Democratic Accountability and Retrospective Voting in the Lab

35 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2010 Last revised: 7 Sep 2010

Date Written: August 17, 2010


I conduct a laboratory experiment to investigate whether voters focus on the problem of electoral selection or if they instead focus on electoral sanctioning. If voters are forward-looking but also uncertain about politicians' unobservable characteristics, then it is rational to focus on selection. But doing so undermines democratic accountability because selection renders sanctioning an empty threat. As a consequence, politicians have no incentives to utilize policy-relevant expertise to serve the interests of voters, so any expertise they have is wasted. In contrast to the game theoretic predictions, the experimental results indicate a strong behavioral tendency to use a retrospective voting rule even when the rule is not sequentially rational. Additional experiments suggest two reasons. Retrospective voting is a simple heuristic that voters use to cope with the cognitive complexity presented by a difficult inference and decision problem. Voters also have a preference for accountability and are concerned about sanctioning politicians rather than purely focused on selection. Although voters are not fully rational, their bounded rationality ensures that politicians are democratically accountable.

Keywords: selection, sanctioning, accountability, retrospective voting, bounded rationality, laboratory experiment

Suggested Citation

Woon, Jonathan, Democratic Accountability and Retrospective Voting in the Lab (August 17, 2010). APSA 2010 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Jonathan Woon (Contact Author)

University of Pittsburgh ( email )

4600 Posvar Hall
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
United States


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