Shaw: A transfer of power from the elite to the masses

Ethan Shaw advocates sortition in International Policy Digets:

Voter reform in America aims to increase turnout in elections, however, this focus dismisses the glaring weaknesses of the American democratic process. Congressional approval ratings are abysmally low, and you have probably heard the phrase “Congress is not doing their job” countless times. The problem is not about the accessibility to the ballot box; it is the inconsequentiality of voting that keeps people home on election day. So how does one solve the systemic issues with Congress that promotes voter apathy? By going back to the birthplace of democracy.

A Civic Duty to Legislate

The United States should have mandatory legislative service. Ancient Athenian citizens were randomly selected to serve a 1-year term in a legislative assembly. This process is known as sortition and has been purported by democratic reformists across the globe. In the American political discourse, sortition has never been fully discussed as a viable replacement to the current legislative infrastructure. Many individuals scoff at the idea, worried that random selection will create a legislature full of inept buffoons.

Qualifications: A Classist Misdirection

A major fear of sortition is that unqualified individuals would be selected. Practically all of the current congressional legislators have college degrees and have had careers in politics, business, law, and education (in that order). Despite how it may appear, there are no educational or occupational requirements for legislators. Most legislation is written by staff while the cost is evaluated by the Congressional Budget Office. Legislators are not expected to be experts on every policy area or even one area for that matter. They are given a plethora of tools, information, and labor to help them craft policy.

Shaw concludes:

The implementation of sortition into the U.S Congress in the near future is an unlikely prospect. Regardless, the idea should not lose any credibility. It is a transfer of power from the elite to the masses. Congressional members would not change the system to one that dilutes their status. If Americans do not believe their vote can change the status quo, nothing will change. Sortition will shift the notion that politics is an elite institution to a sentiment of civic servitude.

2 Responses

  1. I like the focus on civic duty — how that is best operationalised is another matter, but randomly selecting a legislature that accurately mirrors the target population presupposes that the vast majority of those selected rise to the challenge. In Athens political participation was not mandatory, but those who didn’t were denigrated as idiotes.


  2. […] sortition got some fairly high profile exposure by Malcolm Gladwell (1, 2). On three different occasions sortition was proposed by undergraduate students as a replacement for the electoral system. It was […]


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