Ulric B. and Evelyn L. Bray Seminar in Political Economy
Preferential voting has been introduced in several proportional election systems over the last 20 years, mainly as a means to increase the accountability of individual politicians. Many of these reforms have been criticized as blatant failures. In this paper, we hypothesize that preferential voting in a general election can operate as a stand-in internal primary election for the top position of party leader. Empirically, we rely on a unique data set, drawn from four waves of Swedish local elections, that includes every nominated politician in each of 290 assemblies. We use a natural-experiment (regression-discontinuity) approach and obtain strong support for our main hypothesis. When we estimate the causal effect of winning the most preferential votes on becoming the local party leader in the next election, we find that "list winners" are twice as likely to become party leaders as their narrowly losing challengers. Comparing across municipalities, we find that the response to narrow list winning is the strongest within unthreatened governing majorities, within which voters also use the preferential vote most frequently. Comparing across politicians, we find that the effect of list winning is the strongest for competent politicians, who are also more likely to draw preferential votes than mediocre politicians.