The Perils of Building Democracy in Africa

by Benjamin Marx, Vincent Pons, and Tavneet Suri

Overview — Results from a text messaging experiment conducted before the 2013 National Election in Kenya show that basic information provided via short message service (SMS) resulted in small turnout increases but had a large effect on attitudes towards electoral institutions.

Author Abstract

Prior to the 2013 elections in Kenya, the Electoral Commission sent 11 million nonpartisan text messages to registered voters in an effort to boost electoral participation. The messages had a positive effect on turnout but also decreased trust in Kenyan electoral institutions. We show that the information campaign backfired because the Electoral Commission failed to fulfill its commitment to deliver a transparent and peaceful election. The decrease in trust is stronger in areas that experienced election-related violence and for individuals affiliated (via their ethnicity) with the side that lost the presidential election. These results highlight the trade-offs associated with mobilizing voters in recently established democracies.

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