Gandhi, Jennifer and Abigail L. Heller. 2018. "Electoral Systems in Authoritarian States." In The Oxford Handbook of Electoral Systems, Erik S. Herron, Robert J. Pekkanen, and Matthew Soberg Shugart (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The online edition of the chapter may be found here (this page requires a login, but the chapter may be accessed via the Oxford Handbooks website through most university libraries for free).

Abstract:  The literature on the choice and effects of electoral rules in autocracies tends to focus on the preferences of the dictator. While sensible, it is important to recognize that even the most powerful autocrats choose rules under constraints. The constraints may come in the form of opposition actors who threaten the regime or the dictator’s own limited information or knowledge about how the rules work and the distribution of preferences among the electorate. The uncertainty over voter preferences is a particularly acute problem for autocracies where coercion and manipulation are rampant, and the expression of sincere preferences through media and electoral polls is limited. These tactics enable autocrats to win elections, but may condition the effects of electoral rules, making the choice of rules difficult in the first place. The end result may be that the problem of electoral choice is more difficult for autocrats even if they face fewer formal institutional constraints than their democratic counterparts.

Working Papers

Heller, Abigail L. "The Battle over Gerrymandered Districts: How Americans Balance Fairness and Partisanship."

Abstract: To what extent do individuals value fair elections versus those that deliver their preferred partisan and policy outcomes? How do residents of the United States balance their preferences regarding fair elections with their potentially competing preferences over election outcomes? How robust are people’s preferences for democratic elections? These questions are critical because citizens are supposed to be the last defense against democratic backsliding. I explore these questions using a conjoint survey experiment of over 2,100 U.S. residents. I find that concerns about fairness affect the willingness of respondents to support redistricting proposals, but that the effects are conditional on the level of party polarization and the strength of respondents’ partisanship.

Gandhi, Jennifer, Abigail L. Heller, and Ora John Reuter. "Shoring up Power: Strengthening Regime Parties via Electoral Reform." 

Abstract:  Why do autocrats adopt proportional representation (PR)? Conventional wisdom suggests autocrats should prefer majoritarian electoral rules because they favor large parties. Yet, since 1945, autocrats have been almost three times more likely to institute reforms towards PR than majoritarianism. Existing literature suggests incumbents institute PR to divide the opposition. We explore another motivation: executives switch to PR to ensure discipline among allies. We argue that such reforms are most likely when autocrats have a particular need to impose discipline — when elites are strong and/or when ruling parties are nascent. Empirically, we examine the conditions under which changes to PR are likely with cross-national data from all electoral autocracies between 1945 and 2012. Additionally, we investigate a prominent case — the 2005 switch to PR in Russia — to illustrate the mechanisms and show how the reform solved the problem of control, allowing the Kremlin to focus on selecting electorally strong candidates.

Heller, Abigail L. "Public Support for Electoral Reform: The Role of Electoral System Experience."

Abstract: What affects public support for electoral reform? How does experience with different electoral systems affect people’s willingness to support electoral reform? Given the salience of changes to election rules even when they are passed via the legislature and the increasing use of referenda as an alternative mechanism for change, these questions are critical to understanding when electoral reform will occur. I argue that experience affects public opinion by reducing uncertainty — overcoming status quo bias and affecting the direction of partisan bias. While both mechanisms affect opinions about reform, I argue that support is conditional on positive experiences. Moreover, to affect opinions and support, I argue that experience must be with an electoral system that is similar to that under consideration. I leverage subnational variation in electoral systems in the United Kingdom to test this theory. The results have implications for the possibility of electoral reform in other industrialized democracies.

Work in Progress

Heller, Abigail L. "Legislating Themselves Out of Office: Electoral Reform and Parties as Non-Unitary Actors."

Heller, Abigail L. "Experience Versus Party Cues: Public Opinion about Electoral Reform."

Heller, Abigail L. “The Best of Both Worlds: Minor Electoral Reforms in Autocracies.”