Mark Fredrickson: Citizen responses under election and sortition

Mark Fredrickson writes:

I am a follower of the Kleroterian blog, and I am excited to announce
that I have something to contribute. As a possible lead up to a field experiment for my dissertation (Department of Political Science, University of Illinois), I undertook a survey experiment in which subjects either read a story about an elected committee or a randomly selected committee (along with several other manipulations). I recently completed my first draft and have published a working paper: Returning to the Cradle of Democracy.

The data and computations for the analysis are also available online: election-sortition-corruption-survey-experiment.

I hope your readers find it useful, and I look forward to their feedback.

The paper’s abstract:

The hallmark of modern democracies is the competitive election. This
institution is seen as the primary connection between leaders and the population. This has not always been the case. Sortition, the random selection of leaders from the population, served as the primary institution of democracy in ancient Athens. How would citizens in a modern democracy react to the use of sortition to select leaders? This study employs a survey experiment in which subjects read about a local development grant, overseen by either an elected or randomly selected committee. I fi nd that sortition encourages more citizens to seek leadership positions, though other forms of participation remain unchanged. I also find that despite a stated preference for election, subjects see the two committees as equally capable and responsible, even when confronted with corrupt acts and closed door meetings.

5 Responses

  1. Very interesting, especially the difference between respondents’ overwhelming preference for election and the fact that the selection method had no visible effect on attitudes, implying that the former largely reflects lack of familiarity with sortition. I wonder only if the choice of experimental topic (a one-off project by a non-profit organization) provides a fair comparison. If public money were involved this might tip the balance further towards election; also the project design does not reflect the accountability factor from permanent public bodies (elected officials who are corrupt or incompetent are less likely to be re-elected). I’m just a little concerned that you will be accused of creating a less-than-even playing field.


  2. Sutherland’s points are all very good.

    I should note that one of my goals with this survey experiment was to prototype an intervention by a non-profit organization, rather than a standing legislative body. These interventions often involve a local counsel (usually elected) to oversee the NGO’s money. The councils are nominally one-short affairs, though they are often populated with the same individuals if non-profits run multiple programs in the same region.

    Mapping experimental results to expectations about the real world is frequently a subject for debate. At a minimum, I think this study paints a picture that should inform our broad expectations about introducing sortition: sortition will probably lead to broader competition for office, but other forms of participation may stay the same.

    The points about money are interesting, and I would be interested to vary the source of the funds in future versions of the experiment.


  3. On the other side of Keith’s comments about the experiment’s possible perceived leanings…It should be noted that the experiment offered a pristine election scenario, presumably without the “corrupting” influences of partisanship, no expensive campaigns with attack ads, no significant status and power associated with victory, no clearly class-biased set of winners, and no re-election pandering dynamics (being a one-off situation).

    Also the corruption scenarios are defined as single bad apple situations, rather than a general corruption of advisory board members…thus making elections with their familiar role and targeted ability to remove a single bad apple, the perfect solution. If the corruption scenario had been generalized throughout the advisory board, the solution might have been different.


  4. Did your materials mention the parallel between the committee selection process and that of a jury? If not, such a mention might very well add to the perceived legitimacy of the procedure and preempt the “the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard of” type of responses.

    I agree with the comments above that there is probably a significant difference in the public’s mind between using sortition for low powered bodies (such as juries or a committee whose agendas are well circumscribed and whose terms are short) and using it for high powered bodies. I also think that a-priori such differences in perception are justified: the differences between those circumstances are such that what may work well for one may not work for another.

    A survey studying explicitly the reaction to the idea of using sortition to select one of the chambers of the U.S. Congress would be very interesting.


  5. @Terry: Good points all around. I was interested in seeing if corruption scandals spilled over. Perhaps a better way to test that would be manipulate the size of the scandal and see if there are differences in outcomes.

    @Yoram: I’ve uploaded a set of screen shots of the survey experiment:

    The exact language was (removing a typo I just noticed): “To make a decision and oversee the implementation of the grant, the Fredrickson Foundation will be randomly selecting 11 community members to serve on an oversight committee. Committee members will be randomly selected from all registered voters and driver’s license holders, as with jury selection.”

    That is the only mention of the mechanism and its similarity to juries in the United States.


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