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Sarah F. Anzia

Michelle J. Schwartz Associate Professor of Public Policy & Associate Professor of Political Science

Sarah F. Anzia


Sarah Anzia is a political scientist who studies American politics with a focus on state and local government, elections, interest groups, political parties, and public policy. Her book, Timing and Turnout: How Off-Cycle Elections Favor Organized Groups, examines how the timing of elections can be manipulated to affect both voter turnout and the composition of the electorate, which, in turn, affects election outcomes and public policy. She also studies the role of government employees and public-sector unions in elections and policymaking in the U.S. In addition, she has written about the politics of public pensions, women in politics, the historical development of electoral institutions, and the power of political party leaders in state legislatures. Her work has been published in the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Politics, the Quarterly Journal of Political Science, and Studies in American Political Development. She has a Ph.D. in political science from Stanford University and an M.P.P. from the Harris School at the University of Chicago.

Curriculum Vitae

Download a PDF (156KB, updated 07-20-2018)

Areas of Expertise

  • Elections
  • Government
  • Politics
  • State and Local Politics and Policy
  • Public Sector Unions
  • Women in Politics
  • Public Employee Pensions

Last updated on 09/04/2018

Working Papers

  • Interest Groups on the Inside: The Governance of Public Pension Funds

    Co-author: Terry M. Moe

    GSPP Working Paper (September 2017)

    This paper explores an important dimension of interest group activity—the role of groups as inside players within government—that was central to the literature decades ago, but hasn’t attracted the kind of attention and research from modern political science that it warrants.  Here we aim to advance this agenda by targeting a governmental arena of great significance for the nation: public-sector pension funds.  These funds control trillions of dollars, have vast fiscal and social consequences, and are commonly designed to give public employees and their unions—the systems’ beneficiaries—official insider roles in governance.  We develop a theory arguing that employee representatives can actually be expected to favor policies that undermine the fiscal integrity of their own pension plans.  Our analysis of decisions by 109 pension boards, 2001-2014, supports this expectation—and indicates that, for public pensions, “interest groups on the inside” wield influence that weakens effective government.

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  • Pensions in the Trenches: Are Rising City Pension Costs Crowding Out Public Services?

    GSPP Working Paper (August 2017)

    Some experts claim that state and local governments have seen dramatic increases in their public pension costs and that pension spending is crowding out local public services.  Others maintain that serious pension problems are limited to a small number of governments that have been especially irresponsible.  However, no existing studies—nor the datasets they rely on—allow us to evaluate the extent to which local pension costs are actually rising, or whether pensions are crowding out services.  In this paper, I analyze a new dataset of the annual pension expenditures of 219 municipal governments across the U.S. from 2005 to 2014.  I find that 85% of the cities saw increases in their pension expenditures over this ten-year period.  In the median city, inflation-adjusted pension expenditures increased by 45% in ten years, and the average increase was 69%.  There is also considerable cross-city variation in the amount cities spend on pensions per employee, with typical cities spending about $7,000 per employee per year but some spending as little as $2,500 and others spending more than $20,000.  And when I examine variation within cities over time, I estimate that a 10% increase in per-employee pension expenditures is associated with a 0.73% average drop in city employment the following year.  These pension-induced employment reductions are most pronounced for non-public safety employees and for cities in states with collective bargaining laws.  In addition, many cities are seeing cuts in areas other than employment:  rising pension costs are also associated with reduced spending on construction and equipment. 

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  • Does Gender Stereotyping Affect Women at the Ballot Box? Evidence from Local Elections in California, 1995-2013

    Co-author: Rachel Bernhard

    GSPP Working Paper (August 2017)

    Research demonstrates that many voters use gender stereotypes to evaluate candidates, but does that stereotyping affect women’s electoral success? In this paper, we try to make headway in answering that question by combining a novel empirical strategy with local election data from California. Our empirical strategy relies on two key findings from the existing literature: first, that individuals are more likely to rely on stereotypes when they have less information about the candidates, and second, that the average voter in elections held concurrently with national elections has less information about local candidates than the average voter in off-cycle elections. We propose that we can therefore estimate the electoral effect of increased gender stereotyping by examining the difference in women’s win rates in higher-information (off-cycle) and lower-information (on-cycle) elections—and how that difference varies by constituency and the office sought. Our preliminary results show that the effect of increased stereotyping is more negative for female candidates in mayoral races than in city council races, and also that the effect of greater stereotyping is more negative for women running in conservative cities than in more liberal cities. Thus, we conclude that there probably isn’t a single, one-size-fits-all answer to the question of how gender stereotyping affects female candidates, but rather that the direction and magnitude of the effect varies across contexts.

