The politics of accountability in Supreme Court nominations: Voter recall and assessment of senator votes on nominees

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While longstanding theories of political behavior argue that voters do not possess sufficient political knowledge to hold their elected representatives accountable, recent revisionist studies challenge this view, arguing that voters can both follow how their representatives vote and use that information intelligently. We apply the revisionist account to the study of Supreme Court nominations in the modern era. Using survey data on the nominations of Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, we ask whether voters can and do hold senators accountable for their votes on Supreme Court nominees. While our results for Thomas are ambiguous, we find strong evidence for accountability in the cases of Sotomayor and Kagan. In particular, we show that voters on average can correctly recall the votes of their senators on these nominees, and that correct recall is correlated with higher levels of education and political knowledge. We then show that voters are more likely to both approve of and vote to re-elect their senator if he or she casts a vote on Sotomayor and Kagan that is in line with voters' preferences. Finally, we show this effect is quite sizable, as it rivals the effect of agreement on other high-profile roll call votes. These results have important implications for both the broader study of representation and for understanding the current politics of Supreme Court nominations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)677-702
Number of pages26
JournalPolitical Science Research and Methods
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 10 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


  • American politics
  • judicial politics
  • legislative politics
  • public opinion
  • representation and electoral systems


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