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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The call to abolish elected chambers all together began to spread like wildfire

Modern Ghana publishes a short futuristic piece by Brett Hennig (falsely mis-attributing it to other writers).

The End Of Politicians: Time For Real Democracy

It all started in the small countries of north-western Europe. The movement began way back in 2011-12 when one of them went without a government for almost 2 years. But it wasn’t until 2020 that the first regional parliament there instituted a second chamber of randomly selected citizens to review legislation. That made other governments around the world takes note. Then, after the global crisis of 2023-25 people hit the streets, leaders paid attention, and randomly selected, representative “citizens’ chambers” began to flourish. Canada replaced its Senate with a citizens’ chamber and, finally – after years of campaigning – the House of Lords in the UK was also replaced with a representative, randomly selected “House of the People”. It wasn’t long after that – when people began to realise that these assemblies work well and make good, fair, trusted decisions – that the call to abolish elected chambers all together began to spread like wildfire.

Then it happened. After the political crisis in north America in 2039 a couple of US states responded to the crisis by completely replacing their elected legislature with a citizens’ chamber. First it was Oregon, and then the big one: California. Now, in 2050, some countries have followed suit. Among the early adopters were Belgium and The Netherlands in Europe. Who would be next was hard to predict: The depth and breadth of the political movement depended crucially on the local conditions and historical context of each country. Yet the movement continues to grow: Slowly, politicians are becoming a thing of the past. They are now commonly seen as a bizarre historical artefact of that brief period in the 1900s, between the time when parliaments elected by universal suffrage became the norm across half the planet, and the 21st-century spread of the new sortition democracy based on universal, representative random selection.
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Urgency and hypocrisy

Content warning: This post contains messages that may be traumatizing to some audiences. Reader discretion is advised.

The attitude expressed, explicitly or implicitly, in much of the political discussion in the West, and in particular in academic discussion, is that the existing political system is essentially, at its core and in its principles, benign. While some room for improvement surely exists, we must not act rashly. The great danger that must be guarded against when considering any changes to our political system is that we might very well end up with fewer of the great benefits that the current system bestows upon us. “Us” in this usage is supposed to cover essentially all of society, rather than just the author and their select audience.

This attitude is deplorable. The situation of the world is dire. It is sometimes said that we are living in the best of times humanity has known thus far. This may or may not be true, but in any case it is irrelevant. Even if previous times were worse, the situation is appalling. The world is full of misery that can be relatively easily alleviated simply by having public policy which is aimed at such a goal, rather than public policy that is aimed at very different goals.

Outraged rhetoric about atrocities, real, exaggerated, or fabricated, of official enemies is prevalent in the West and so is hand-wringing about the misfortune, real, exaggerated or imagined, of inhabitants of non-Western countries. Yet, even ignoring misery inflicted by Western countries worldwide, misery is rampant in the West itself, misery that can be drastically reduced by appropriate political action.
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Rangoni and Vandamme: Is deliberative democracy a hopeless ideal?

“Is deliberative democracy a hopeless ideal?” is the title of a recent books review by Sacha Rangoni and Piere-Étienne Vandamme on the Social Europe website. The review deals with three books discussing “deliberative democracy”:

  • Le tournant délibératif de la démocratie, Loïc Blondiaux and Bernard Manin (eds), Sciences Po, 2021,
  • Deliberative Democracy, Ian O’Flynn, Polity Press, 2021,
  • Deliberative Mini-Publics, Nicole Curato et al, Bristol University Press, 2021.

The books, to the extent the review reflects their contents, seem to largely cover well-trodden group. We again meet the standard “for” and “against” arguments regarding “deliberation” and allotted bodies. Those presented in the article are:

  • “[W]e should all exchange arguments before we reach the best collective decision, and that ideal lies at the heart of the deliberative conception of democracy.”
  • “[This is], some critics have argued, a hopeless ideal, founded on a naïve and unappealing understanding of politics, in which people do not have strong political convictions and would prefer consensual decisions over conflict.”
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Thomas and Pollack: Rethinking Guilt, Juries, and Jeopardy

A distinction is sometimes made between democracy as a system in which citizens are politically equal and a system in which the “right” decisions are made. In “Rethinking Guilt, Juries, and Jeopardy”, a paper published in the Michigan Law Review in 1992, George Thomas and Barry Pollack argue, in the context of juries, that the two concepts may be theoretically indistinguishable. It is interesting to weigh the strength of their argument and see to what extent it is applicable to citizen judgement in the case of policy making. Thomas and Pollack also go further and use this argument to reason about jury size, an argument which may be interesting and relevant in public policy making as well.

It may be obvious, but it is worth noting anyway, that the arguments made are also relevant to very wide epistemological questions about what is truth, what are facts, the analytical/synthetic distinction, the fact/value distinction, internalism vs. externalism, etc. It turns out that a theory of democracy may require a workable epistemological theory, or at least a part of such a theory.

