D.G. Martin: Replacing elections with lotteries

D.G. Martin, the host UNC-TV’s “North Carolina Bookwatch,” writes:

There has to be a better way.

Some of us reached that conclusion after discussing the mess our congressional and legislative governing systems have come to.


How could we find a system that frees our elective representatives from the servitude of full-time fundraising, from the draining of energy and spirit that go with permanent campaigns, and from the tribal commitments to political caucuses and parties? How could we free them from these things so they could spend full time working on legislation to make our state and nation better?

Somebody asked, what about a lottery? Why not just select our representatives by lottery?

That suggestion sounded like a joke. At first.

What could be more antithetical to democracy than putting aside citizen participation and simply choosing representatives by lot?

But, after I thought about it a minute, some advantages were apparent. No need to raise money. No permanent campaigns. No automatic partisan divides on every question. And, with modern computer techniques, a legislature that could be composed of people that would closely reflect the population, geographically, ethnically, gender, age, and otherwise.

Of course, somebody said, you would have a whole bunch of people who would have no idea what they were doing. Then, somebody else said, Neither do most newly elected legislators!

Still, making important selections by chance is just not the way we do things in America, is it?

One person quietly mentioned that we get our jury pools by random selection. The jury system is not perfect. But Americans have a pretty strong commitment to it. It works without the problems of partisan bickering and gamesmanship, fundraising, or time-consuming political campaigns.

All this may be true, but selecting representatives by lottery would be an unprecedented violation of the democratic tradition that began in ancient Greece.

Or would it?

Actually, the selection of many major officers in Athens was by allotment or a random process. According to the “New World Encyclopedia,” “Election was seen as less democratic and open to corruption because it would favor the rich (who could buy votes) and the eloquent, whereas a lottery gave everyone an equal chance to participate and experience, in Aristotle’s words, ‘ruling and being ruled in turn.’”

4 Responses

  1. The author (correctly) justifies his proposal by reference to the Anglo-American jury system and the Athenian practice of rule and be ruled in turn. The latter is impossible in large states and the former would suggest a limited judgment role for sortition, so I’m puzzled as to why his proposal would justify the replacement of elections by sortition.


  2. Nothing is impossible in my book. I am glad someone has started to throw the idea out to the public. I remember when passive solar energy was “impossible” but through alternative publications and finally the mainstream publications, it has become a household word. So I recommend encouraging articles to be published in every publication that will publish an article on sortition. The best idea in the world goes nowhere if it isn’t marketed.


  3. Democracy started by Election by lot by the Greeks, just split the word BALLOT into two, and you have BAL. LOT, that is how the Greeks voted, the wrote there name on the Ball and put it into a tub, and the one chosen was elected to the house. The second paragraph of the Constitution, state only that the state Represtatives be CHOSEN, by the state, it doesn’t say. HOW!

    Think About it. It is time the People run the country, instead of the Rich and Super Rich!


  4. Jdlaughhead,

    Not historically accurate on the detail…The Athenians used wooden or metal tabs with their name and tribe inscribed and inserted in a kleroterion machine with balls of two colors fed randomly in a side column to designate which row of citizen tabs were on a jury. No balls with names in tubs.


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