Nathan Jack: Let’s end elections

Nathan Jack, an attorney in Salt Lake City, is a sortition advocate blogging at democracyplus.substack.com. He has recently written the following article in The Salt Lake Tribune.

Time to replace elections with Democracy+

Picking our leaders at random would be better than hard-fought elections.

Congress is broken. With few legislative accomplishments, we shouldn’t be surprised at its abysmal 16% approval rating. But with midterms approaching, all five Utah incumbents up for election won their primary. And all five are projected to keep their seats.

In states and districts across the country, incumbents easily win reelection. Despite our dissatisfaction with Congress, nothing changes.

This problem lacks an easy solution. Many look to term limits. Sen. Mike Lee himself has long advocated for senators to serve two six-year terms (although he seems unwilling to apply that rule to himself). Others look to campaign finance reform, as fundraising is one of the biggest advantages that incumbents gain. But these measures only treat the symptoms. We need to rid our government of the disease.

The disease? Elections.

What have elections given us? Career politicians who are captured by special interest groups and political parties. Legislators who spend most of their time campaigning instead of legislating. Representatives that look nothing like the population they are supposed to represent.

In Utah, 50% of the population is male. But all six of our legislators are. Roughly 50% of the population is Republican. But all six of our legislators are. Roughly 60% of the population belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But all six of our legislators do. And 30% of the population has a bachelor’s degree. But all six of our legislators do. Our state Legislature isn’t much different.

For a legislative legitimacy, representatives should resemble the population they serve. Every Utahn deserves to have their voice heard. Elections prevent that. Even those in the majority should be appalled at this representative gap. Group decisions improve as people with different perspectives contribute. Elections give us groupthink.

Fortunately, elections aren’t the only method for selecting legislators. Instead of electing them, we should randomly select them. In fact, in ancient Athens — the birthplace of democracy — most offices were filled by lottery, not election. Aristotle posited, “The appointment of magistrates by lot is thought to be democratic, and the election of them oligarchic.”

Oligarchy, indeed.

We already have a lottery system in place for one branch of government: the jury. Most are generally satisfied with relying on juries in the judicial branch. Why not apply that to the legislative branch as well?

Democracy+ (as I like to call it) is a jury system for Congress. Each of us is a potential candidate that can be drawn by lottery into office. If selected, you would enact legislation alongside fellow citizens — debating policy, hearing evidence from experts and voting on bills.

By randomly selecting citizen-legislators, Congress would better reflect the makeup of the population. More Utahns — beyond white, male, Republican members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — would have a say, because people like them have a seat at the table.

Elections enable power-hungry politicians to kowtow to lobbyists for personal gain. Democracy+ empowers ordinary citizens to deliberate on behalf of those who share their beliefs.

And by bringing ordinary citizens together, Democracy+ cures yet another ailment: divisiveness. The political climate today is toxic. The gladiatorial contest elections promote bleeds into our community. Some 90% of Utahns believe that political debates have gotten less civil over the last six years. It reached a point where in 2020, Spencer Cox and Chris Petersen ran a joint ad — despite being political opponents — calling for Utahns to bring civility back to politics.

Contrast this environment with deliberative bodies of citizens. A private group in Iceland, for example, organized a National Forum of 1,200 randomly selected citizens and 300 stakeholders to discuss values and priorities. It worked so well that the next year, the Parliament sanctioned another forum to consider constitutional reforms. A testament to the forum’s collaboration and compromise, 95% of participants believed it was a success.

We can continue the charge for civility by replacing divisive elections with a system that breeds collaboration. As one of the most innovative states in the country, what better place to implement Democracy+ than Utah. Let’s end elections. Let’s randomly select our state legislators to provide a model on how to fix Congress, before it’s too late.

11 Responses

  1. Good to see sortition advocacy out there. I have to say though that ‘Democracy+’ is just a terrible name. What’s wrong with ‘jury democracy’? As sortition advocates, we have to get less wonkish with our branding, for want of a better word.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I suppose Democracy+ is rather catchy. My objection to this term is not that it is unappealing but that it is misleading and seems to me undermine Jack’s message.

    Advocating for Democracy+ implies that we are now living in “Democracy” which we need/want to upgrade to “Democracy+”. Jack, however, quite explicitly makes the point that our current system is an oligarchy. Why then use the honorific Democracy (or even Democracy-) for this system? Isn’t it better to simply say we want to overthrow an oligarchy in favor of a democracy?

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  3. The name we call it by should be as self-explanatory as possible to people who have never heard of it before. Hence ‘jury democracy’. It’s easy to go from there to slogans like ‘only jury democracy is real democracy’, which communicates what you want to communicate. If we just call sortitional democracy ‘democracy’, we’ll confuse people who think ‘democracy’ means what we already have.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. ‘Dimitri Courant (june 29 2020 ):there is a huge difference between “power to propose” and “power to decide”. As I say in the article, the question for determining the nature of a regime, no matter the scale, is: “in the end who decides? Who holds the sovereign power?”
    If it’s one person it’s a monarchy, if it’s a small group it’s an oligarchy (with its different types: plutocracy, phallocracy, geontocracy, klerocracy..); if it’s the people it’s a democracy.
    An assembly drawn by lot imposing its views on the people without the latter having the last word is a klerocracy, thus a particular type of oligarchy.

