PhD Graduate Sarah Lachance’s dissertation explores how voters deal with uncertainty during elections

Recent PhD graduate Sarah Lachance’s dissertation, Democracy in an Uncertain World: Campaign Information and Voter Decision-making, shows how voters resolve uncertainty about parties’ and candidates’ policy positions in election campaigns. The research consists of three separate but connected studies, examining polarization, strategic voting in proportional-representation systems, and policy ambiguity. Sarah’s work “employs precise data on the policy information delivered by the campaign to analyze its effects on voter decision-making.”

Dr. Lachance graduates this week as part of UBC’s November 2022 graduation ceremonies. She responded to our questions about the research and how she worked with faculty in the Political Science department.

Dr. Sarah Lachance

What was your dissertation about?

My dissertation challenges the presumption of universality in the cognitive processes of voters by proposing that political institutions affect the type of information they use to make a decision. Democracy in an Uncertain World: Campaign Information and Voter Decision-making compares the influence of policy information on voting in Canada, the United States and Germany. To explain the effect of institutions on the decision-making process of voters, I use a new theoretical framework: ecological rationality. To illustrate it, Herbert Simon used the analogy of scissors, where one blade represents the limited resources of the decision-maker, and the other, the structure of their environment. I show that voters compensate for their lack of information by exploiting patterns in their electoral environment, that is, by using heuristics.

What are the main takeaways from your work?

My results show that in a two-party and polarized system like the United States, information on candidate policies only influences voters’ decisions when they have weak partisan predispositions. In contrast, multiparty systems encourage the use of information about minor party policies by voters wishing to influence the government agenda. Finally, my experimental results provide a solution to the paradox of candidate policy ambiguity despite the voters’ aversion to ambiguity that is assumed in the rational choice model.

What inspired you to investigate this topic for your dissertation?

In my coursework, it struck me how rational choice models are not appropriate to think about voters deciding on who to vote for, given their limited interest in politics and resources. Even if political science has moved toward an idea of voter rationality as “bounded”, new approaches have their problems. The first approach has been the view that voters are incompetent or irrational. It rejects the idea that voters even consider policy in their decision, instead relying solely on group or partisan affect. This would lead them to a vote choice that is in contradiction with their “objective” interests, as defined by their socioeconomic status. For one thing, the idea that researchers can adjudicate what is in a voter’s best interests is itself problematic. Yet, the unqualified claim on the other side that heuristics allow voters to make decisions that are as good as fully informed ones also has its problems. Research has shown that it is often not the case. This led me to think about how context matters in determining what kind of information or heuristics are useful for the voter.

What was the most difficult part of writing your dissertation? What was the most satisfying?

The part I found most difficult when writing my dissertation was knowing when to stop and accept that the dissertation would not be perfect. I had to recognize that there is a limited number of topics that the dissertation could cover, and as a PhD student I had limited time, energy, and financial resources. In general, finding a work-life balance that preserved my mental health was a challenge. Hence, I had to abandon some of my initial plans for dissertation chapters and leave them for future work.

The most satisfying part was the problem-solving one, that is, testing my theories and (sometimes) finding supporting evidence. At the end of the process, I felt empowered by the expertise that I had developed on my dissertation’s topics. Yet, I only got that feeling at the very end, at the dissertation defence, in what seemed like a conversation with peers about my work. While my examination committee was obviously more experienced and generally more knowledgeable than me, I felt I had something to contribute to the specific research problems I had analyzed extensively as part of my PhD dissertation.

What skills did you develop or strengthen as a result of your work?

There are many skills that writing a successful dissertation requires, including writing skills, research skills, technical or methodological skills, and skills related to organization and self-discipline. However, if I had to pick the type that I developed most, I would say research skills and, in a broader sense, project management. I was in charge of every step of the research process: the literature review, the study design, the ethics application, the data collection (and all its technicalities), the data analysis and the writing. This experience gave me skills that are assets on the job market, where employers are often looking for candidates who not only have knowledge but also more practical or technical skills.

What was your experience working with Political Science faculty on this dissertation?

The Political Science faculty at UBC have contributed greatly to my dissertation. My supervisor (Richard Johnston) and the other members of my dissertation committee (Fred Cutler, Andrew Owen) were extremely generous and helpful in their feedback on my work. Other faculty members like Matthew Wright and Michael Weaver have also provided me with helpful guidance. All their contributions have made my dissertation better. The Political Science department was very supportive in terms of funding and providing opportunities to present my work.

What is the next step for you in continuing the work you did on your dissertation?

My postdoctoral project at the Policy, Elections and Representation Lab (PEARL) at the University of Toronto focuses on elite decision-making. Hence, I will continue working on the influence of the institutional context on political decision-making, but on the side of politicians rather than voters. Existing research, notably by scholars affiliated with PEARL, has shown that politicians, like voters, use heuristics to make decisions. I will investigate how the governmental level in Canada influences the type of information and heuristics elected officials use to determine their legislative priorities, and in turn, how that influences the quality of their representation. In other words, my project will tackle the question of whether the institutional context affects how well elected officials represent the voters’ policy preferences.