Choosing the Framers: Lotteries in Constituent Assemblies

Alexandra Cirone (Cornell)
Brenda Can Coppenolle (Leiden)

Abstract: A constitution is the foundation of any democracy, and its text shapes the path of democratic development. But who chooses the framers of such a document? To resolve this issue, elites in both France (1789) and Denmark (1848) adopted a lottery-based procedure to choose the members of their respective constituent assemblies. They divided their chambers into groups by lottery, and then these groups chose the constitution drafters. Such procedures were put in place out of a distrust for potentially subversive political factions or influential elites, and with the idea that partial randomization prevents corruption and ensures the representation of a cross section of politicians. Yet how did this affect the composition and ultimate development of these constituent assemblies? To answer this question, we analyze in detail the effects of partial randomization in France in 1789, and Denmark in 1848. We assembled a micro-level data set of the lottery based procedures, biographies of elite politicians and their parties, and legislative activity from both 18th century France and 19th century Denmark archival records. We first check the randomization, and demonstrate that these partial lotteries were, in fact, truly random. We then demonstrate that this lottery-based procedure prevented the concentration of political blocs into any one committee, particularly the radical and pro-democratic left, and therefore prevented co-optation of the constituent assemblies. It also ensured the framers of the constitution were less likely to be older and aristocratic. Finally, we use an instrument variable approach to show how selection of a wider set of elites affected the ultimate constitution text, and the design of this new democracy.