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Open Access Publications from the University of California

SMS texts on corruption help Ugandan voters hold elected councillors accountable at the polls.

  • Author(s): Buntaine, Mark T
  • Jablonski, Ryan
  • Nielson, Daniel L
  • Pickering, Paula M
  • et al.

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Many politicians manipulate information to prevent voters from holding them accountable; however, mobile text messages may make it easier for nongovernmental organizations to credibly share information on official corruption that is difficult for politicians to counter directly. We test the potential for texts on budget management to improve democratic accountability by conducting a large (n = 16,083) randomized controlled trial during the 2016 Ugandan district elections. In cooperation with a local partner, we compiled, simplified, and text-messaged official information on irregularities in local government budgets. Verified recipients of messages that described more irregularities than expected reported voting for incumbent councillors 6% less often; verified recipients of messages conveying fewer irregularities than expected reported voting for incumbent councillors 5% more often. The messages had no observable effect on votes for incumbent council chairs, potentially due to voters' greater reliance on other sources of information for higher profile elections. These mixed results suggest that text messages on budget corruption help voters hold some politicians accountable in settings where elections are not free and fair.

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