An Interview with Professor Chiara Superti

Professor Chiara Superti is a Lecturer in Political Science and Director of the M.A. program in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University. Prior to Columbia, Chiara received her PhD in May 2015 from the Department of Government (GSAS) at Harvard University, affiliated with the Institute for Quantitative Social Sciences (IQSS). Her work focuses on a variety of topics such as unconventional voting, political corruption, immigrants’ political attitudes, and electoral politics in Southern Europe, Latin America, and Israel. After completing her doctoral work, Professor Superti was awarded the position of College Fellow in the Department of Government at Harvard University.

Associate Editor Inga Manticas recently spoke with Professor Superti about her research on unconventional voting patterns in Cuba and Spain. The following transcript, compiled by Manticas, has been edited for clarity.

 

Could you tell me a little bit about your most recent work on unconventional voting?

Recently I’ve been collaborating on a project on voting in Cuba. In this work, which I’m conducting with Ángela Fonseca from the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana and Jorge Domínguez from Harvard University, we are using data on “unconventional voting” as a way to measure different kinds of citizens’ attitudes toward the regime.

Many people in Cuba have been using blank voting, null voting, or what we call “selective voting” when they cast their ballots. We interpret these practices as a general sign of opposition, but of different types. In Cuba, for the national election, the number of candidates is the same as the number of seats in the assembly. So everyone gets elected. The ballot contains the option to choose “vote for everybody” (Voto Unido). What the government really wants is for the voters to check that box, so that they would automatically vote for everyone.

And so, for a very long time, it was very important for the government that everyone would follow this kind of voting (voto unido) and the election was a form of referendum of support for the ongoing government. In the past 20 years, however, people have increasingly voted only for some candidates out of the list rather than for everyone. This is what we call “selective voting”. The other types of voting practices that we include in the category of “unconventional voting” are: leaving the ballot sheet completely blank or purposefully nullifying it, for example by drawing a picture on it or writing an expressive statement. Together, all of these methods have reached around 20% of the votes, which is a significant amount.

 

Have there been difficulties in procuring any of this data? 

 Well, the data was public; it was on the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party and other public sources. The problem was that there was not a lot of fine-grained data, especially for blank and null voting where there is no data at the municipal or district level but only at the provincial level. This limited significantly the kind of analysis we could perform on that.

In the other study, instead, where we look at the candidates’ vote share, we ran a candidate-level analysis.  There are around 600 candidates…

The problem is whether or not we think that the data reported officially is valid. Some people may have doubts about the quality and credibility of the data. So we did some statistical analysis—there are statistical methods to test if there is any obvious sign of electoral manipulation—but we couldn’t find any clear sign of manipulation of the data.

 

Maybe this is outside of the scope of your research, but do you anticipate any major differences in voting or political behavior in general in Cuba because of the transition in their relationship with the United States?

Yeah, that’s interesting. I am not sure.  Among the researchers on these studies, I’m more of the voting side expert than the Cuba expert. But if the opening continues—and it’s unclear what the impact of President Trump’s election will be, exactly, on this — selective voting might increase a little bit.

There is some recent literature in political science that claims that authoritarian regimes are nowadays willing to accept a little bit more of dissent when that dissent provides some kind of useful information. And so some level of criticism is allowed. For instance, there is very interesting work done on China by some colleagues of mine (King, Pan and Roberts, 2013) that looks at online censorship in China. They found that what mainly tends to be censored online is not so much the criticism of regime but the call for any form of collective action.

In this sense, the selective voting is giving a little bit of information to the regime, about what candidates are doing better. The key element that we are missing in our work, because it is not easy to find and may be too early to seek, is to see whether there are any consequences of receiving fewer votes. For instance, are candidates who are getting less support, lower voting percentages, in the long run, being punished by the regime? Is the party saying, ‘you are not a good candidate, you are not going to run any more’? It’s too early to see if that’s true, but that would be evidence that the regime is letting go of a little bit of control to gather information and then use it.

 

So what do you see as your next steps in your research on voting?

At the moment I’m trying to understand better the determinants of unconventional voting and of protest more generally. What kind of experiences makes individuals more likely to use protest as a form of political expression? For example, I’m looking at the case of Israel, which is another area I work on, and I’m trying to understand whether or not exposure to violence affects political participation, and in particular behaviors like unconventional voting and political protest.

 

Why is it important for academics to be doing this kind of research?

Unconventional voting is understudied and under-theorized, because it’s not considered a widespread or significant phenomenon. Recently, political protest in general has, instead, become a much more studied phenomenon, although I think political scientists still don’t spend as much time on it compared to other social scientists. One important goal is to expand the understanding of this behavior, its determinants and effects. I think there is still a lot of work to do in political science on questions like: what kinds of protest forms have more impact? Are people and politicians paying attention to unconventional voting? Would it be worth it to have a “None of the Above” option on the ballot as an official option? Finally, is there some kind of backlash after political protest?

 

What advice would you give to undergraduates interested in going into a career in academia, especially in political science?

 Political scientists are currently focusing on using more advanced and rigorous research methods in terms of both qualitative and quantitative approaches, perhaps with more emphasis on the latter. That doesn’t mean that the discipline only uses statistics, but that this is something to consider or understand in advance if you are interested in pursuing an academic career. It might be useful to take some quantitative methods courses and try to explore if it’s an approach that you like or not.

In addition, it would be useful to take some advanced seminars—which many of you are already taking—to see some of the most recent research and understand what the field is doing. I believe that sometimes, students who have not been exposed enough to the most recent research, are not aware of what the field is really working on, and may be disappointed by it (or love it!). That’s also important because becoming an academic means joining a community and contributing to the advancement of the discipline. So it’s good to have a better understanding of what the field is doing right now.

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