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Rachael McLellan

Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Politics 

University of Glasgow

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About Me

I am a Lecturer (equivalent to a US assistant professor) in Politics at the University of Glasgow. I got my PhD in Politics from Princeton University in 2020.  I study the strategies of electoral autocrats and opposition parties at the local level. My book project asks how local control - who wins local elections in autocracies - affects how ruling and opposition parties compete for votes. I use administrative data, interviews, focus groups and surveys to understand how opposition control of local institutions changes patterns of distribution and repression and threatens regime durability in decentralized autocracies. I won the American Political Science Association Fieldwork Prize in 2019 for my dissertation work on Tanzania and received an Honorable Mention for the Ralph Bunche Prize for Best Graduate Student Paper from APSA African Politics Conference Group in 2020, also for my dissertation work. My work has been published at Perspectives in Politics and Comparative Politics. In the academic year 2020/21, I was an LSE Fellow in Political Science & Public Policy in the School of Public Policy at the London School of Economics. 

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Ongoing Projects

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Book Project: The Politics of Local Control  

My ongoing book project examines the role of local government in determining opposition and ruling parties' electoral strategies and hence the effect local politics and decentralization has on regime durability in electoral autocracies. In this project, I challenge the prevailing functionalist consensus that authoritarian institutions and decentralization strengthen authoritarian regimes. 

Using rich mixed methods data from Tanzania, I demonstrate that 'local control' – which party wins local elections in a given subnational unit – has large and meaningful effects on how autocrats and their opponents compete for votes and hence on how secure an autocrat's hold on power is. While creating new local capacity allows incumbents to increase their reach at the time of decentralization, opposition parties can win elections for these local offices once created.

When this happens, incumbents face unprecedented constraints in how they can manage political competition.  Opposition parties gain new strategies they can use to win over voters, a rare example of real autonomy for opposition parties under authoritarian rule. Opposition parties can shield their voters from punishment as well as convince voters of their credibility through improved service delivery and  investment in local state capacity. I show that this allows opposition parties to build stable bases of support and emerge as a real threat to the incumbent.

I then explore how autocrats' respond to sustained loss of local control using interviews done during Magufuli's crackdown. I show that in the absence of more fine-grained local strategies, autocrats begin increasing relying more on blunt violent and legalistic strategies to suppress growing local oppositions. By both pathways, opposition local control weakens and destabilizes an autocrat's hold on power. 


Local Control: How Opposition Support Constrains Electoral Autocrats

Scholars conceptualize autocrats as central planners, constrained in how much they can distribute but not where. Autocrats use punishment regimes to sanction disloyalty. In many electoral autocracies, local institutions are the infrastructure of reward and sanction, a legacy of decentralization in the 1980s and 1990s. I show that autocrats face subnational constraints on their ability to enforce punishment regimes. Using administrative and electoral data, interviews and a survey in Tanzania, I demonstrate that local control – who wins elected control of local institutions – determines the autocrats’s ability to punish opposition support. I show incumbent local governments (LGs) punish opposition support while opposition LGs do so less. I find that the extent to which opposition parties can disrupt or even flip the punishment regime depends on the level of de facto decentralization of the local public good in question. As a result, survey respondents in opposition LGs fear community punishment less, making it easier for them to vote on conscience. This suggests even small pockets of opposition support constrain autocrats. This study demonstrates the importance of subnational politics in the study of autocracy and suggests a more democratic legacy of decentralization than prevailing scholarship would suggest.

Working paper published in University of Gothenburg's Institute for Governance and Local Democracy Working Paper Series 


The Politics of Data in Authoritarian Regimes (with Ruth Carlitz)

Data availability has long been a challenge for scholars of authoritarian politics. However, the promotion of open government data has motivated many of the world's more closed regimes to produce and publish fine-grained data on public goods provision, taxation, and more. While this has been a boon to scholars of autocracies, we argue that the politics of data production and dissemination in these countries creates new challenges. These include threats to inference and ethical concerns. Systematically missing or biased data and selective restrictions on data collection may jeopardize research quality and lead scholars to simply parrot the ``party line'' in data form. We provide evidence of these risks from Tanzania, comparing data released to the public with verified internal figures. We also present an overview of methods for identifying manipulation. In so doing, we demonstrate that caution must be exercised when conducting research using such data. We conclude by proposing ways that scholars can minimize these risks.

Published at Perspectives on Politics 


Delivering the Vote: Community Politicians and the Credibility of Punishment Regimes in Electoral Autocracies 

How do authoritarian regimes punish ordinary opposition voters? I argue that elected community politicians help make “punishment regimes,” which discourage opposition support, credible. Strengthened by decentralization reforms, community politicians have information and leverage necessary to identify and punish opposition supporters. When the regime wins community elections, these politicians extend the regime’s reach deep into communities. When opposition parties win, their reach is constrained weakening their electoral control. Using mixed-methods evidence from Tanzania, I show regime-loyal community politicians use their distributive and legal-coercive powers to “deliver the vote” leading voters in these communities to fear individual reprisals for opposition support. In contrast, voters fear individual punishment in opposition-run communities significantly less. This study demonstrates the importance of local institutions and elections when understanding regime durability.

Published at Comparative Politics



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Politics 4147: Authoritarianism

University of Glasgow
Spring 22, Autumn 22

Honours level course on the politics of authoritarian rule with a focus on research skills. Topics covered included mass politics, elite politics, clientelism, repression, information, opposition politics, protests, backsliding and authoritarian legacies

PP408: Introductory Course in Maths and Statistics for MPAs

London School of Economics  
Lecturer/course leader
Pre-sessional MT 2020

Intensive introduction to maths and statistics for policy masters students to prepare them to take courses in economics and statistics. Maths component covers algebra, linear and nonlinear functions, differentiation, unconstrained and constrained optimisation. Statistics component covers causal inference, population vs. sample, random variables, CLT, hypothesis testing  

PP478: Political Science for Public Policy 

London School of Economics  

Seminar teacher for Mathilde Emerieau & Joachim Wehner

MT & LT 2020

Survey of comparative politics and political economy literatures for students in Masters of Policy Administration. Topics covered include democracy and autocracy, uprisings, development, political selection, populism, accountability, authoritarian institutions and women in politics. Seminars ground theoretical literature in policy applications and case studies

POL 230: Introduction to Comparative Politics

Princeton University 

Preceptor for Grigore Pop-Eleches
Spring 2018

Intro level CP course. Course topics include the relationship between capitalism, democracy, and economic development; the implications of institutional choices (such as electoral systems); the politics of ethnic diversity and conflict; and the dynamics of political mobilization.

POL 346: Applied Quantitative Analysis

Second class in the undergraduate Politics and Sociology statistics sequence. The course covers causal inference and the theory and implementation of various models (OLS, logit, fixed effects, RDD, IV) in R.  For this class, I won the George Kateb Award for Best Preceptor for 2017.

Princeton University 

Preceptor for Omar Wasow
Spring 2017

POL 347: Mathematical Models in the Study of Politics

Advanced introduction to formal models for Politics and Political Economy majors. Applications covered include strategic voting, bargaining, lobbying, strategic information transmission, and political agency

Princeton University 

Preceptor for Matias Iaryczower
Fall 2016


School of Social and Political Sciences, 

Adam Smith Building, 42 Bute Gardens, Glasgow G12 8RS

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