Why do Voters Elect Criminal Politicians?


Voters across the world are often complicit in electing bad-quality legislators to political office. This problem is particularly salient in India, where candidates accused of criminality often succeed at the polls. Why do voters show a willingness to cast their ballots for candidates accused of wrongdoing? Using primary individual-level voter survey data from the Bihar 2020 state assembly elections, this paper examines whether ethnic voting can explain this surprising voter behavior. Contrary to voter preference theory, I find that voters exhibit a strong negative response to candidates accused of criminality when they belong to their preferred ethnic party. Coethnicity sharply reduces the probability of voting for the criminal candidate: electoral support drops by 89% for violent charges and by 56% for non-violent charges. This pattern holds regardless of the voters’ level of news consumption or political knowledge, education status, and income. These findings suggest that the electoral success of criminal politicians could be attributed to other factors such as a lack of proper institutions or lower state capacity rather than the voters’ underlying ethnic preferences.

European Journal of Political Economy, Revise & Resubmit
Abhinav Khemka
Abhinav Khemka
PhD candidate in Economics

I am a PhD student in Economics at the University of Barcelona and IEB. My research interest are in political economy and development economics with a regional focus on India.