Donald McCabe: Choose House by Lot

An item from the Vergne bibliography:

Choose House by Lot

Published by The New York Times: March 15, 1991

To the Editor:

In “Expanded Congress Would Help Women” (letter, Feb. 24), Prof. Wilma Rule suggests a complicated scheme for the selection of members of the House of Representatives so that women and minorities may be fairly represented. As I understand the methods she recommends, however, there is no guarantee of any such effect. In any case, she ignores a simple means of choosing Representatives that would have the desirable results she wants, as well as others.

If members of the House were chosen by lot, instead of being elected (with still only one member for each district), the laws of statistics would assure that every part of our population would be represented very nearly proportionally. In addition, veto power over legislation would belong to a body that was not composed of professional politicians, who would have no interest in being re-elected and would therefore be subject to limited influence.

Such a scheme may at first sound absurd, but history shows that it is not. A much more thoroughgoing version of what I suggest was the constitutional structure of democratic Athens in the 200-year period when it was at the height of its wealth and power.

To simplify somewhat, legislation in Athens had to be approved by a council randomly selected as I suggest and an assembly that all adult male citizens could attend. Many state officials who would be part of the executive branch of our government were also appointed by lot.

According to my suggestion, only one of the two houses of the legislative branch of our Federal Government would be randomly selected; the other house and the executive branch could prevent its most egregious mistakes. But the appointed house could prevent the mistakes that result from a government dominated by professional politicians with their own shared interests.

Now women and racial minorities would be fairly represented because all parts of society would be so represented. Not only would better policies be chosen by such a government, but the presence in it of a truly representative body would also give its decisions much more authority and legitimacy.

DONALD F. McCABE Princeton, N.J. March 4, 1991 The writer is with the School of Historical Studies, Institute for Advanced Study.

One Response

  1. I remember this letter. It was not the first time I’d seen somebody express the idea in the newspaper–the first time I can remember was an editorial in the Centre Daily Times, the daily town newspaper at Pennsylvania State University, where I was an undergraduate. (I have never been able to track down that editorial, which would have appeared between 1989 and 1993–anyone feel like locating it?) But as a grad student I remembered reading about the idea of selecting Congress by lot, and started looking for people who had endorsed the idea. That led me to the McCabe editorial, as well as Callenbach and Phillips’ little book A Citizen Legislature. And the rest, as they say, is history…


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