Abstract: Democratic theorists have long argued that states can create more resilient democracies through education. Educational investments are thought to produce more economic equality and instill in citizens greater capacity and responsibility to participate in politics. Using a geographic regression discontinuity design and township level data from Antebellum New York State, we examine whether state funding for common schools led to positive economic and political outcomes. Our estimates support the view that a democratic culture emerged not only because of initial favorable endowments, but also because of subsequent government decisions to fund education. New York townships that received more school funding later had higher median earnings, lower earnings inequality, and higher levels of voter turnout. Our findings support the view that maintaining democracy requires active investments by the state, something that has important implications for other places and other times—including today.

Abstract: Countries that use proportional representation (PR) tend to have higher levels of redistribution. However, persuasive research on electoral system choice has demonstrated that countries only adopt PR under particular circumstances, such as the presence of a strong left-wing opposition or a need for coordination between opposing economic actors. We therefore ask if the strong relationship between the use of PR and redistribution is due to PR electoral rules or to these background factors. Taking advantage of an electoral reform to early 20th-century Norwegian local elections, we find that municipalities that were mandated to use PR increased tax rates and resources spent on the poor but also redistributed less in the first place. We further show that the reform did not increase left-wing party seat shares but did increase political mobilization. This evidence is consistent with moderate parties increasing redistribution in order to preempt left-wing party gains.

Abstract: Many large survey courses rely on multiple professors or teaching assistants to judge student responses to open-ended questions. While the adoption of, and training on, a grading rubric can help alleviate some of the most extreme versions of bias, there remains the opportunity for students with similar levels of conceptual understanding to receive widely varying assessments. We detail how this can occur, and argue that it is an example of differential item functioning (or interpersonal incomparability), where graders interpret the same possible grading range differently. Using both actual assessment data from a large survey course in Comparative Politics and simulation methods, we show that the bias can be corrected for by a small number of “bridging” observations across graders. We conclude by offering best practices for fair assessment in large survey courses.

Book Project:
“Building States and Parties: The Causes and Consequences of Local Electoral Reforms”

How do formal political institutions impact the quality of representation and citizen welfare? What role do they play in state-building and democratization? My dissertation turns to early-twentieth-century Europe, and Scandinavia in particular, to answer these questions. There, national politicians reformed the electoral systems used at the local level but rolled out those reforms unevenly across local governments. I posit that national-level politicians chose reforms that would preserve competency and decision-making power at the local level, while also empowering local actors connected to national-level parties. The conclusion is that national parties were able to extend their reach into the periphery, with profound consequences for mobilization and redistribution. I draw on a wealth of historical data collected from archives, as well as quasi-experimental techniques for causal inference, to test this theory. My project highlights the importance of local governance institutions in creating national polities and explains how reforms to one level of politics can have dramatic effects on another. It also highlights the usefulness of historical political economy to contemporary comparative politics.

Working Papers

  • Mass Party Advantage under Party-Centered Local Governance

Abstract: Do local-level political institutions impact the balance of power in national elections? This paper argues that mass parties are more successful in national-level elections when party-centered electoral institutions are used at the local level. Mass parties rely on members and branches as their main electoral strategy, which means that using local institutions that support this approach yields better electoral results. To test this hypothesis, I take advantage of a local governance reform in early 20th century Sweden that made the type of local governance institutions used dependent on a population threshold. I find that municipalities that used elections and representatives for local governance had higher support for the Labor Party in national elections. This result demonstrates that local governance institutions can impact national-level politics significantly.

  • Education as an Investment in Democracy: Lessons from the Early Republic (with Ken Scheve and David Stasavage)

Abstract: In the wake of Shay’s Rebellion of 1786 and the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 political elites and others in the United States expressed fears that instead of participating actively in the electoral process, disgruntled groups of people might instead attempt to air their grievances through violent unrest. One proposed response to this was to better educate the population, which helped lead to the creation of “common school” funds by a number of states. In a staggered difference in differences setting that allows for dynamic effects over time, we examine whether the creation of these common school funds might help explain an important political phenomenon observed by historians during this period: greatly increased engagement of citizens in the electoral process. The results we find are supportive of this interpretation. They also point to another important fact that those who propose new civic education reforms ought to consider. Given the inevitable time lag between beginning to learn and being able to vote, it takes several decades for an educational reform to affect a large fraction of the electorate.