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  • Political Parties and Policy Demanders in Local Elections

    Co-author: Olivia M. Meeks

    GSPP Working Paper (May 2016)

    The theory of political parties advanced by Cohen et al. (2008) and Bawn et al. (2012) has stimulated a productive debate about the form, activity, and influence of parties in American politics. So far, however, it has mainly sought to explain the role of parties in U.S. national politics. We propose that studying political organizations in local politics—where we cannot take it for granted that parties will always be active—has great potential to advance our understanding of parties, interest groups, and the relationships between them. In this paper, we start by presenting descriptive information on the activity of political parties in over 300 municipal governments across the United States. We find that parties are highly engaged in many of the cities, but we also find that their presence is far from universal. We then set out to explain the variation in party activity across cities, showing that they are more active in cities with partisan elections and in cities with a great deal of interest group activity. Importantly, though, we also find that there are many cities where parties are absent but interest groups are still active. It is possible, then, that the parties we do find to be active in local elections are not acting as umbrella groups steered by coalitions of local policy demanders, but instead are just another type of group trying to influence elections, working alongside but not in coordination with local interest groups. We then use these findings as a jumping off point for an extension and revision of some of the theoretical ideas advanced by Bawn et al., arguing that there are conditions under which policy demanders have incentives to work alone—not within party coalitions.

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  • City Policies, City Interests:  An Alternative Theory of Interest Group Systems

    GSPP Working Paper (August 2015)

    To understand the extent to which interest groups are active in politics—and which groups are active, under what conditions—I argue that we should start by focusing on the policies governments make.  I use such an approach, which Hacker and Pierson (2014) call a “policy-focused approach,” to develop hypotheses about how the amount of interest group involvement in city politics varies with city characteristics, as well as hypotheses about how the kinds of interest groups that are active depends on group- and city-level factors.  I test these hypotheses using data from a survey of elected officials in over 500 U.S. municipal governments, providing the first-ever bird’s-eye view of interest group activity in a diverse set of American cities.  My findings reveal that the size and composition of city interest group systems vary in ways consistent with my hypotheses, demonstrating the promise of this theoretical approach.   

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Selected Publications

  • When Does a Group of Citizens Influence Policy? Evidence from Senior Citizen Participation in City Politics

    Anzia, Sarah F. Forthcoming. “When Does a Group of Citizens Influence Policy?  Evidence from Senior Citizen Participation in City Politics.” Journal of Politics.

    When does a group of citizens influence public policy?  Mainstream American politics research emphasizes the importance of the group’s turnout and presence in the electorate, but there have been few empirical tests of those hypotheses.  Meanwhile, other scholars argue that group cohesiveness, organization, and non-voting political activity are potentially more important than voting for shaping policy.  These two strands of the literature have largely developed in parallel, however, in part because they tend to employ different empirical methods.  In this paper, I attempt to bridge the divide between them and test these ideas within the same empirical framework, using senior citizens and senior-friendly transportation policy as a test case.  My results show that senior voting does not unconditionally predict policies friendlier to seniors.  Instead, I find that city policies are friendlier to seniors when seniors are a more cohesive, meaningful group, and when they engage in activities other than voting.

  • Do Politicians Use Policy to Make Politics? The Case of Public-Sector Labor Laws

    Anzia, Sarah F., and Terry M. Moe. 2016. “Do Politicians Use Policy to Make Politics? The Case of Public-Sector Labor Laws.” American Political Science Review 110 (4): 763-777.

    Schattschneider’s insight that “policies make politics” has played an influential role in the modern study of political institutions and public policy. Yet if policies do indeed make politics, rational politicians have opportunities to use policies to structure future politics to their own advantage—and this strategic dimension has gone almost entirely unexplored.  Do politicians actually use policies to make politics?  Under what conditions?  In this paper, we develop a theoretical argument about what can be expected from strategic politicians, and we carry out an empirical analysis on a policy development that is particularly instructive: the adoption of public-sector collective bargaining laws by the states during the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s—laws that fueled the rise of public-sector unions, and “made politics” to the advantage of Democrats over Republicans.  

