Do Politicians Racially Discriminate Against Constituents? A Field Experiment on State Legislators

Authors


  • The authors' names appear in reverse-alphabetical order, and both authors contributed equally to this article. A previous version of this article was circulated under the title “Who Helps DeShawn Register to Vote? A Field Experiment on State Legislators.” Previous versions of this article were presented at the Third Annual Conference on Experimental Political Science at NYU, as well as at seminars at Columbia University, Cornell University, Duke University, Harvard University, the University of Chicago, and Yale University. We thank the editor, the anonymous reviewers, seminar participants, Don Green, Greg Huber, Jim Vreeland, and Zoltan Hajnal for their comments. Mitch Reich, Mary Freeman, Carolyn Nguyen, and Ji Ho Park provided excellent research assistance. Replication materials for this study can be found online at Yale's Institution for Social and Policy Studies data archive (http://isps.research.yale.edu). Finally, funding and institutional support for this study were provided by Yale's Institution for Social and Policy Studies.

Daniel M. Butler is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Yale University, P.O. Box 208209, New Haven, CT 06520-8209 (daniel.butler@yale.edu). David E. Broockman is a student at Yale University, P.O. Box 203435, New Haven, CT 06520-3435 (david.broockman@gmail.com).

Abstract

We use a field experiment to investigate whether race affects how responsive state legislators are to requests for help with registering to vote. In an email sent to each legislator, we randomized whether a putatively black or white alias was used and whether the email signaled the sender's partisan preference. Overall, we find that putatively black requests receive fewer replies. We explore two potential explanations for this discrimination: strategic partisan behavior and the legislators’ own race. We find that the putatively black alias continues to be differentially treated even when the emails signal partisanship, indicating that strategic considerations cannot completely explain the observed differential treatment. Further analysis reveals that white legislators of both parties exhibit similar levels of discrimination against the black alias. Minority legislators do the opposite, responding more frequently to the black alias. Implications for the study of race and politics in the United States are discussed.

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