The purpose of a mechanism for deciding guilt is to impose punishment only on those who deserve it. This goal raises two questions. First, who decides? Second, how can an observer evaluate whether the decisionmaker was right or wrong?

Although citizen juries played a role in the English criminal process at least as far back as 1201 A.D., their role initially was limited to screening cases, much like the present-day grand jury. Thus, a jury would decide whether to hold the accused for the guilt-determining phase, which might be battle or ordeal. Battle on an accusation of felony ended in death for the accused if he lost – the offender would perish either in the battle or from immediate hanging. Ordeal consisted principally of trial by fire and water, which required the accused (and sometimes the accuser) to walk through fire, carry red-hot iron, plunge his hand or arm into boiling water, or be thrown into a pool of water.

The premise underlying both battle and ordeal as guilt-determining mechanisms was that “God would always interpose miraculously to vindicate the guiltless.”

With the dawning of the Renaissance, however, Western culture gradually ceased seeing the hand of God or Satan in every physical event, and the role of citizen juries was extended from screening defendants for trial to determining guilt. As long as God was making the decision, believers did not accept the possibility of error. Once the ultimate decision rested in the hands of citizens, however, error became possible. The difficult, and usually unappreciated, question is how error can occur.
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Elections are all about competition right? (They weren’t way back when)

Cross posted from Club Troppo.

As part of my recent fascination with competitive and ‘de-competitive’ merit selection, I’ve been looking at the origins of both parliamentary and presidential elections. Intriguingly though we now associate elections with competition between candidates, in both the British parliamentary system and the American presidency, elections were not competitive. Indeed, contemporaries regarded the idea of competition for such an office with alarm for its tendency to encourage ‘faction’.

But isn’t an ‘election’ competitive by definition? Isn’t that the meaning of the word? Well no! That’s what the word implies today, but its root in Latin simply means “to pick” or “to choose”. The word ‘elect’ retains this sense in Christian theology when speaking of ‘the elect’ — those chosen, not in competition with each other but by God. One can circle back from this reference to observe that the electorate is the sovereign body when it comes to its being represented, and in this sense an ‘election’ is the choosing by the sovereign body — if you’re dealing with God, I’m reliably informed that He’s sovereign and so he elects the elect. And if you’re dealing with the electorate, it chooses who is the elect.

Sixteenth century English parliamentary election.

In early modern England, political choice was subsumed within a wide system of social relations. Complex notions of honor, standing, and deference, shared but not always articulated, helped to regulate and absorb conflict between and within loosely defined status groups. The selection of members of Parliament, an intermittent event for county property holders and members of designated boroughs, was but one part of a continuing process of social distinction. Despite the uniqueness of Parliament in the political history of the nation, in the ongoing life of the communities that chose its members, parliamentary selection existed in a broader context. For peers of the realm, a summons to the House of Lords was a prescriptive right, another attribute of their nobility. For members of the small group of dominant gentry families within the county communities, it was both a responsibility of service and a privilege conferred on them by kin and neighbors. For rich merchants of large boroughs, it followed as part of the cursus honorum of civic office; while for gentlemen and lawyers, who obtained the majority of borough seats parceled out to patrons, it was an occasion to follow their own busi- nesses, advance their careers, or simply partake of the delights of the capital.

Selections differed according to social structure, population, and wealth. In counties the keynotes of parliamentary selection were honor and deference. Men were chosen members of Parliament or given the right to nominate members on the basis of criteria largely social in nature. This was especially true of the senior knight of the shire, which by the early seventeenth century had become a mark of social distinction that outweighed all other factors. Counties whose internal social elites were dominated by one or two families — like Herefordshire or Surrey — honored these men and their heirs regularly. Counties like Kent or Somerset, which had more variegated elites, developed patterns of rotation.

The principle of parliamentary selection — and, judging from the available evidence, the reality as well — was unified choice. “By and with the whole advice, assent and consent,” was how the town of Northampton put it when enrtheolling the selection of Christopher Sherland and Richard Spencer in 1626. Communities avoided division over parliamentary selections for all the obvious reasons – cost, trouble, fear of riot, challenge to magisterial authority — and for one other: The refusal to assent to the choice of an M.P. was an explicit statement of dishonor. Freely given by the will of the shire or the borough, a place in Parliament was a worthy distinction. Wrested away from competitors in a divisive contest, it diminished the worth of both victor and vanquished.

Source: Kishlansky Mark A, 1986. Parliamentary Selection Social and Political Choice in Early Modern England, Cambridge University Press.