  • Timing and Turnout: How Off-Cycle Elections Favor Organized Groups

    Anzia, Sarah F. 2014. Timing and Turnout: How Off-Cycle Elections Favor Organized Groups.  Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

  • Polarization and Policy:  The Politics of Public Sector Pensions

    Anzia, Sarah F., and Terry M. Moe. 2017. “Polarization and Policy:  The Politics of Public-Sector Pensions.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 42 (1): 33-62.

    For decades, America’s state and local governments have promised their workers increasingly generous pensions but failed to fully fund them, producing a fiscal problem of staggering proportions. In this paper, we examine the politics of public pensions. While mainstream theoretical ideas in the American politics literature would suggest the pension issue should be polarized, with Democrats pushing for generous pensions over Republican resistance, we develop an argument—rooted in more traditional theoretical work by Schattschneider, Lowi, Wilson, and others—implying that both parties should be expected to support generous pensions during normal times, and that only after the onset of the Great Recession, which expanded the scope of conflict, should the parties begin to diverge. Using a new dataset of state legislators’ votes on hundreds of pension bills passed between 1999 and 2011, we carry out an empirical analysis that supports these expectations.

  • Public Sector Unions and the Costs of Government

    Anzia, Sarah F., and Terry M. Moe. 2015. “Public Sector Unions and the Costs of Government.” Journal of Politics 77 (1): 114-127.

    Public sector unions are major interest groups in American politics, but they are rarely studied.  New research would not only shed much-needed light on how these unions shape government and politics, but also broaden the way scholars think about interest groups generally: by highlighting interests that arise inside governments, drawing attention to long-ignored types of policies and decision arenas, and underlining the importance of groups in subnational politics. Here we explore the effects of public sector unions on the costs of government. We present two separate studies, using different datasets from different historical periods, and we examine several outcomes: salaries, health benefits, and employment. We find that unions and collective bargaining increase the costs of government, and that the effects are substantively significant. We view this analysis as an opening wedge that we hope will encourage a more extensive line of new research—and new thinking about American interest groups.

  • Collective Bargaining, Transfer Rights, and Disadvantaged Schools

    Anzia, Sarah F., and Terry M. Moe. 2014. “Collective Bargaining, Transfer Rights, and Disadvantaged Schools.” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 36 (1): 83-111.

    Collective bargaining is common in American public education, but its consequences are poorly understood. We focus here on key contractual provisions—seniority-based transfer rights—that affect teacher assignments, and we show that these transfer rights operate to burden disadvantaged schools with higher percentages of inexperienced teachers. We also show that this impact is conditional: It is substantial in large districts, where decisions are likely to follow rules, but it is virtually zero in small districts, where decisions tend to be less formal and undesirable outcomes can more easily be avoided. The negative consequences are thus concentrated on precisely those districts and schools—large districts, high-minority schools—that have been the nation’s worst performers and the most difficult to improve.

  • Legislative Organization and the Second Face of Power: Evidence from U.S. State Legislatures

    Anzia, Sarah F., and Molly C. Jackman. 2013. “Legislative Organization and the Second Face of Power: Evidence from U.S. State Legislatures.” Journal of Politics 75 (1): 210-224.

    A vast literature argues that the majority party in most legislatures enjoys a policymaking advantage through its access to gatekeeping institutions that let it block bills from reaching the floor. However, agenda-setting institutions vary substantially across legislatures. We propose that this variation should have demonstrable consequences for the majority party’s influence. In this article, we develop hypotheses about the institutional features of legislatures that enable the majority party to block bills. Then, we canvass all 99 U.S. state legislative chambers to measure whether those institutions are present and test whether they lower the rate at which the majority party is rolled. We find that in legislatures where majority-appointed committees can decline to hear bills or decline to report them to the floor, or where the majority leadership can block bills from appearing on the calendar, majority roll rates are significantly lower than in legislatures where those veto points are absent.

    Replication Data (70KB)

  • The Election Timing Effect: Evidence from a Policy Intervention in Texas

    Anzia, Sarah F. 2012. “The Election Timing Effect: Evidence from a Policy Intervention in Texas.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science. 7 (3): 209-248.

