Fila Sophia

applied philosophy, deep democracy, sustainability / by A.R.Teleb

Could a Future Election be a Lottery?

What if politics were not a horse race?

Hearing the junkies rattle on, the pundits and talking heads babble, I am struck by the game discourse. Every district, every seat is a “race” or “contest” between “runners” or “contestants,” that can “pull ahead” and, if strong enough or lucky enough, “take it all.”

Experts and spokespersons rave about their “players,” brag about their “team’s” “performance” and its ability to “beat ’em back.” The winner will take it all, because under plurality voting everything else does not matter.

We will soon see the first finisher nominate a new cabinet and appoint ambassadors, chiefs, tzars, secretaries,… In effect, the winner gets to indeed take it all, like the spoils of a battle. It’s rather simple, we are told, it should work that way, because, “Government, after all, is a very simple thing,” said Warren G Harding.

What if governing were not about “spoils” divvied up after a “battle”? What if it were about expressing the experiences, values, and desires of a society, then deliberating over its problems? What would social scientists and mathematicians advise government on how to better reflect, represent, its citizens–even those who did not win the beauty contest– citizens in the flesh with warts, unemployment, debt, poverty, but also perspectives, values, and skills?

The sociologist and the mathematician–even the economist–might answer, “Consider sortition.”

It is a simple word, obscure for no good reason–or because it could drive a lot of people out of business.

Sortition (or allotment or selection by lot) is the use of “lots” to pick decision makers from the general public. A “citizen jury,” “citizens assembly,” “policy jury,” or “citizens commission” would be examples recently tried in countries as different as Canada, Iceland, the Czech Republic, and experimentally in California. However, it comes from a long history.

Athenians used lots to choose Councilors–who set the agenda and drew up bills and measures for the Assembly at large–and jurors, as we still do today. Venetians and Florentines used variations of lot to fill government offices. Most recently, in British Columbia, a random sample of the citizenry drafted constitutional amendments to be considered by referendum, in Oregon, since 2010, Citizens’ Initiative Reviews are conducted by randomly-selected, demographically representative citizen juries, and in Iceland, a group of 25 randomly selected citizens drafted a constitution that was approved by a 2/3 majority of voters.


Kleroterion used by Athenians to choose councilors and jurors

Allotted bodies can serve legislative functions: proposal drafting, deliberation, ratification, or judicial functions (the traditional jury). And these uses can be justified on various philosophical and practical grounds.

Advocates of political lotteries cite two types of motivations, one prophylactic (preventative), one pro-active. First, lot eliminates distortions in the selection process caused by “running” for office, or the conduct of elections in itself. When candidates campaign they must cater to different interests for donations, support, and votes. This catering makes them reflect or amplify inequalities of the larger society. Moreover, it takes a special kind of person–a “politician”–usually tall, good looking, connected, to do this well. Eliminating elections could minimize these distortions together with the influence of special interests.

Moreover, advocates of sortition would add, randomized selection of decision makers would create a government more statistically representative of the population as a whole. This could mean many things, but it seems to include at least the following. A representative body should exhibit the relevant characteristics of a population that (presumably) affect views on the social, economic, legal, and political issues of the day. Moreover this public in miniature (minipublic) would also bring in a spectrum of points of view and approaches to problem solving.

For example, in the US about half the representative body would be female, 65% non-college graduates, and numbers from ethnic groups and economic classes would be proportional to their numbers in the population. Equally importantly, representativeness means that the IDEAS re-presented would reflect the views and values of the population as a whole rather than a select group.

There are disadvantages of sortition just as there are to any system, and below Is a list of some pros and cons often mentioned by advocates and critics. Here, I mention its most obvious drawbacks.

Firstly, the use of a randomly selected legislators, would mean that the assembly as a whole would be less experienced than under a voting system with career politicians. Secondly, an assembly of non-experts could be susceptible to manipulation at the hands of the other, long-serving, organs of government. Kleroterians, as some advocates of sortition call themselves, would reply that these disadvantages could be mitigated by the mechanics of selection itself.

With respect to experience or continuity, a lottery could be made to give the “citizen legislators” staggered terms, so that only some are up for selection at a time or that the length of their terms in office vary. That proposal seems to help, although there would still be fewer experienced legislators than in a voting-based system. Advocates of lot also point out that under the current legislative system, actual drafting of law is done by paid permanent staff and not by elected officials.

