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Democratic Accountability and Retrospective Voting: A Laboratory Experiment


  • Thanks to David Barker, Jonathan Bendor, Rui de Figueiredo, Jon Hurwitz, John Patty, and Ken Shotts for helpful comments and discussions. A previous version received Honorable Mention from the APSA's Experimental Research Section for the Best Experimental Paper presented at the 2010 annual meeting. Previous versions were also presented at the 2010 Southern Political Science Association conference, the 2010 Midwest Political Science Association conference, and the 2010 EITM Summer Institute at UC Berkeley. Financial support is gratefully acknowledged from the University of Pittsburgh’s Central Research Development Fund Small Grant Program and from the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences Summer Faculty Research Fund. Replication data may be found at

  • The term “pandering” is more narrow than “responsiveness.” The former means to follow public opinion when it goes against a politician’s expert judgment about what is in the public’s best interest. The latter simply means to follow the electorate’s wishes.

Jonathan Woon is Assistant Professor of Political Science, 4600 Wesley W. Posvar Hall, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15260 (


Understanding the incentives of politicians requires understanding the nature of voting behavior. 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 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. In contrast to rational choice predictions, the experimental results indicate a strong behavioral tendency to use a retrospective voting rule. Additional experiments support the interpretation that retrospective voting is a simple heuristic that voters use to cope with a cognitively difficult inference and decision problem and, in addition, suggest that voters have a preference for accountability. The results pose a challenge for theories of electoral selection and voter learning and suggest new interpretations of empirical studies of economic and retrospective voting.