Consent of the Governed

A recent conversation with a friend about sortition illuminated for me a stumbling block in making the case for lotteries–at least for advocates in the United States. This friend was adamantly opposed to lotteries. We argued back and forth for some time. In exasperation, I finally asked her what was so special about elections. She said, “Because elections are the mechanisms by which we the people express our wishes.” It was problematic for her that random selection allowed her no say in who would be chosen to be on a given panel.

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote of certain unalienable rights (life, liberty, etc.), arguing “… that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men [sic], deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed …”

By this Jefferson meant that the people give permission to their representatives to rule over them. The disconnect for most of us is that our representatives often give preference to their donors over voters, making a mockery of consent. But to argue that elections provide only the illusion of consent does not answer the concern that a randomly selected policy making body would give people no say in who’s making the rules.

One answer to the concern would be a referendum wherein voters approve the creation of a randomly selected policy-making body. The Michigan redistricting commission—a thirteen-member body selected by lot—was established by a 2018 referendum amending the state’s constitution. The commission has the power to re-draw district lines, and it was created by popular consent—60% of Michigan voters approved the amendment: they removed power from an elected group (the state legislature) and entrusted it to a group selected by lot.
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Non-Partisan Sortition Activism: Real Or Imagined?

I’ve recently been urging legislators in my home state of California to write a bill to implement the CIR (Citizens’ Initiative Review) process to make our ballot proposition system more democratic. We have two parties in our state, and generally, one (the majority) has been more receptive to such a bill than the other. This reflects the national situation where one major political party seems at least overtly supportive of democratic reform, whereas the other, not so much. This state of affairs contrasts with polls that show the idea of democratic lotteries to be popular with both conservatives and progressives. Of course we need to be building a cross-ideological grassroots coalition to give democratic lotteries a place in government. But what about the existing political parties holding power? Currently they make the laws. Do we try to work with them or do we ignore them?

Suppose I continue to have no luck with minority party legislators and we get a CIR bill in my state, and suppose it’s entirely supported by the majority party and not the minority party. This is not a hypothetical. There is a real possibility that such a bill could pass the legislature and become law. But is it worth it? Or will a CIR law supported by only one party, even if the majority party, paint the sortition movement as partisan? Is a one-party supported CIR worse than no CIR? Should we not be working with the legislature at all, but rather using the initiative process in our attempts to make change?

Police Oversight In The United States: Implications For Sortition Advocates/Activists

Recent scrutiny of police misconduct in the United States has provoked renewed interest in civilian oversight. Hundreds of police review boards exist. The vast majority have advisory, not disciplinary power. The boards are appointed, and their composition varies, often consisting of community advocates. Sortition activists in Los Angeles (Random Access Democracy) have had preliminary discussions with city council members in two California cities (Petaluma and Culver City) about the possibility of reforming their oversight boards to include members selected by lot. A previous post in this blog asked for references to any sortition based police oversight board. To date, none has materialized.

Is sortition the answer to better police oversight? Probably not, at least not directly. If review boards were randomly selected, their actions and recommendations would likely be more independent. But police in the United States are immunized from oversight by a complex system of laws, police union lawsuits, and court decisions grounded in the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a document promoted by the Fraternal Order of Police that proposes limits to investigative and disciplinary power over police abuses, and is woven into law in sixteen states. Meaningful oversight is more than a matter of picking better panels; it needs to involve legislative change.

It’s beyond the scope of this article to provide more detailed information about police oversight, but the following references, while by no means exhaustive, may be helpful to those interested: Campaign Zero is a website dedicated to ending police violence in the U.S. Arrested Oversight provides an in-depth analysis of how civilian oversight should function and how it fails. Why police so rarely get charged, Newark’s Citizen Disciplinary Board, and A proposal to give civilians more say reveal perspectives from opposite sides of the country.

Democratic lotteries might yet have a role to play in oversight. A citizens’ assembly, for example, could be designed to study the problems of oversight, then deliberate, and propose recommendations for improvement. These might include recommendations concerning police unions, which often sabotage oversight in ways hidden to the public. If the idea proves useful, it’s likely that many such assemblies would be needed to address conditions that vary from city to city and state to state.

Sortition advocates looking to demonstrate the usefulness of lottery based panels as direct solutions to community problems might want to consider areas such as housing, redistricting, urban development, etc., before tackling police oversight.

Police Oversight Commissions by Chosen by Lot?

Two city councils in California (Culver City, Petaluma) have people on them interested in reforming their police oversight commissions to include members selected by lot. Talks are exploratory at this point, but our group of California democratic lottery activists (Random Access Democracy, or RAD) is advocating with City Council members. We could be more effective if I could hear from anyone in the Equality by Lot readership who has any experience or information that would help us make the case. Right now I do not know of any examples of police oversight commissions chosen by lot. Are there any? Can anyone direct me to any references about them? At this point I know of two apposite resources:

  1. Community Control of Police: A Proposition
  2. Shaunsky Colvich of Democracy Without Elections recently mentioned that Lincoln Steffens, in his book, The Shame of the Cities (1904), described how “a grand jury effectively fought police corruption in Minneapolis. Back then grand juries (selected by lot) had far more power and weren’t as limited in scope or discovery as modern grand juries are, which are usually just rubber stamps for prosecutors . . . never calling their own witnesses or being allowed to do their own research anymore.”