A proposal of sortition for a student body

In May 2020 Orion Smedley was running for president of the UCLA Undergraduate Student Association. One of the items on his platform was to select USAC councillors using sortition:

Orion Smedley for USAC President

The only way to get a truly representative sample of a population is random sampling (ask a statistician). And presumably we all want a representative government. Enter: Sortition. Sortition is like jury duty, only for legislatures as well. Imagine if your Congress members were ordinary people like you and me instead of career politicians.

Would it work in practice? It worked in Ancient Greece (britannica.com/topic/sortition). But how would it work here?

For starters, we could add a sortition based senate to USAC. While USAC could be the one generating proposals, the sortition senate could be in charge of choosing the proposals. As long as the senate is large enough (by the Central Limit Theorem, at least 30 people) and randomly selected, it would be as though all of UCLA’s undergraduates came together to voice their opinions. It’s the same way that a random spoonful from a well-mixed pot of soup tells us how the entire soup is, no matter how big the pot is; the way USAC is currently selected is closer to not mixing the pot at all and taking spoonfuls from the same spot over and over again, and then being surprised we get the same result every time.

It’s also worth noting that separating the planning from the decision making prevents decision makers from being biased towards their own (pet) project. As part of a more general separation of powers, this could be a very healthy move for our student government. Finally, and most importantly, doing away with elections can counterintuitively make the process more democratic: for example, when Congress members don’t have to spend lots of money to win elections, they don’t have to please corporate lobbyists in order to stay Congress members. Instead they can focus on what ordinary citizens want, which as ordinary citizens they should be familiar with. In that way the process is more about the citizens and less about money, more democratic and less plutocratic. A similar logic applies to our student representatives, who we want to be in touch with ordinary students; and what better way to do that than make them ordinary students?

But why would a random student agree to do this work? For one, they would get paid; we’re already doing something like this by paying our USAC councillors a $10,000 yearly stipend. And two, the time commitment would be a lot lower than being a USAC councillor: they wouldn’t have to campaign in an election or draw up proposals, just be randomly selected and read proposals – it’s like how you or I can know good from bad food when we taste it even if we’re not good cooks. If that’s still too much work for a sortition member, we can accept their decision and randomly choose someone else (though at the cost of non-response bias making the selection not perfectly random).

Would this random selection be ideal? No. But to quote Winston Churchill, “Democracy is the worst form of government except all others that have been tried.” Sortition is a better form of democracy, closer to the ideal of a government “Of the people, by the people, and for the people.” We owe it to ourselves to give it a shot.

Can it actually happen? Yes. It would take a referendum, but if that referendum gets on the ballot next year the choice is yours.

Will it happen? That depends on you. An idea is just an idea; to amount to anything people must act on it. Do you want to act on it? Or do you have second thoughts? Let me know in the comments.

And as for representation in our current system: VOTE May 4 through 8 on myUCLA. For more information on USAC Elections, visit uclaelectionsboard.org #myvoicemyvote #bruinvoices

Commenters expressed various objections to Smedley’s proposal:

Orion, science cannot be applied to everything. USAC is not your lab and the student body shouldn’t be your experimental subjects. You cannot use statistics and experimentation to solve social issues. Understand that by using a purely scientific approach you limit yourself. Social issues are not logical because sometimes people aren’t logical. You can’t use the central limit theorem because central limit theorem never accounted for how to take a representative sample if the population itself wasn’t homogeneous. Science has its limits. It is not flexible, and it doesn’t take in account special circumstances. Although sortition may work in a perfect society where there is an equal amount of representation from all communities, that is far from the fact at UCLA. Your central limit theorem approach would ensure that our student government would be a majority white and asian with almost no black representation. It would ensure that underrepresented communities such as the LGBTQ community stay underrepresented and that dominant communities have all the same. That is not equality Orion and that is by no means democratic. It violates the true purpose of being a leader which is to serve the students and ALL the students, not just some, not just those who may randomly get selected. You can’t serve those students if you don’t hear those students. Please reconsider what you are saying and the proposals you are making. If you want to be president, you need to instill real change and you need to make sure that you don’t just consider things from your own point of view.

Is it really a good idea to randomly select members of the community to be USAC representatives with the sole incentive being paid money? If they are not invested in what they’re voting for, or even WHO they are voting for, can we trust random people to make a better decision? You do mention they have the option of turning down the appointment but I find it hard to believe someone will turn down free money to say yes or no to things they don’t care about or affect them directly.

I think you attempt to answer this by mentioning that at least 30 people is necessary to make this fair and negate any sort of ambivalence that I mentioned above. How will we pay them? That requires more funding for USAC that many people have repeatedly stated could be better spent going to other projects (like transport to LAX perhaps…). Sure, we could cut other councilors’ pay and do both… but then if the only difference to the councilors job is no more voting privilege since that will be the Senate’s job, are we then devaluing their work? Would the decrease amount of pay result in less thoughtful thorough proposals?

I do feel that equating your proposal to Athenian sortition is misleading. Sortition in Ancient Athens worked because it was considered an honor to a society raised about the importance of the “polis” and civic duty. The same can’t be said about the majority population of UCLA who are generally disinterested in USAC (considering the low turn out rates).

Additionally, your own definition (britannica.com/topic/sortition) specifies that “Only those who had presented themselves as candidates were chosen by lot to fill public offices”, meaning people who were randomly selected were also ones who volunteered and thus have a vested interest in it. The proposal put forth is a truly random selection where no one volunteers to be put into the lot.

If anything, the only thing this proposal has in common with Athenian sortition is in name only. It seems the proposal is modeled after jury selection, a civic duty a majority of people only really do because they are legally compelled to do so. Except, the stakes in jury duty are much higher (and thus more “accurate”) than in USAC.

Orion, time and time again, your ideas, proposals, and beliefs leave out our most marginalized. What is your plan for this proposal when a black student is never “randomly chosen” because they make up 3% of the student population? How will students properly advocate for their communities through our student government if they don’t even have the ability to participate in a democracy and make sure the best candidate is chosen to voice their concerns? I understand that this is just an idea you have and you want feedback from students. But I ask you to consider the fact that for our most marginalized students, reading a proposal like this from a current councilmember running for President that clearly disregards any inclusivity and consideration for marginalized communities pushes students further away from USAC and makes them feel unsafe at their own university.

One Response

  1. As long as the senate is large enough (by the Central Limit Theorem, at least 30 people) and randomly selected, it would be as though all of UCLA’s undergraduates came together to voice their opinions.

    What is the mathematical underpinning of this number? It’s several orders of magnitude lower than the sample sizes used by the polling industry.

    Liked by 1 person

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