Bloc Voting and Water Access in Rural Brazil
Throughout the world, access to public services varies dramatically across neighborhoods. In drought-prone regions, the distribution of scarce water resources is often highly politicized. How can citizens hold politicians accountable? I argue that citizens, especially through neighborhood associations, can use bloc voting as a bottom-up, grassroots strategy to pressure politicians for public services, in contrast to top-down explanations of bloc voting or collective clientelism.
While important recent scholarship and policy interventions focus on how brokers coerce votes in a top-down, clientelistic manner, this study shows that, under certain conditions, rural residents can hold politicians accountable via bottom-up coordinated voting. In addition to its substantive contributions, the book also moves beyond the typical format by incorporating detailed ‘behind the scenes’ descriptions in each chapter of the related field research process, theory development, and data collection activities.
Bloc voting strategies are not always feasible, and benefits are not shared universally. Based on in-depth mixed methods fieldwork, I highlight that different levels of trust across neighborhoods affect voting behavior, accountability, and public service access. Bloc voting requires groups to coordinate a secret individual action and politicians to monitor a group’s vote; it is most likely where group members have high trust and participation in local associations and vote at their own polling station. Rural communities even petition to have their own polling station to use this strategy! Still, benefits are not distributed universally: within communities that bloc vote, the distribution of benefits depends on households’ engagement with the community association. Rural voters’ preferences are in turn influenced by community associations’ political involvement and local candidates’ provision of collective benefits.
Grassroots Politics combines empirical evidence and a detailed description of the process of almost two cumulative years of field research. My study takes place in rural, semi-arid Northeast Brazil and evaluates community-level, sub-municipal variation that is difficult to measure. I focus on household water service, which is an essential and often scarce resource that requires public investment and is prone to political manipulation.
My fieldwork involved inductive theory design, an iterative process of over a hundred qualitative interviews that informed future surveys and interviews, three original household surveys across 224 rural communities in Northeast Brazil, and triangulation with electoral, administrative, and social media data. The surveys provide previously unknown systematic information about collective action and community associations and incorporate conjoint experiments to evaluate causal mechanisms.
The mixed methods study analyzes big data on election results from the lowest level of aggregation – the electoral section (approx. 50-300 voters) – for over 15,000 sections in 5 election years. In a case study of a rural municipality (Canindé-CE), I triangulate interviews with rural residents and association leaders (2017, 2022) with local election results (2008-2020), archives of city councilors’ legislative actions targeting services to neighborhoods (2013-2023), systematic analysis of social media (Instagram) behavior of local politicians (2020-2023), and interviews with election officials and bureaucrats in municipal and state government (2022).