How the Location of State Capitals Influences Political Corruption

Remote cities are especially vulnerable to scandal, according to a new study.

Absolute power may corrupt absolutely, but remote power seems to encourage a pretty crooked job, too. So says an ongoing study of government corruption led by Harvard researcher Filipe Campante and updated in a new working paper (via Brad Plumer at Wonkblog). Campante and fellow scholar Quoc-Anh Do argue that American state capitals lose their accountability — and with it their integrity — when they're isolated from major population centers:

The data charted by Campante and Do reveal the role of geography in political corruption (as measured by federal convictions). States like New York and Florida are seen at the more corrupt end of the spectrum, in keeping with their rather remote capitals of Albany (roughly 130 miles from New York City as the crow flies) and Tallahassee (about 400 miles from Miami). Meanwhile, corruption is relatively low in states where the capital and the population centers are either near one another or one and the same (as in the case of Denver, Colorado).

Traditionally, social scientists and political scholars have considered two contrasting theories about political corruption at the state level. The first (called the "accountability view") says capitals will be more corrupt if they're far from population centers, because the usual instruments of public accountability will be weakened. The second (the "capture view") holds that capitals will be less corrupt if they're isolated from a state's major centers, because economic interest groups won't be able to capture political votes.

Campante and Do report "very robust" evidence for the "accountability view" through a number of measures. They first looked at the relationship between capital geography and media influence; after all, government accountability relies on public awareness. The researchers found that newspaper coverage of state politics increased around state capitals, and by extension, was greater in states with less isolated capitals.

Take recent state government scandals in New York, with its remote capital in Albany, and Massachusetts, with its capital and major center both in Boston. The situations were the same, with high-profile state legislators convicted of corruption, but the media coverage wasn't, according to Campante and Do. They pulled up 154 articles in the New York Times on the New York scandal (involving Joseph Bruno) and 238 in the Boston Globe on the Massachusetts scandal (involving Salvatore DiMasi) — a big difference, they believe, especially considering the Times is a larger paper.

"In sum, it seems that newspapers do tend to give state politics greater coverage when their audience is more concentrated around the capital," the researchers write.

Next Campante and Do judged political accountability by voter interest in the electoral process. They found that people who lived farther from a state capital were both less informed and less concerned with state politics in particular, but not with American politics in general. So even though voters who lived near state capitals were more likely to turn out for a state election, they were no more likely to vote during a presidential election. Again, accountability seemed to be lacking at the state level alone.

Finally, the researchers found no evidence for the so-called "capture view" of corruption. In fact, they found evidence against it. When Campante and Do measured how geography influences political contributions from special interest groups, they discovered larger contributions in states with isolated capitals. In other words, working in a remote location doesn't inoculate state legislators from financial corruptibility.

So geography may very well encourage political corruption by limiting public accountability. But what happens as communication technology moves us all closer together? Campante and Do aren't so sure anything will change; if anything, they wonder whether a push for online media will lead to newsroom cutbacks that only increase the isolation of state political coverage.

In any event, they believe their research warrants heightened vigilance from the public — especially in states with remote capitals. They conclude:

Put simply, watchdogs need to bark louder when there is a higher chance that people are not paying much attention.

Top image:  luxorphoto/Shutterstock

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