflecting the state of elections in electoral authoritarian regimes (including those in Russia) also stimulate new scholarly questions about the mechanisms and political effects of this kind of voting (recent discussions of Russian experts on the methods of election forensics and detection of the scope of electoral fraud in Russia are important in this respect).

Like any specialized encyclopedic volume, the Handbook of Elections is imperfect by definition. The constraints of the genre have inevitably led to the fact that a number of important issues (such as the geography of elections or the impact of campaign funding on the outcome of elections) are not reflected in the book, or discussed too briefly – the length of most chapters does not exceed 12-13 pages, including references. Such a format simply leaves no room for a more or less detailed review, and even more so, for discussions. At the same time, a single reference scholarly book – even with such a wide range of issues as the Handbook of Elections – is not supposed to provide answers to all questions on the agenda of scholarly and expert community. These issues are to be the subject of new discussions, and, undoubtedly, Russian electoral researchers could contribute to research of these topics.

Received 06.08.2018.


References

  1. The Routledge Handbook of Elections, Voting Behavior, and Public Opinion / Ed. by J.Fisher, E.Fieldhouse, M.N.Franklin, R.Gibson, M.Cantijoch, C.Wlezien. Routledge, 2018.