    Many governments in the United States hold elections on days other than national Election Day. Recent studies have argued that the low voter turnout that accompanies such off-cycle elections could create an advantage for interest groups. However, the endogeneity of election timing makes it difficult to estimate its causal effect on political outcomes. In this paper, I develop a theoretical framework that explains how changes to election timing affect the electoral fortunes of organized interest groups. I test the theory by examining the effects of a 2006 Texas law that forced approximately 20 percent of the state’s school districts to move their elections to the same day as national elections. Using matching as well as district fixed effects regression, I estimate the causal effect of the switch to on-cycle election timing on district teacher salaries, since teachers and their unions tend to be the dominant interest group in school board elections. I find that school districts that were forced to switch to on-cycle elections responded by granting significantly lower salary raises to teachers, supporting the hypothesis that school trustees were less responsive to the dominant interest group after the switch.

  • Partisan Power Play: The Origins of Local Election Timing as an American Political Institution

    Anzia, Sarah F. 2012. “Partisan Power Play: The Origins of Local Election Timing as an American Political Institution.” Studies in American Political Development 26 (1): 24-49.

    Eighty percent of American cities today hold their general elections on different days than state and national elections. It is an established fact that voter turnout in these off-cycle local elections is far lower than turnout in local elections held concurrently with state and national elections. In this paper, I demonstrate that the timing of city elections has been an important determinant of voter turnout since before the Civil War. By examining three large American cities over the course of the nineteenth century, I find that American political parties regularly manipulated the timing of city elections to secure an edge over their rivals. I show that the decisions to change the election dates of these cities were contentious, partisan, and motivated by an expectation of subsequent electoral gain. The Progressive municipal reformers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries continued in this tradition when they separated city elections from state and national elections, and the local election schedule they implemented has largely persisted until today.

  • The Jackie (and Jill) Robinson Effect: Why Do Congresswomen Outperform Congressmen?

    Anzia, Sarah F., and Christopher R. Berry. 2011. “The Jackie (and Jill) Robinson Effect: Why Do Congresswomen Outperform Congressmen?” American Journal of Political Science 55 (3): 478-493.

    If voters are biased against female candidates, only the most talented, hardest working female candidates will succeed in the electoral process. Furthermore, if women perceive there to be sex discrimination in the electoral process, or if they underestimate their qualifications for office, then only the most qualified, politically ambitious females will emerge as candidates. We argue that when either or both forms of sex-based selection are present, the women who are elected to office will perform better, on average, than their male counterparts. We test this central implication of our theory by studying the relative success of men and women in delivering federal spending to their districts and in sponsoring legislation. Analyzing changes within districts over time, we find that congresswomen secure roughly 9% more spending from federal discretionary programs than congressmen. Women also sponsor and cosponsor significantly more bills than their male colleagues.

  • Election Timing and the Electoral Influence of Interest Groups

    Anzia, Sarah F. 2011. “Election Timing and the Electoral Influence of Interest Groups.” Journal of Politics 73 (2): 412-427.

    It is an established fact that off-cycle elections attract lower voter turnout than on-cycle elections. I argue that the decrease in turnout that accompanies off-cycle election timing creates a strategic opportunity for organized interest groups. Members of interest groups with a large stake in an election outcome turn out at high rates regardless of election timing, and their efforts to mobilize and persuade voters have a greater impact when turnout is low. Consequently, policy made by officials elected in off-cycle elections should be more favorable to the dominant interest group in a polity than policy made by officials elected in on-cycle elections. I test this theory using data on school district elections in the United States, in which teacher unions are the dominant interest group. I find that districts with off-cycle elections pay experienced teachers over 3% more than districts that hold on-cycle elections.

    Replication Data (367KB)

  • Focusing on Fundamentals: A Reply to Koski and Horng

    Anzia, Sarah F., and Terry M. Moe.  2014.  “Focusing on Fundamentals:  A Reply to Koski and Horng.” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 36 (1): 120-123.

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Women in Politics, Public Pensions and Voter Turnout with Sarah Anzia

Women in Politics, Public Pensions and Voter Turnout with Sarah Anzia

Sarah Anzia, Henry E. Brady

Date: May 8, 2017 Duration: 27 minutes

Surreal Politics: How Anxiety About Race, Gender and Inequality is Shaping the Presidential Campaign

Surreal Politics: How Anxiety About Race, Gender and Inequality is Shaping the Presidential Campaign

Sarah Anzia, Henry E. Brady, Jack Glaser, Jonathan Stein, Maria Echaveste (Moderator)

Date: October 5, 2016 Duration: 56 minutes




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