Add a pinch of sortition and stir…

I’ve finally had the chance to read Filimon Peonids’ interesting paper “Bringing Direct Democracy in a Representative Assembly: The Case of Allotted MPs.” The paper, as I mentioned before, can be found here–

http://www.demokrati.uio.no/arrangementer/konferanser/2010/Peonidis-AllotedMPs-2009.pdf

The paper’s novel argument is that people should have the chance to cast a vote for “select somebody at random” when they elect their legislatures. After each election is held, a number of legislators should be randomly drawn that is proportionate to the number of citizens voting for this option. (Obviously, this solution requires some form of proportional representation.)

Two things struck me while reading the paper. First, the author has a somewhat unusual understanding of “popular sovereignty.” As far as I could tell, the author is completely unconcerned about the fact that legislatures don’t “look like” the people they serve. The fact that sortition ensures the presence of a diverse cross section of people in a legislature is therefore not a reason for liking it. What bothers the author is the fact that ordinary people have effectively zero chance of getting into the legislature. If popular sovereignty means that everyone who wants to participate in government has a chance of doing so, then indeed sortition can help. Of course, in the United States sortition would only give the average person one chance in several million of being selected for a randomly-selected seat in Congress, which doesn’t sound much better than the chance that a real-life “Joe the Plumber” can get elected to Congress. (It’s rather like the fact that by not buying a lottery ticket, my chance of winning is only slightly smaller than my chance of winning if I buy one.) But this argument is less applicable in a smaller country like Greece, where there will be many fewer potential candidates in the pool.

Second, the author seems to have the all-too-familiar fear of popular participation. If voters were sufficiently disenchanted as to elect a randomly-selected majority, then said majority might run amuck and do nutty or evil or fascist things or something. Peonidis seems convinced that this is more likely to happen with a randomly-selected legislature than with an elected one. I for one am skeptical that this is anything but a prejudice. Governments get elected with “mandates” all the time, and they manage to do astonishingly stupid things that betray the constituencies that elected them. (See also: Obama, Barack.) Would a randomly-selected majority do worse? Maybe, but it’s far from an obvious point.

In any event, some version of this danger will always be present so long as the randomly-selected legislators hold the balance of power in the legislature. (And if any party has an effective majority without randomly-selected legislators, expect the former to ignore the latter completely.) But if the inexperience or ignorance of randomly-selected legislators is really a concern, there are ways around it. Why not select a new crop of randomly-selected legislators for each major piece of legislation? Say that X% of the people vote to have candidates selected by sortition. Then before the legislature takes up the topic of health care, a number of legislators equal to X% of the legislature gets selected. Give them the kind of resources that Jim Fishkin/Ned Crosby/Peter Dienel give their randomly selected bodies, and then let them join the legislature as voting members, but just for that one bill. Then when the legislature considers the fight against global warming, repeat the process all over again by filling X% of the legislature with an entirely new random draw. Surely this could provide the advantages of random selection while assuaging the fears of Peonidis. And it would increase the chance that any volunteer would get randomly selected at some point, which would surely advance Peonidis’ conception of popular sovereignty.

As you can see, I don’t really agree with the paper’s conclusion. But it’s an awfully good effort at stimulating further thought–even among people who who are already interested in sortition.