The standard theory of electoral accountability treats the electorate as an appraiser of government performance on a range of complex issues, which re-elects or de-elects depending on its evaluation of that performance. This paper draws from studies on voter knowledge and behaviour to present a dilemma for the standard theory: either voters do not know how well their rulers have performed, or if they do, they do not base their votes on that knowledge. It is shown that, on either horn of the dilemma, the standard account of electoral accountability fails, and that attempts to deflate the dilemma through heuristic and aggregative approaches to voter knowledge, or proposals for alternative systems of government, are also inadequate. The paper then sets out and defends an alternative conception of electoral accountability, which holds that electoral accountability is not about micro-assessing a government’s actions. Rather, it is about preventing political rulers from committing or allowing substantial harms to come upon those they govern. This alternative conception is compatible with a realistic view of voter knowledge and behaviour, but nonetheless makes electoral accountability an essential component of a well-functioning democratic system.
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