The U.S. Constitutional Convention Considered a Lottery to Select The Electoral College

convention-debatesWith Donald Trump winning a majority in the Electoral College and Hillary Clinton receiving the plurality of the popular vote, the role of the Electoral College is once again in the news.

For those interested in the history of the use and consideration of lotteries in political decisions making, here is an interesting little tid bit. During the debate at the Constitutional Convention about how the President should be selected, there was a lot of discussion of the pros and cons of various schemes for selecting the Chief Executive. Possibilities included allowing a national popular vote, having Congress elect (as in a parliamentary system), having the state legislatures elect, or having one-time electors (an Electoral College), choose the president of the United States.

According to James Madison’s notes, James Wilson, one of the most important and influential delegates to the Constitutional Convention, proposed that the electors for the Electoral College be chosen by lot from among the members of Congress.

Tuesday, July 24, 1787 notes by James Madison

Mr. WILSON then moved, that the Executive be chosen every — years by — Electors, to be taken by lot from the National Legislature, who shall proceed immediately to the choice of the Executive, and not separate until it be made.

Mr. CARROLL seconds the motion.

Mr. GERRY. This is committing too much to chance. If the lot should fall on a set of unworthy men, an unworthy Executive must be saddled on the country. He thought it had been demonstrated that no possible mode of electing by the Legislature could be a good one.

Mr. KING. The lot might fall on a majority from the same State, which would insure the election of a man from that State. We ought to be governed by reason, not by chance. As nobody seemed to be satisfied, he wished the matter to be postponed.

Mr. WILSON did not move this as the best mode. His opinion remained unshaken, that we ought to resort to the people for the election. He seconded the postponement.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS observed, that the chances were almost infinite against a majority of Electors from the same State.

On a question whether the last motion was in order, it was determined in the affirmative, — ayes, 7; noes, 4.

On the question of postponement, it was agreed to, nem. con.

7 Responses

  1. Note the requirement that those chosen by lot would immediately convene to make the selection and not part until they had finished the task. This seems to be an anti-corruption measure to make wheeling and dealing and bribery more difficult. This anti-corruption technique was also employed in Ancient Athens, where the citizens assigned to a court case were selected by lot on the morning of the case, rather than in advance.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s one of the reasons that I prefer ad hoc legislative juries, but of course that’s not going to work if you argue that sortition is the only legitimate mechanism for political representation.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Keith,

    Not so; it can work fine. I also think short-duration one bill mini-publics are optimal for passing final judgment… but sortition can also be applied to separate bodies that draft, debate and refined that final proposed bill.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Terry,

    >Not so; it can work fine.

    As your claim is unproven (it’s just a theoretical model), I think you should rephrase that as “could”. There have been no historical examples of sortition-only systems of political representation, all we have is ideal theory. As far as I’m aware there are only three people in the world who actually believe that such a system would be a) possible and b) desirable and they all post regularly on this forum!

    PS it should be remembered that the author of the original utopian vision of Aleatoria (Barbara Goodwin) is robustly sceptical about sortition as a method of political representation, another Founding Father (John Burnheim) is desperately trying to disassociate himself from anything to do with sortition, and Peter Stone’s** forthcoming paper for the next PSA conference is entitled “Why I Am Not a Sortinista”. So I think you “pure” sortition guys have done a lot of damage!

    ** The founder of this blog.


  5. *** The discussion as mentioned in James Madison’s document is interesting. We can note the somewhat fuzzy ideas of these learned people about statistical representativity, and the argument of Rufus King: “We ought to be governed by reason, not by chance” – a rationalist sensitivity against any lottery which is strong in contemporary France (but is being undermined by the popularization of the idea of representative sample).
    *** The proposed Electoral College would have been a sample of the elected representatives, not a sample of the citizens. Today many in the political class would be uneasy about any political use of lottery, because the ghost of democracy-through-minipublics is walking around.
    *** In France there has been talking about the use of sortition for selecting the “Conseil Supérieur de la Magistrature”. Some conservatives push towards sortition, as they think election (among magistrates) is more sensitive to the leftish “Syndicat de la Magistrature”. But even if the next legislature is conservative, I think they will hesitate to jump. Such a sortition for the representatives of the judiciary elite could strengthen the democratic idea of minipublic.

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  6. *** Keith Sutherland says: “it should be remembered that the author of the original utopian vision of Aleatoria (Barbara Goodwin) is robustly sceptical about sortition as a method of political representation, another Founding Father (John Burnheim) is desperately trying to disassociate himself from anything to do with sortition, and Peter Stone’s forthcoming paper for the next PSA conference is entitled “Why I Am Not a Sortinista”.”
    *** Well, it may be that the ghost of democracy-through-minipublics is walking around … Some of the bright intellectuals playing with the lottery concept may feel some unease with a sovereign dêmos as a real prospect.
    *** Keith Sutherland thinks that” “pure” sortition guys have done a lot of damage”. As for me, I don’t consider myself as a “pure sortition guy”. The two channels of the dêmos sovereignty, in contemporary prospects as in Demosthenes’Athens, are the general vote and the citizen jury. Only, in modern dynamic and complex societies, the weight of deliberation leaves few subjects to general vote. But if about some subject there is possibility of serious deliberation before general vote, I agree with general vote (it is the extreme case, the sample 1/1). Maybe general vote was good for the Brexit issue, an issue debated for so long a time; and if many kinds of prospects were obscure for many voters, they would have been likewise obscure for jurors.
    *** What about a presidential election, supposing a democracy keeps this post? A jury will be probably best to evaluate the candidates, but a general vote could be accepted, because such a choice anyway will not be much enlightened by long deliberations (we know everything about the main US candidates). But the policies and laws must be chosen by minipublics, and if there is something as a president or prime minister, he would be a “general manager” – as were practically some Athenian statesmen in the Second Democracy. Therefore imagining a democratic mutation in the US Republic, a president elected by general vote could be maintained, the legislative and judicial branches being given to minipublics – with a minipublic deciding the rules of the presidential election and circumscribing the power of the president. It is not the best system for me, but it would be a real democracy system. And I am not sure it would be so difficult to have it popularized.
    *** After Montebourg’s proposal, an allotted parliamentary body is no more sci-fi in France. An allotted body with direct legislative power would be a step more, a jump; but I think not so difficult to be popularized. It would be much more difficult to substitute an allotted Electoral College to general vote for the presidency, and it does not seem to me a reasonable aim for kleroterians/sortinistas.


  7. Andre,

    >Some of the bright intellectuals playing with the lottery concept may feel some unease with a sovereign dêmos as a real prospect.

    My concern is whether it is possible to create a sovereign demos through sortition alone, not whether it is desirable. The Greeks were adamant that demokratia (as an ideology) required a combination of isonomia and isegoria. Large modern states require representative mechanisms and whilst we are all in agreement that isonomia can be established by large representative juries, “sortinistas” (Peter’s term for pure sortitionists) are in denial regarding the need for statistically-representative isegoria, claiming that the speech acts of randomly-selected individuals will automatically mirror those of the target population and that a body that looks like America will, of necessity, act like America. Barbara, Peter and myself are committed democrats (John is more of an epistocrat), but we just don’t believe that a sovereign demos can be created by sortition alone — it will require a judicious combination of aleatory and polyarchic institutions. That’s why I argue that the work of pure sortitionists is deeply harmful, as the creation of a sovereign demos will involve a partnership between kleroterians and elected statespersons, and the latter will not be motivated to participate if they are told we are trying to put them all out of a job.


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