The Enfranchisement Lottery – a commentary

I assume that everyone has by now read Claudio López-Guerra’s excellent paper. It was circulated on Conall Boyle’s email list and is available from the author: The paper compares the enfranchisement lottery with universal suffrage and concludes that, although the former is clearly an improvement from an epistemic point of view (ensuring that voters are properly informed), universal suffrage wins on account of being more conducive to political stability. I would like to make the alternative case – the epistemic benefits come out on top because political stability is ensured by factors other than the ‘perceived fairness’ of universal suffrage.

Claudio rejects this hypothesis as he concludes that ‘stability would be at risk if polls revealed that the electoral preferences of the majority of the population differed from those of the majority of the [allotted] voters’ (p.16). However in 2000 more people preferred Gore to Bush and there was no popular uprising when Bush ‘stole’ the election with less votes than his opponent. I don’t think this was on account of the familiarity of voters with the technical niceties of the US constitution, rather a broad resignation in favour of the prevalent institutional arrangements, as ‘economic growth and prosperity make [any] representative systems quite stable’ (p.19). It’s hard to recall a UK election when the winning party received a majority of the votes, yet for the most part people put up with the results with a shrug of resignation. So long as government secures life, (modern) liberty and property, that’s good enough for most of us. The push for universal suffrage was not on account of the belief that each individual has some sort of ‘natural right’ to a vote, merely that certain groups (labourers, women or whatever) were not represented. This could be equally well achieved by an enfranchisement lottery or any other means that ensures accurate descriptive representation.

As for whether or not the enfranchisement lottery would be widely perceived as fair, there is a tendency to believe that people need a sophisticated understanding of probability in order to accept it. If that were the case then a) nobody would waste any money buying tickets for the National Lottery and b) lottery winners who go public with their identity would be liable to attack from those who purchased a ticket and failed to win. Barbara Goodwin (2005) makes the case very clearly that the main advantage of the lottery is that it is universally perceived as the fairest way of distributing scarce resources and onerous responsibilities (such as taking the time to study electoral manifestos). There is no reason to believe that political responsibilities should be any different.

Dowlen (2008) argues that sortition to the Greeks had nothing to do with representation as they had no concept of probability and presumably this is the sort of intuition that underlies the view that an enfranchisement lottery would be perceived to be unfair by anyone other than statisticians. But Manin argues that ‘thinking about the political use of lot may have led the Greeks to an intuition not unlike the notion of mathematically equal chances’ (Manin, 1997, p.39). Whenever a medieval cook stirred the chunks in a cauldron of soup and then sampled it with a ladle she was expressing a confidence that the ingredients sampled in the spoon would be proportionate to the whole cauldron (the variables being the size of the spoon, the size of the chunks and how vigorously the cauldron is stirred). I would much prefer for someone like me to act as a proxy in properly evaluating the policies of electoral candidates than for my own vote to be lost in a vast ocean of people voting for the candidate with the best haircut.

In his last book Fishkin presents some evidence for the ‘perceived legitimacy and transparency for deliberations by a representative microcosm’ (Fishkin, 2009, p.152). Fishkin’s Rome healthcare DP enabled officials to argue that the ‘perceived legitimacy’ of the DP results gave them the ‘cover to do the right thing’ (ibid., p.151) – the implication being that electoral success and legitimacy are anything other than synonymous (due to the widespread perception that elected officials are more often than not just ‘feathering their own nests’). The biggest source of political instability is when a government is perceived to be illegitimate. There is a view that this is a growing problem with UK governance and the Tea Party assumed their moniker in order make a similar point.

The UK has only had universal suffrage since 1928 (1969 for 18-year olds), so it’s much too soon to proclaim it as a long-term solution to the problem of political instability. The fact is that many (most?) people don’t bother to vote, and hardly anyone takes the trouble to properly acquaint themselves with the facts – a clear sign that Downs’s rational ignorance theorem is understood on an intuitive level, as the individual vote is, quite literally, worthless. But if so then why should people not understand the equally intuitive notion of representation by proxy? ‘A representative microcosm offers a picture of what everyone would think under good conditions. In theory if everyone deliberated, the conclusions would not be much different. So the microcosm offers a proxy for the much more ambitious scenario of what would happen if everyone discussed the issues and weighed competing arguments under similarly favourable conditions’ (Fishkin, 2009, p.194, my emphases).

The problem I have with the enfranchisement lottery is that it is not radical enough. Although Claudio claims that ‘well-informed voters would be in a better position to identify potentially deceitful and corrupt rulers’ (p.10), this is in fact quite difficult, as politicians have become skilled at adopting whatever persona is needed to achieve electoral success. Put the clock back to the UK 1997 election and I would envisage exactly the same outcome with an enfranchisement lottery. It’s harder to assess the qualities of a potential ruler than it is to decide on the merits of a parliamentary bill; much better to cut out the middle-man and emulate Athenian democracy more directly.

