Elected officeholders cannot tell what their constituents want unless they hear from them. That is why a typical legislator employs staffers to keep track of messages from constituents. Likewise, because interest groups know that citizen communications matter, they routinely ask adherents to contact their representatives in support or opposition to particular policies. Scholars have accordingly shown that policymakers are influenced by what they hear.
Members of U.S. racial minorities vote a bit less often than whites – but the racial gap is much larger when it comes to contacting and delivering messages to elected representatives. Minority citizens do this much less than whites. According to some surveys, whites are twice as likely as citizens of other races to communicate with elected representatives.
Why does the racial communication gap exist? My research uses field experiments conducted in the state of Maryland to tease out the sources. Maryland has legislative districts where both white and black elected officials represent the same constituents, so I was able to do random phone surveys – to see what difference it makes if blacks are offered the opportunity to communicate with a named black or white representative, while white constituents are offered the chance to communicate with a named white or black representative.
Citizens Communicate Less to Representatives of a Different Race
The racial identities of elected officials matter to citizens, my field experiments suggest. When thousands of residents of multi-member state legislative districts were invited to communicate with their legislators, blacks were much more willing – in fact, twice as willing – to communicate with black representatives, while white constituents were twice as willing to communicate with white legislators. Constituents of both races were more reluctant to send messages to legislators not of their own racial background.
The results add up. Consider the example of a hypothetical district with half black and half white constituents. A black elected representative in that district would receive twice as many communications from her black constituents asfrom her white constituents, while a white elected representative would receive twice as many messages from the white citizens compared to the blacks. The two elected representatives could gain very different senses of what constituents want. Contrasting portraits of their constituents’ opinions might have important consequences for the issues the legislators raise or how they vote, introducing racial bias.
David Broockman is a graduate student in Political Science at University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network