The Relevance of Relative Distribution: Favoritism, Information, and Vote Choice in Africa

Elizabeth Claire Carlson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Relative distribution—whether one is favored or disfavored by government—seems to matter to voters in many African countries. But why? I demonstrate theoretically that voters who do not have information about government revenues, and who cannot determine whether their allocation represents an absolutely high share, can compare their goods with others’ to generate a rough prediction of whether they would be better off under a challenger. In this model, relative distribution is a heuristic, whose relevance is conditioned by available information. I test the model among a sample of Ugandan lab participants, who, when not told how much a “leader” had to distribute, were significantly more likely to reelect the leader when their payout was greater than another player’s. Those given information about the size of the pot, however, no longer responded to relative distribution. I show external validity by demonstrating that the incumbent’s ethnicity, which strongly predicts whom he favors, is less important to respondents on the cross-national Afrobarometer when they report easy access to information on government revenues; other types of information do not show a similar effect. Unfortunately, though rational under low information, voting on relative distribution is not optimal under all conditions: Those who are favored by a highly corrupt leader are most likely to reelect him when they are relying on relative distribution to make their choice.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1531-1562
Number of pages32
JournalComparative Political Studies
Issue number12
StatePublished - Oct 1 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science


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