However the notion of real (Athenian) democracy is probably a bridge too far, so the enfranchisement lottery would be an extremely good way of demonstrating the principle of descriptive representation by proxy and deserves our full support.

9 Responses

  1. I’ve been following this blog since Ben Saunders told me about the Kleroterians. I appreciate the recent postings on my “Enfranchisement lottery” piece. Keith makes many good points in this note. His main contention is that, contrary to what I argue, the enfranchisement lottery is actually superior to universal suffrage. The way he frames his commentary makes it sound that we disagree more than we actually do. So I take this as an opportunity to clarify the nature of my argument.

    I merely advance a prima facie case. The enfranchisement lottery could certainly be preferable in certain circumstances. And those might be the circumstances of the countries Keith uses to argue against my conclusion in favor of universal suffrage: the UK and the US. But these are anomalous cases. Both countries are wealthy, have a relative strong rule of law, and are quite familiar with the workings of representative institutions. The vast majority of “democracies” operating in the world today are not like that.

    I have serious doubts that the enfranchisement lottery could work in a context where there is mistrust of public institutions, a history of corruption, large-scale poverty, and no experience with representative institutions. Now, one might say that in such circumstances universal suffrage also has a slim chance. Perhaps (think, for instance, of the 2007 Kenyan election). But in some of such marginal cases, the difference between peace and violence could be universal suffrage.

    An impartial (enfranchisement) lottery can be more easily misrepresented as rigged than an impartial election under universal suffrage. Votes under universal suffrage can be recounted any number of times to dispel doubts about massive fraud or human error. There is no similar way of dispelling doubts about the fairness of a given lottery. Of course, you could draw lots again and repeat the election. But whatever factors allowed the losers to misrepresent the process as biased the first time would allow them to do so the second time. One would have to look at the mechanics of the lottery system in place, but few would have the training to understand them.

    Keith argues that the stability case for universal suffrage is weaker than I claim because stability can be produced by other factors. I made a similar claim about the epistemic advantages of the lottery. What I call the “nomination lottery” (the same idea of the enfranchisement lottery but at the level of selecting the candidates to be voted under universal suffrage) could produce better candidates and hence better representatives. Thus, to some extent, we could have it both ways. I wonder what Keith thinks about this.


  2. Claudio,

    Do you feel that the weaknesses that you see in the enfranchisement lottery are also points of weakness in a true sortition-based government (i.e., a government where the parliamentarians themselves are allotted rather than the voters)?


  3. Yoram,

    I think there are important differences. In the case of assigning legislative seats by lot among the population, there would be no obvious, immediate, organized loser that could benefit from claiming the lottery was rigged. Presumably parties as we know them would not even exist under that system. Under the enfranchisement lottery, however, the leaders of the losing party in a close, contentious election could find it in their interest to mobilize their supporters under the claim of alleged fraud. In the best scenario (if they do mobilize a significant portion of the population) there would be a return to universal suffrage. In the worst scenario, there would be blood.


  4. I don’t understand the point of selecting electoral candidates at random. Given the nature of preference elections, successful allotted candidates would need to employ exactly the same rhetorical devices and subterfuges as now practiced under universal suffrage, so in what sense would this lead to an improvement?

    I’m no political scientist, but I think it would be hard to defend the track record of universal suffrage in poor countries that lack a long history of the rule of law and representative institutions. The post-colonial ‘democracies’ hardly provide a ringing endorsement and if you add in the patchy history of Spain, Greece, Germany and France that leaves the Anglophone world, plus a handful of small countries. No matter who the French vote for, they all come out on the streets to protest a few weeks later.

    This all serves to reinforce the argument that political stability in democracies is on account of factors other than universal suffrage (primary a long history of the rule of law and representative institutions). Corrupt political elites will subvert both election and sortition; political instability and bloodshed is usually prevented because the ruling faction has an effective police force and a loyal army. Just ask the unfortunate people of Zimbabwe what value they give to universal suffrage. It would be much easier for the integrity of the sortition process to be monitored by external agencies like the UN than it was for them to monitor elections in Afghanistan. A more obvious danger would be that of ‘jury nobbling’ and other forms of bribery; so the allotted voters would have to be placed in purdah for the duration of the election campaign.

    I’m glad that Claudio agrees with Yoram that selecting legislators by lot would not be open to the same objections as the enfranchisement lottery, as this is the model that most of us on this forum prefer. The reason that I support the enfranchisement lottery is that it has a much better chance of being implemented, as politicians would not see it as threatening their jobs. But, in any event, it’s a huge improvement on universal suffrage, for all the reasons that Hegel provided:

    “As for popular suffrage, it may be further remarked that especially in large states it leads inevitably to electoral indifference, since the casting of a single vote is of no significance where there is a multitude of electors. Even if a voting qualification is highly valued and esteemed by those who are entitled to it, they still do not enter the polling booth. Thus the result of an institution of this kind is more likely to be the opposite of what was intended; election actually falls into the power of a few, of a caucus, and so of the particular and contingent interest which is precisely what was to have been neutralized.” (Philosophy of Right, §311)


  5. Is there any advantage, in your opinion, Claudio, to the enfranchisement lottery over sortition?


  6. Keith:

    The nomination lottery does not consist on selecting candidates by lot. It consists on selecting voters by lot to appoint the candidates that would run in the final election under universal suffrage. In under words, the options for the mass electorate to vote on would be first filtered by a process involving the creation, through lot, of a representative mini-public. Thus you could substantially improve the quality of outcomes under universal suffrage by improving the quality of the options to be voted on. If we can have this, why not have universal suffrage in the final stage, given the potential perils of the lottery from the perspective of stability?