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Buge and Vandamme: The CCC as a case study on the legitimacy of sortition

A new paper by Eric Buge and Pierre-Étienne Vandamme, published in the Journal of Representative Democracy [Full text, PDF], has the following title and abstract:

Conflicts of Legitimacies in Representative Institutions: The Case of the French Citizen Convention for Climate

Conceived as an alternative form of democratic representation, the random selection of citizens for a political task comes in tension with the logic of electoral representation. The idea, carried by random selection, that anyone can be a good enough representative challenges the assumption that we need to choose the most competent among ourselves. And the fact that citizens’ assemblies are sometimes tasked to draft legislation may undermine the authority of elected representatives. This article tests this hypothesis of tension between competing forms of representation on a recent case: the French Citizen Convention for Climate (CCC) in 2020. Drawing on parliamentary hearings and questions as well as public political reactions to the CCC, we find indications that elected representatives may feel threatened in their legitimacy even when most randomly selected citizens do not see themselves as representatives. This may be due to the fact that the CCC was seen by some as stepping on the prerogatives of the Parliament. This suggests that future experiments of the sort could benefit from a clearer functional division between the two forms of representation.

This repeats a commonly asserted notion that sortition rests on different positive assumptions about political competence from those upon which support for elections does. Supposedly, while sortition advocates assert equal political competence among all citizens, advocates of elections assert that the elite is politically more competent than the rest of the population. In fact, analysis shows that the claim that this is the crucial difference between the positions is rather questionable. Continue reading

Luebwick: How democratic is democratic innovation?

Patrick Luebwick, Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Antwerp and Visiting Professor at the University of Ghent, critiques sortition in general and more specifically what may be called “the citizen assembly process”, i.e., the way allotted bodies are being employed nowadays within the existing power structure. Some excerpts are below. [The text seems to be an automatic translation of an original text in French(?) and contains some dubious phrases, which I tried to correct.]

Betting on direct civil democracy is not an innocent game

Belgium jumps on the bandwagon of democratic renewal. The elected representatives of the people increasingly seem to desire direct assistance through the insights and advice of ordinary citizens. There is a project under way in the German-speaking community where commissions drawn up by lot can provide input to Parliament. The federal government has just completed an online citizen survey inviting us to share ideas about the future of Belgium. The Vivaldi government itself also has a bill ready to allow bodies in which citizens selected by lot can engage in dialogue with each other, politicians, experts and civil society to formulate policy recommendations for state reform.

Various arguments are used to support these types of initiatives. Politicians present it as a good sign to increase political participation and citizen participation. Civic democracy as a means of bridging the gap with citizens and promoting democracy. Proponents often assume that citizen paintings drawn by lottery can speed up and improve political decision-making.

[However, the use of sortition relies on the idea that i]f we inform citizens adequately and allow them to reasonably discuss with each other, we can track down the will of the people. This assumption is problematic. First, the outcomes of the allotted body may reflect what citizens see after deliberation about a particular political topic. But the rest of the population may not be convinced. The use of citizens’ committees thus runs counter to the idea that democracy is a form of self-government. After all, the well-thought-out judgments made by allotted citizens do not match what the what the population thinks or wants. Democracy as autonomy is not served by a participatory shortcut that is taken over the heads of the majority of citizens. Rather, the strength of deliberative democracy lies in the attempt to involve the whole of society in political opinion and decision-making, particularly through open debate in the public sphere and through diverse civil society and civil society.
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Marcel Monin: What about sortition?

Marcel Monin is a doctor of law. He writes the following in the French website AgoraVox.

What about sortition?

The substance and the goals of decisions made – which elude the people, and the conduct of the elites with regards to the people, especially over the last 5 years, lead sometime to doubt that we are still living in a democracy. Who wants government of the people, by the people, for the people, when those same elites are those standing for election?

The considerations made 2,500 years ago regarding the respective merits of sortition and elections and regarding their practice are again in vogue. Some advocate replacing elections with sortition.

Sortition, it appears, has advantages.

From a technical point of view:

  • It eliminates professionalism and thus the the submission of the elected to the internal rules of attaining and maintaining office (with its implications on the elected-electors relationship).
  • It eliminates the dependence before the elections in groups of financial backers who finance the electoral campaigns and which manipulate the voters through the media they own. (See the ideal-type example of this phenomenon with the candidate Macron.)
  • It overcomes the obstable of campaign cost which keeps the poor away from being candidates, somewhat similar to how things were when only the rich had the vote. The presidential elections show this effect in accentuated to an absurd degree.
  • Statistically, humble people would have less of a chance of being under-represented.

However, still from a technical point of view there are disadvantages. Among them are:
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Ned Crosby (1936-2022)

Saddened to learn of the death of Ned Crosby, founder of the Jefferson Center and creator of Citizens’ Juries. Crosby was one of the first to envision selection by lot playing an important role in modern democratic politics. I only saw him speak once, and I’m sorry never to have met him.

Further details can be found here: https://www.cndp.us/announcement-on-the-death-of-our-founder-ned-crosby/.

The Minnesota Star Tribune has a full obituary.

RIP, Ned.