    Translated from French with http://www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)

    The word “Democracy” is already hijacked by the politicians for their “electoral aristocracy”. A “Jury” gives the impression of a very small number of citizens that is used in judicial context and is not at all “representative” (need not to be) but only”impartial” (what it must be).
    For a legislative descision I would ask for a “Citizens Assembly’ (Level 1) https://www.academia.edu/42201754/Code_of_Good_Practice_for_allotted_mini_publics_involved_with_legislation

    Level 1 – Citizens decision.

    In this ‘ Brexit’ period (sept 2019) an example could be that, if the citizens in the UK had the power to decide themselves if they wish to do so, a petition about Brexit could be launched to demand a ‘decisive referendum’ or a ‘Level 1 Citizens Assembly’.

    This means an assembly appointed by lot without any manipulation from “specialists”.

    In addition to the selection system used, and the quality of implementation, there are the aspects of “statistical representativeness (margin of error and confidence level)”, “descriptive representativeness (with objective criteria: age, gender, region of residence)” and the choice of the strata and their “proportionality”. All the elements together legitimise the claim for “image of society” (mini-public).
    That is also why we divided the “sortition” initiatives in 4 Levels (Code of Good Practices) .

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  5. Terminology is a perennial problem, and I don’t have a solution.

    While the author’s criticism of elections is good (though cursory and incomplete). The proposed solution is inadequate. The all-purpose legislative chamber (whose members draft, advocate, evaluate and adopt policies) was developed as a purely aristocratic (anti-democratic) counter-weight to the monarchy in England, and as a “natural aristocracy” (though non-monarchical) system in the United States and France. To have a fully democratic law-making system, we can’t just paste the lottery system onto the aristocratic all-function legislative chamber design. We need to have a purpose-built democratic law making system. My paper discussing why simply selecting legislators in an all-purpose chamber is a mistake is here:
    https://www.academia.edu/37578530/Why_Hybrid_Bicameralism_is_Not_Right_for_Sortition

    It also a mistake to refer to the members of a lottery body as “leaders,” as the author does in the title. Nobody wants to pick a “leader” by lottery. They are better described as a “representative” body.

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  6. Author here. Thanks all for your feedback! I’m not wedded to the name, but I think the biggest problem we as sortition advocates have is branding. Most people I’ve spoken to like the idea, but have all told me to stop using the word “sortition” because it doesn’t mean anything to anybody. For this to catch on, we need a term people can relate to in a positive way.

    True, we don’t love in a democracy. But many people think we do. I think if we couch this in terms of the next evolution of government (hence why I opted for Democracy+), we would get more people on board.

    Right now, sortition is a really cool idea that will never gain traction. We need to somehow translate this concept in a way people will understand so they will be willing to give it a try, in city councils, in state legislatures, etc.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. The trouble with ‘Democracy+’ is that it sounds like a dubious, proprietary branded supplement someone’s trying to sell. ‘Jury democracy’, on the other hand, is prosaically self-explanatory enough to avoid that (although as Paul points out it also has its problems). It sounds more like a potential feature of the political landscape than an app that’s about to go bust. I absolutely agree that ‘sortition’ is worse than either, though. In any case, whatever we call it, getting articles like these in places like the Salt Lake Tribune is a vital step on the road to achieving it.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I had settled on “jury democracy” more than a decade ago (or jury-based democracy, etc.). Adam Cronkright years later did some polling in the U.S. and found that the term has negative connotations among many African Americans who feel abused by the legal system here. Adam settled on “democratic lotteries” (with the preceding adjectival form of “democracy” overcoming the negative gambling connotations of the word lottery). The court jury system in the U.S. is also so distorted and discriminatory through “peremptory challenges” (exclusion of a potential juror by a lawyer without needing to give a cause), that the jury system in the U.S. has only a vestige of random selection left. Still, it might be the best of defective options for describing a lottery-based democracy. I am particularly negative about the term “lottocracy” that Alex Guerrero coined and even Hélène Landemore has picked up lately. It implies picking policy outcomes randomly.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. > True, we don’t live in a democracy. But many people think we do.

    IMO the idea that we do not live in a democracy is now pretty widespread, and it is ripe for exploitation. Pandering to outmoded conventions is counter-effective because it perpetuates a confused terminology and creates a mixed message.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. The problem with “democratic lottery” is that it’s a mouthful. We need 7 syllables to utter it again and again. Lottocracy is slightly better at 4. Sortition is even better at 3. When writing an article for example, it gets cumbersome to repeat “democratic lottery” again and again.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. “Sortition” has the additional virtue that it is not a marketing term. Electoralism is all about marketing/PR/sloganeering. Democracy should be about substance.

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