The Case for Abolishing Elections

Just in advance of Election Day here in the USA, Boston Review has published my article on why getting a real democracy requires that we replace elections with lotteries, career politicians with everyday citizens. Grateful to Terry Bouricius, Brett Hennig, and Adam Cronkright for allowing me to interview them for this piece.

In the ancient world, lot meant “destiny.” The Athenians believed that it was the fate of selected citizens to serve. Views on providence have changed, but whether we channel the will of the gods or merely our own earthly dreams, democracy by lottery would empower us to combat oligarchy, give voice to the multitude, and put ordinary citizens in the room where decisions are made. The question is not whether American democracy will die, but whether it will be instituted for the first time.

Kline: An incorruptible democracy of and for the people

Victor Kline, a barrister from Sydney, is apparently a somewhat well-known person in Australia. In 2019 he founded “The New Liberals” party.

Kline has just published an article calling for replacing elections with sortition.

Winston Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government — except for all the others that have been tried.”

For many of us, this “least worst” argument is getting pretty threadbare, particularly as we watch our democracy sliding further from its defining principles every year.

We know this is due to the rise of the professional politician, whose aim is to promote their own advancement to the exclusion of all else. And to achieve that personal advancement, they have to promote the interests of, essentially, a cadre of multinationals plus Rupert Murdoch. And a few other second-division players like big oil, the unions, lesser Murdoch “lookalikes” and a handful of assorted billionaires.
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Borrell on the inefficacy of elections in achieving political goals

Josep Borrell is the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, i.e., he is the EU’s foreign secretary. In a recent speech to the EU ambassadors, Borrell said the following [video]:

Many people in the world, yes, they go and vote and choose their government, but their material conditions are not being improved. And in the end, people want to live a better life.

Borrell followed this admission in the inefficacy of elections in achieving the most fundamental political goals with the following bromide:

We have to explain what are the links between political freedom and a better life. […] Our fight is to try to explain that democracy, freedom, political freedom is not something that can be exchanged by economic prosperity or social cohesion. Both things have to go together.

Borrell, however, fails to explain what those supposed links between elections and prosperity are. In fact, as he admits, in reality those links do not exist. It is Borrell himself who tells his audience that “many people” vote without having their conditions improved and that the Chinese system provides prosperity without elections. Moreover, despite Borrell’s assertions to the contrary, the situation of having elections on the one hand and stagnation or deterioration of the quality of life of the average person on the other hand is the norm in the West as well, and indeed worldwide. Thus Borrell’s unreflective faith in the links between elections and prosperity is due purely to his own blindness and to him belonging to an insular elite whose status is justified by the electoralist ideology.

The Trouble with Elections: with Terry Bouricius

This interview for the first edition of the Democracy Creative TV series is an hour and twenty minutes long. The focus is why elections are a poor tool for running a democracy and why civic lotteries would be better. This isn’t the ideal outreach piece because the introduction highlights my leftist political background. But the bulk of the interview is useful analysis for anybody.

Top elected officials are generally unpopular

It turns out that a polling company called Morning Consult runs frequent opinion polls in 22 countries measuring the approval ratings of the top elected officials in those countries.

The polls reveal that as of the first week of October 2022, among the 22 officials rated only 6 have positive net rating (approval minus disapproval). Another interesting finding is that the two most highly rated officials are non-Western: India’s Modi, who is often portrayed in the West as being a proto-authoritarian, or at least as a nasty populist, and Mexico’s López Obrador.

Sortition in the Netherlands

The very useful Dutch sortition-focused blog Tegen Verkiezingen reports about a new bachelor’s thesis at Leiden university in the Netherlands titled “Lottery as a democratic instrument?”. The thesis was written by Max Van Duijn, who is the leader of a local political party in the Katwijk municipality named DURF. DURF, which is the biggest party in the municipal council, advocates the application of sortition at the municipal level.

Tegen Verkiezingen provides the following translation of an excerpt from the thesis:

In essence ‘representative democracy’ is not democratic. It’s something fundamentally different. It would be more justified to label it ‘elective aristocracy’. In that sense the contrast between classical and representative democracy is a false one. In fact what we’re talking about is a contrast between democracy (sortition) and aristocracy (elections).