The undue influence objection appears more problematic. How would a “citizens assembly” stand up to an elected president, or powerful bureaucrats or technocrats?

I have not seen a flawless answer; but the most convincing seems to be that the benefits of eliminating the old kinds of distortions (money, special interests, worry about reelection) would outweigh the sorts of biases introduced by using non-career legislators. Furthermore, government design could balance the technical matters conducted by bureaucrats with the factual/social matters decided by citizen representatives–much like issues of law and fact are divided between judge and jury in common law countries today.

Sortition has been ignored in the media and academia for too long. The fact that you have never heard the term before speaks for itself. As an anecdote from the academic world, I remember speaking with an Ivy League political science professor, head of a research center, and author of books on democratic theory. He asked me, “What interests you most in political science?” When I said, “Sortition,” he retorted, “What’s that?”

Lately, with the growing dissatisfaction with Congress in the U.S. and many parliaments abroad, and especially low turnouts in recent elections, more references to sortition are appearing in the press, and researchers are beginning to take it more seriously. It’s about time.

minimizing the influence of money
mitigating the influence of special interests
rotation of power
creativity: cognitive diversity of the body
deeper participation
representation of minorities otherwise eliminated by plurality elections
save resources otherwise spent on elections
save time otherwise used up by party and general elections
balance of government/separation of powers

lack of continuity in assembly
lack of experience
new forms of influence
lack of meritocratic selection

[This was mostly written around the 2012 US elections.]

17 comments on “Could a Future Election be a Lottery?

  1. You should set your categories and tags. Setting can help improve the visibility of your blogger page.

    Nice writing!

  2. Campbell Wallace

    A good article.

    Addressing your list of “cons”
    Lack of continuity in assembly and lack of experience.
    In most proposals a small number of representatives would be chosen at frequent intervals. For instance, 10% might change every six months. Surely this gives more continuity than the abrupt change that occurs when a government that has served for a long period is thrown out by a disgusted electorate, and replaced by a majority that has no experience of power, and perhaps little of opposition.
    One can also argue that the “experience” that politicians in an elected government acquire is more to do with the art of getting re-elected, by fair means and foul, than with producing equitable and efficient governance.

    New forms of influence.
    You don’t specify what these might be. A representative who is chosen by lot for a fixed term has no hope of re-election, and hence nothing to lose if he or she offends vested interests. If representatives vote by secret ballot they are free to vote in accordance with their conscience. Furthermore, they owe no favours to party or powerful backers or to anyone else. How would they stand up to an elected President? The best answer would be to either not have a president, or to have one whose functions were purely ceremonial, with no power whatsoever. How would they stand up to a bureaucracy? What reason would they have to either fear or favour the bureaucrats?

    Lack of meritocratic selection.
    Can you really believe that politicians are chosen now on their merits? Out of 300 million people, are there no better choices than Obama, Romney, McCain, Bush pere and fils, or the motley crowd in Congress? A few months ago around 80% of Americans were dissatisfied with Congress. Can you even believe that candidates are chosen by the people? I would bet that if the American people had had the opportunity, most would have selected “neither of the above” in the recent election. The candidates are imposed on the people by the party machine and by powerful interests. The people are left to choose the “least worst”.

  3. Yoram Gat

    Regarding the advantages that professionals would have over the randomly selected: however large these may be, they would be much smaller than the advantages that the professionals currently have over the electorate.

    In general, I think that it is more useful to think about an allotted body as a more powerful version of the electorate than as a more representative version of an elected body.

    • ahmedrteleb


      Two interesting points that I will chew on some more, especially the second one, before I digest the rest of the lottocratic feast. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Campbell Wallace

    >”Are you a regular contributor to Equality By Lot?”
    Sporadic and strident, I’m afraid.
    I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed the “game discourse” before, but you’re right. Presumably it’s to keep the punters interested (more game discourse) and promote readership/viewing statistics, but does it influence their voting?

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  12. Alexandra C.

    I had never heard of sortition prior to this article, so I found this to be an interesting read. I think it would be worthwhile to weigh whether the potential happiness of the people at being more accurately and directly represented would outweigh the experience of a professional. It would be interesting to take a poll and see which the average citizen would prefer.

  13. Ahmed R Teleb

    A new French documentary talks about this possibility:

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