Can the media determine the success or failure of major institutional reforms? We study the adoption of secret voting in the United States and the complementary role of the media in this arguably crucial step to improve democracy. Using a difference-in-differences identification strategy and a rich dataset on local newspapers, we show that in areas with high media penetration, democratization outcomes improved following the adoption of the secret ballot. Specifically, the press contributed to the decrease in partisan attachment and support for dominant parties. Remarkably, it also undermined the manipulation of electoral boundaries (redistricting) and the unintentional decline in turnout incentivized with the secret ballot. To further address the potential endogeneity of newspapers, we use an instrumental variable that exploits the introduction of wood-pulp paper technology in 1880 and counties' initial woodland coverage. We argue that the media mattered through the distribution of information to voters and increased public awareness about political misconduct.
Journal of Historical Political Economy, Volume 3, Issue 3 Special Issue: The Political Economy of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era: Articles Overview
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