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Randomly choosing people to serve in gov't - sortition - might be the best way to select politicians

Disclaimer: I am not the author of this content. The original post can be found here, thank you to u/subheight640 for granting me permission to share this novel concept and thoroughly written content. - Patrick Wynne


Written by u/subheight640 June 7th, 2021 on r/Political_Revolution


I'm a huge advocate of something known as sortition, where people are randomly selected to serve in a legislature. Unfortunately the typical gut reaction against sortition is bewilderment and skepticism. How could we possibly trust ignorant, stupid, normal people to become our leaders?


Democracy by Lottery

Imagine a Congress that actually looks like America. It's filled with nurses, farmers, engineers, waitresses, teachers, accountants, pastors, soldiers, stay-at-home-parents, and retirees. They are conservatives, liberals, and moderates from all parts of the country and all walks of life.

In the most commonly discussed implementation of sortition, lottery would be used to construct a legislature. Random sampling would be used to draw around 100 to 1000 people to form a house of Congress. Service would be voluntary, for a fixed term, and be well paid. From there, the selected people would have the responsibilities and powers of any elected legislature. These sorts of legislatures would have substantial advantages against elected ones:

  • Because of random sampling, a sortition Citizens' Assembly would have superior diversity in every conceivable dimension compared to any elected system, including race, class, sex, religion, ideology, cognitive ability, profession, and anything else you can think of. Sortition is therefore the ultimate method of creating a proportionally representative Congress.

  • Without the threat of elections demanding ideological purity, a sortition assembly is better able to compromise with their fellow citizens and reach consensus.

  • Without the need for elections, legislators no longer need to waste time campaigning but can rather focus their time on their actual job.

  • Legal bribery in the form of campaign donations is eliminated.

  • The nature of lottery creates a more egalitarian Congress ruled by regular people rather than the elites of society.

  • The nature of lottery possibly crushes the formation of political parties - parties that often form due to strategic campaigning needs to win elections.

Real World Evidence

Sortition is not a shower-thought. Sortition is thousands of years old and is the topic of active investigation by political scientists. Hundreds of sortition-based Citizens' Assemblies across the world have already been conducted. The decisions they have come to have been of high quality in my opinion. For example:

  • In Ireland, Citizen Assemblies were instrumental in the legalization of both gay marriage and abortion in a traditionally Catholic country. These assemblies were used to resolve politically volatile subjects so that fearful politicians would not have to.

  • Recent 2019-2020 Citizen Assemblies in Ireland and France reached consensus on sweeping, broad reforms to fight climate change. In Ireland taxes on carbon and meat were broadly approved. In France the People decided to criminalize "ecocide", raise carbon taxes, and introduce regulations in transportation and agriculture. Liberal or conservative, left or right, near unanimous decisions were made on many of these proposals.

  • The BC Columbia Citizens Assembly was tasked with designing a new electoral system to replace the old first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. The organizers brought in university experts. The organizers also allowed citizens, lobbyists, and interest groups to speak and lobby. Assembly members listened to all the sides, and they decided that the lobbyists were mostly bullshit, and they decided that even though the university experts had biases, they were more trustworthy. This assembly ultimately, nearly unanimously decided that Canada ought to switch to a Single-Transferable-Vote style election system. They were also nearly unanimous in that they believed FPTP voting needed to be changed. This assembly demonstrates the ability of normal people to learn and make decisions on complex topics.

The usage of sortition has also been documented in many societies:

  • The greatest known example of sortition is its use in ancient Athens, where lottery was used to select magistrates, legislative councils, and the People's Court.

  • Sortition was also used in combination with elections for the selection of leadership in Renaissance-era Italian City States such as a Venice and Florence.

  • Examples of sortition have also been documented to be used in Indian tribes. In these tribes, sortition results in an egalitarian government where power is shared. When elections were introduced into these societies however, the author observed the rise in power hierarchies and even "toxic masculinity".

In these societies, you will find echoes of the claims I made above. Political parties in these societies are weak. Concentrations of power are reduced.

Comparing to Elections

All electoral methods are a system of choosing a "natural aristocracy" of societal elites. This has been claimed by philosophers such as Aristotle since ancient Greek elections 2400 years ago. Elections are biased in favor of those with wealth, affluence, and power.

Moreover all voters, including you and me, are rationally ignorant. We don't have the time nor resources to adequately monitor and manage our politicians. On average we vote ignorantly, oftentimes solely due to party affiliation, or the name or gender of the candidate, rather than actual qualification. We assume somebody else is doing the monitoring, and hopefully we'd read about it in the news. And yes, it is somebody else. Marketers, advertisers, lobbyists, and specialists pay huge sums of money to influence your opinion and construct your news reality. Every elections is a hope that we can refine our ignorance into competence. IN CONTRAST, in sortition, normal citizens are given the time, resources, and education to become informed using the process of deliberative democracy. Normal citizens are given the opportunity to deliberate with one another and come to compromise. IN CONTRAST, politicians constantly refuse to compromise for fear of upsetting ignorant voters - voters who did not have the time nor opportunity to research the issues in depth. Our modern, shallow, ignorant management of politicians has led to an era of unprecedented polarization, deadlock, and government ineptitude.

Implementations

There are many forms which sortition could take. I list some from least to most extreme:

  • The least extreme is the use of Citizen Assemblies or Deliberative Polling in an advisory capacity for legislatures or referendums. Examples of these have been implemented in Ireland, the UK, France. They have also been implemented in Oregon in the form of "Citizens Initiative Review" (CIR). Here, a random body of Oregonians are tasked with reviewing ballot propositions and giving referendum voters information about the propositions.

  • A hybrid, two-house Congress has been proposed where one house is chosen by lottery while the other remains elected. This system attempts to balance the pro's and con's of both sortition and election, and use both as checks and balances against each other.

  • Rather than have citizens directly govern, random citizens can be used exclusively as intermediaries to elect and fire politicians as a sort of electoral college. The benefit here is that citizens are given the time and resources to deploy a traditional hiring & managing procedure to make political appointments. This system removes the typical criticism that you can't trust normal people to govern and write laws.

  • Most radically, multi-body sortition constructs checks and balances by creating several sortition bodies - one decides on what issues to tackle, one makes proposals, one decides on proposals, one selects the bureaucracy, etc, and completely eliminates elected office.

TLDR: Selecting random people to become legislators might seem ridiculous to some people, but I think it's the best possible system of representation and democracy we can imagine.


References

  1. Reybrouck, David Van. Against Elections. Seven Stories Press, April 2018.

  2. Hansen, Mogens Herman. The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes (J.A. Crook trans.). University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

  3. Dahl, Robert A. On Democracy, 2nd Ed. Yale University Press, 1998.

  4. The End of Politicians - Brett Hennig

  5. Open Democracy - Helene Landemore

  6. TG Bouricious - Democracy through multi-body sortition: Athenian lessons for the modern day

  7. Gastil, Wright - Legislature by lot: envisioning Sortition within a bicameral system

  8. Y Sintomer - From deliberative to radical democracy? Sortition and politics in the twenty-first century

  9. A Shal - What if we selected our leaders by lottery? Democracy by sortition, liberal elections and communist revolutionaries

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