    Regarding the potential stability problems of the EL or lack thereof, a few points are worth insisting on. First, the whole exercise is entirely speculative. We have no comparative evidence to rely on, since the EL has never been implemented. So there is no looking at the historical record that is relevant for the comparison. On this grounds, I am far less willing than you seem to be to declare final victory (on instrumental grounds) for one alternative over the other. Second, my defense of US is merely ordinal: on paper, if I had to choose between the two on the grounds of stability I go for US. But perhaps, in general, the EL would be quite stable. Who knows. Third, the reason why I prefer on balance US is precisely the possibility of implementing the lottery at the level of selecting candidates. Fourth, this analysis is based only on instrumental considerations. There might also be some non-instrumental objections to EL, such as that it denies individuals who value the opportunity to participate in politics one important instance for doing so.


    I haven’t given as much thought as you have to the option of a random selection of representatives. You have probably heard this before and have ready counter arguments, but perhaps a pure sortition would arguably come at a significant cost in terms of competency, experience and continuity of successful programs. I agree with Keith (which is a point made by Tocqueville) that evaluating candidates might be more difficult than evaluating policies. But in places where general educational levels are rather low, sortition might not produce better policies than election under EL. But again, I say this only very tentatively.


  7. My apologies to Claudio for misunderstanding the nomination lottery (NM). Harrington specifies the widespread use of the NM for the constitution of Oceana, and (presupposing a commitment to electing legislators) this is as good a method as any. But why go and spoil it with something as U/S (useless) as US (universal suffrage)?

    I’m not convinced that US is so highly valued – especially in mature democracies like the US and UK – otherwise a lot more people would take the trouble to use this hard-won ‘right’. I suspect this is just another myth put out by the Natural Right theorists, along with ‘social contracts’, ‘consent’ and other such ahistorical nonsense. As I argued before, the pressure to extend the franchise – from the landed aristocracy to the bourgeoisie, working men and then finally women and younger people – was for the inclusion of excluded groups (‘classes’ in antifederalist parlance), and this sort of descriptive representation is better secured by sortition than universal suffrage. The only rights worth treasuring are ones that make a difference (life, liberty etc), the individual vote under US has no causal power so it is not a right, only a duty for those who happen to draw the short straw (an English term for allotment).

    As for the Millian argument for the moral benefits of participation in politics, for this to work it is necessary for the participation to be meaningful – at the moment (in the UK) effective participation is limited to the party leader and his immediate associates – everyone else (including MPs and local parties) have been disenfranchised as a result of the inevitable effects of universal suffrage. (Just ask Liberal Democrat MPs, activists and voters, who had their fate decided by a leader who flipped a coin in order to choose which party to go into coalition with). This development was widely predicted during the nineteenth century, it just took a little time to come about. If Bagehot were alive today he would conclude that universal suffrage has now taken its place alongside all the other ghosts as part of the dignified elements of The English Constitution.

    Nevertheless, I would happily endorse NM, EM or any other sortive approach, anything is better than US!


  8. > perhaps a pure sortition would arguably come at a significant cost in terms of competency, experience and continuity of successful programs

    The point to notice is that sortition can function much like the Enfranchisement Lottery if there is popular support for this mechanism: If it so wishes, the allotted chamber could decide that under the circumstances its jobs is best carried out not by making policy decisions directly but by nominating a professional group of decision makers and entrusting the task of legislation to that group. The nomination would be done by majority vote among the allotted legislators. Thus, under this scenario, sortition would function exactly in the same way that EL would.

    Thus, the possibility of transforming sortition to EL is always available to the allotted chamber, and there is every reason to believe that it will be carried out if popular sentiment agrees that legislation should be left to professionals. Of course, if popular sentiment is that the professionals cannot be trusted, then setting up the system in a way that maintains professional control (as EL does) is undemocratic.


  9. > perhaps a pure sortition would arguably come at a significant cost in terms of competency, experience and continuity of successful programs

    The other alternative is a formal separation of the executive, advocate and legislative function. To my mind sortition is appropriate for the latter only; different selection mechanisms are required for the former two — appointment on merit for the executive and election for the advocates. (Notwithstanding Montesquieue, these three roles are always conflated.) Competence, experience and continuity are a requirement for the executive (Socrates was right all along), not the legislature, who’s role is, according to Mill, to judge the merits of legislative proposals put before them (as with a trial jury).


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