Parara: Democracy and the modifiers of modernity

Dr. Polyvia Parara teaches Classics and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Maryland College Park. In a recent article in the English edition of the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, Parara argues that modern Western-system states, conventionally known as “democracies”, are in fact a distortion of the original meaning of democracy, since they do not implement “Isopoliteia” – political equality.

Compared to the original meaning of democracy, it is deduced that modern western societies constitute liberal parliamentary republics protecting individual freedoms and granting rights. They are governed by elected representatives, professional politicians that draw legitimacy by the popular vote. Yet, the citizenry remains limited in the private sphere, not constituting a governing body.

Parara references work of interest by two authors. Continue reading

Independent Candidate Hugh McTavish for Governor of Minnesota puts “Jury Democracy” #1 on his political platform

Hugh McTavish is running as an independent for the governor of Minnesota. McTavish’s primary policy position is

Jury Democracy. Have statistically valid juries of 500+ randomly selected citizens make all important decisions of government after hearing full debate and information from all sides on a single issue or proposal.

McTavish elaborates:

What would be the characteristics of an ideal government?  It would produce decisions in this way:

  • Decisions made by every citizen, not just by a single dictator or president and not just by a small number of representatives or the elites of society.
  • Decisions made with full information and after careful consideration of all evidence and arguments and with respectful, open-minded discussion about the decision among the decision makers; not made based on snap emotion or limited and biased information.
  • Decisions made by consensus where possible and not be 51% imposing their will on 49%.

Obviously, our current system falls short of these goals.  But that is necessary, right?  We do not have time for everyone in society to stop their lives to carefully consider all the evidence on every issue that our government has to decide.

Does it have to be this way? Can we achieve a better government?

Yes, we can. The way is a new idea I developed that I call Jury Democracy.

Jury Democracy is a system of government of having large juries (about 500 to 2,000 persons) of randomly selected citizens, where the juries constitute statistically valid samples of the citizenry or voters, make policy decisions for government after seeing full informed debate on the policy, being given full information for and against the policy, and fully deliberating and discussing the decision with equally informed citizens in the same jury.

McTavish is running as an independent and faces an uphill battle. Incumbent Governor Tim Walz has a commanding 18-point lead over his Republican challenger Scott Jensen 51% to 33%. However, I welcome any campaign that can promote the idea of democracy by lottery.

Booij: Sortition as the Solution

Below is the Introduction to a Master’s thesis by G.J. Booij, submitted in 2021 at the Tilburg School of Humanities and Digital Sciences of Tilburg University, the Netherlands, titled “Sortition as the Solution: How randomly sampled citizen assemblies can complement the Dutch democracy”. Booij was advised by Prof. Michael Vlerick, author of the 2020 paper “Towards Global Cooperation: The Case for a Deliberative Global Citizens’ Assembly”.

During World War II, Winston Churchill famously stated that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”. Not only does this indicate that, at least in Churchill’s eyes, the current governmental form is flawed, but also that, remarkably, Churchill sees democracy as being synonymous to the elective representative democracy that was present during his life. If this kind of democracy would indeed be the best way to govern a nation, it is logical that many countries have stuck with it. However, if it is actually flawed, as he also claims, it may be wise to investigate alternative forms of government.

In this thesis, I will do just this by investigating alternative (democratic) governmental systems, since democracy is in fact not synonymous to the elective representative democracy that is still present in many Western countries. In particular, I will scrutinize the democratic system of sortition (democracy through citizen assemblies drawn by lot) and I will argue that this system should be used as a complement to the system currently in play in the Netherlands. By doing this, I will build on existing literature regarding sortition (Fishkin, 2011; van Reybrouck, 2016) by presenting a comparative perspective of several (democratic) systems, focusing specifically on the Dutch context. This kind of critical evaluation of the governmental status quo and democratic renewal is now more important than ever, since political trust dropped drastically over the past years – 70% of the Dutch population has indicated they do not have faith in politics (Erasmus University Rotterdam, 2021; NOS, 2021a).
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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.
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