Chumbley: Abolish student government elections now

Robert Chumbley writes in the Tulane Hullabaloo:

Elections are detrimental to the establishment of diversity of thought in any given student government. Cognitive diversity is more important to the success of political leadership than relying solely on demographic diversity, which can potentially foster differences in thinking but does not guarantee it.

When individuals with varying opinions interact, these relationships are more conducive to innovation and the development of problem solving abilities. Given that cognitive diversity and the ensuing boon to collective problem solving should be a higher priority than the maintenance of elections for traditional-ideological purposes, Tulane ought to replace USG elections with sortition, the random selection of individuals for offices.

The reason for that logical jump may not be intuitively obvious, but the fact is that random allotment of political offices promotes cognitive diversity and improves problem solving ability.

Random selection does not produce a mob of unqualified commoners. In truth, those who object to sortition on the basis of “lack of qualification” are effectively dividing the population into commoners and elites, the former of whom deserve to be managed and the latter of whom deserve to manage by virtue of their special “qualifications,” whatever those are alleged to be.

The qualification objection is a clever obfuscation of a more fundamental claim of elitism. Sortition, on the other hand, is congenial to those outside of elite power structures, as it formally allocates to them a probability of participation in the highest political offices. It is this formal, built-in probabilism that gives sortition its unique strengths as a political selection system.

The superiority of sortition over election extends beyond just the broadening of cognitive diversity. Sortition is also inherently fairer than election. The institution of election is biased toward individuals with large social networks. On that same note, if Tulane sets the pool of selectable individuals as the entire student body, then every student has a truly equal chance at serving in the USG.

There are specifics that must be ironed out, such as what the pool of selectable individuals should be for each office. In particular, the president could be randomly selected from only a very limited pool of individuals predetermined through some sort of nomination process. It may be an undue burden on the student body to assign everyone a chance at being selected president. Even given these areas for negotiation and tinkering, it remains that sortition in any form would increase the fairness and deliberative competence of the USG.

Tulane’s USG relies, as it stands, on passé notions of qualification and the moral rectitude of elections in and of themselves. Elections are instrumentally good in some respects. However, sortition is significantly better than elections in the production of fairness and diversity. The integration of sortition into the electoral process will ensure the continued relevance and success of the Tulane USG in years to come.

2 Responses

  1. Although sortition/lottery is an excellent idea, it is not suitable for choosing a single official such as a student union president.

    The best and most democratic way to choose such a single stand-alone official is for a sortion-chosen panel or jury to choose them after becoming informed about all of the candidates, with each candidate being given a fair and equal opportunity to present the case for their candidacy to the jury. This would put students lacking bigger social networks, campaign money, and the backing of organized interests on campus on a level playing field. It would also mean that stand-alone officials such as student union president would be chosen by an informed and representative portion of the students, not by an uninformed and unrepresentative portion of them (as happens in elections in which all students can vote, although only a small minority do).

    The unsuitability of sortition for choosing single officials has always been understood. That is why it was not used for choosing stand-alone officials in Classical Athens, but only for choosing juries/boards/panels/assemblies of citizens. This is also why the trial jury numbers 12 jurors (for criminal trials) and not one. In Scotland trial juries have numbered 15 jurors for centuries.

    Sortition is an excellent way to choose a student assembly/jury/minipublic that would be a microcosm of the student body, and as such a good stand-in for that body. Such a student assembly would respect the political equality of the students, and would respect their right to rule their own affairs rather than that power being given to elected leaders.

    If some stand-alone student officials are necessary, then the best option is a sortition-chosen student assembly/minipublic, in combination with stand-alone officials chosen by jury (by a sortition-chosen body) is the best option. It respects basic principles of democracy and good governance, including political equality, rule by the people (or in this case the students), and the exercise of that rule in an informed way. The sortition-chosen assembly would be a higher authority than the jury-chosen president (because it embodies the political equality of students, and is a representative microcosm or cross-section the student body).

    Liked by 2 people

  2. […] the United States, 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 […]


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