Belgiorno-Nettis: There’s a problem with elections

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, the founder and director of the newDemocracy​ Foundation, takes the opportunity of US elections day to propose sortition to the readers of The Sydney Morning Herald. Belgiorno-Nettis recounts Australia’s historical record of electoralist innovation.

Australia led the world in democratic innovations throughout the 19th century, beginning with the secret ballot, the first independent electoral commission, and then compulsory and preferential voting. […] New Zealand is often heralded as pioneering the vote for women, but it was Australia that also enabled women to stand for office – 20 years ahead of the Kiwis. The American political scientist Louise Overacker wrote in 1952: “No modern democracy has shown greater readiness to experiment than Australia.”

He then offers the adoption of sortition as continuing this trend:

[W]e need to go further. In 2017 the former secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, said: “We need to make our democracies more inclusive. This requires bold and innovative reforms to bring the young, the poor and minorities into the political system. An interesting idea would be to reintroduce the ancient Greek practice of selecting parliaments by lot instead of election. In other words, parliamentarians would no longer be nominated by political parties, but chosen at random for a limited term, in the way many jury systems work. This would prevent the formation of self-serving and self-perpetuating political classes disconnected from their electorates.”

The Athenians’ supreme law-making body was the Council, which consisted of 500 male citizens selected by lottery – not by election. The Council regularly proposed agendas for the Assembly at which any male citizen could attend and vote on policy issues, but rarely ever for political candidates. The remarkable aspect – little appreciated today – is that elections as we know them did not feature at all. Policies didn’t entangle with the careers of ambitious politicians, as they do today.

The article ends with a pretty strong blanket condemnation of free and fair elections as reflecting potentially uninformed, easy-to-manipulate public opinion:

And yet, the universal franchise prevails – pretty much universally – carried forward by centuries of struggle under the yoke of monarchs, aristocrats, landed gentry and mill owners. Regrettably, notwithstanding the moral potency of “one-man/one-vote”, there’s a problem with elections – even with the freest and the fairest of them. The wisdom of the crowd may be exalted on election day, but it’s an oxymoron: that wisdom is nothing other than public opinion – educated or otherwise.

People may be turned off by the mendacity of politicians spruiking conceit and insult in equal measure, but they still vote – through gritted teeth. Public opinion rewards the persuasiveness of spin, and the spin reaches its nadir during campaigns. Why then should we be so surprised and appalled to see the US careening towards its next, predictable cleavage at the ballot box? It’s the divisive dynamic of the popular vote.

3 Responses

  1. While radical rejections of elections as a democratic institution are always refreshing, BN’s analysis of the “problem with elections” is potentially dangerous.

    According to this analysis the problem is that elections reflect popular opinion, which is often uninformed and easy to manipulate. There is of course something to that. Elections encourage a-rational public discourse and voting behavior. However, viewing this as the main issue not only misses the real main issue – the principle of distinction, i.e., the fact that elites control the electoralist agenda – but also opens the door to reform ideas that aim to “rationalize” elections.

    In their more benign manifestation these ideas focus on issues such as voter education, civic lessons, government transparency, public-service media, campaign finance reform, etc. All these aim to rationalize the average voter in one way or another. The notion that such reforms can fix elections (that, again, are broken primarily for a reason that has nothing to do with voter rationality) is mistaken and such efforts dissipate scarce political energy. But at least ideologically these are democratic ideas.

    In its less pleasant forms, the elimination of voter a-rationality is about elitism. It generates proposals such as voter disenfranchisement based on the inability to pass some “civics test”, or based on education or on economic status. Or maybe control of the media against “foreign interference”. Often it is simply about removing certain policy area from public discussion and handing decision making in those areas to the “experts”. In fact, sortition is often suspected of being a tool for thinly veiled elitism.

    It is useful to remember that the main problem with elections is the principle of distinction and to advocate for sortition accordingly (which requires advocating that sortition would be applied accordingly).


  2. Yoram,
    Elections have many things about them that make them an inappropriate tool for operating a democracy. Yoram is primarily concerned about one of these — elitism inherent in the principle of distinction. I agree that this is fundamental, but think there are many complementary fatal flaws, and it is good to criticize elections for failings other than elitism.

    There is the psychology of electing decision makers — the ego, narcissism, and dishonesty resulting from self-selection of candidates (who wants to rule over others?). There is also the problem of rational ignorance (it is not rational to waste time learning about issues or candidates if you only have deminimiss influence on the outcome.)

    Imagine a fully egalitarian society which had essentially no “elites.” Even if there was no chance that elections would allow some pre-existing elite to steer the political decisions in their interests, elections would STILL be a terrible method for selecting decision makers because of the psychology problem of self-selected candidates, and the rational ignorance of voters.

    Yoram notes that complaining about voter ignorance opens the door to misdirected reforms (like enhancing voter education)… but rational ignorance refutes that reform strategy as useless. Also, Yoram’s elite domination analysis could lead to misdirected reforms (leveling the playing field for nomination and campaign spending, etc. to diminish elite domination over elections). Elections are a terrible system, and it is useful to point out many of its flaws, rather than settle on only one as being the “main” one.


  3. Terry,

    > Imagine a fully egalitarian society which had essentially no “elites.”

    In an elite-less society (if such a thing is at all imaginable), elections would not be able to function at all. No person would be able to get more than a tiny percentage of the vote since no non-elite person is either widely known or is in control of a powerful political organization.


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