Tim Dunlop: It’s time to replace voting with sortition

In 2014 Tim Dunlop has just been introduced to the idea of sortition by David Van Reybrouck. He was “not completely convinced by his [Van Reybrouck’s] argument, but [was] sufficiently incensed by our current parliamentary democracy and its many failures to at least consider what he suggests.”

Four years later, Dunlop has written a book advocating sortition, and has an article in the Guardian that opens with an unambiguous statement:

If we want to fix the way our governments work, the first thing we should do is replace voting with sortition in at least some of our governing bodies.

Like many feel-good reformists, Dunlop puts much emphasis on the potential for fostering deliberation, trust and respect amongst the members of the allotted chamber and by extension, in the population at large. However, bucking the norm among such reformists (including Van Reybrouck), Dunlop’s message is very clearly democratic in the most fundamental sense (i.e., making power representative) and his rejection of elections and its elitist implications is uncompromising.

If we are really serious about bottom-up reform of our democratic institutions, then reforming the seat of government itself in this way, a way that installs ordinary people at the heart of power, is essential. Our neoliberal economy and the representative form of government that dominates our societies do everything they can to divide us from and pit us against each other. A People’s House transcends these divisions and brings us together. The basic concept of sortition is pretty straight-forward, and introducing it as a replacement for voting in, say, the Australian Senate, while leaving that body’s other powers intact, represents, at least administratively, fairly minimalist change. But on every other level, the potential effect is explosive. In one fell swoop, you diminish the power of the parties and that of many of the lobbyists who exist to influence their decisions. You transform the way in which the media covers politics. You hand control of at least part of the legislative process to a genuinely representative sample of the population as whole, rather than vesting it in a bunch of elites and their representatives. You empower people in a way that the current system could never hope to do, and you reconnect our chief democratic institution with the life in common.

Nothing is going to change until the main source of power in our society, our seat of government, is populated by people who are genuinely representative of the society at large. We have been taught forever that the way to do that is by voting, but that is simply wrong, and the quicker we unlearn it the better, no matter how counterintuitive it might seem at first. If you want a truly representative government of, by and for the people, then you need to choose it not by voting, but by sortition.

1768: Scheme of a Political Lottery, for the Peace of the Kingdom

The following letter to the Political Register and Impartial Review of New Books, printed in London in 1768, offers sortition of parliament as a way to remedy the corruption of elections. Thanks to Terry Bouricius for drawing attention to this historical piece.

Scheme of a Political Lottery, for the Peace of the Kingdom

It is proposed, on or soon after the breaking up of the present parliament, to open a lottery of 2262 tickets at 1000l. each, three blanks to one prize; which prize shall entitle the possessor to a seat in parliament for the place therein mentioned: by which scheme the noisy and expensive business of electioneering (which puts the whole kingdom in ferment) will be over in two hours, many people have an opportunity of serving their country cheap, and much bribary and corruption be prevented.

The the produce (deducting five per cent. to be set apart for guzzle, and to be equally distributed in every borough) be applied towards paying the national debt. That the lottery be drawn in the court of requests, on the day appointed for the meeting of p——t, and that the members so elected do immediately adjourn to the house of commons, appoint a speaker, &c. and then proceed to business. This will effectually prevent all designs of bad ministers, and more especially if their tools should draw blanks, as no person can have more than one ticket, and that not transferable; lest the courtiers, nabobs, or adventurers, should engrose the whole and buy and sell the nation.

Mencken: A Purge for Legislatures

The book A Mencken Chrestomathy contains a reprint of an article by H.L. Mencken called “A Purge for Legislatures”. The article, originally published in 1926, may be the first modern piece of advocacy for sortition. Thanks to Roger Knights for writing to draw attention to this article.

A MOOD of constructive criticism being upon me, I propose forthwith that the method of choosing legislators now prevailing in the United States be abandoned and that the method used in choosing juries be substituted. That is to say, I propose that the men who make our laws be chosen by chance and against their will, instead of by fraud and against the will of all the rest of us, as now. But isn’t the jury system itself imperfect? Isn’t it occasionally disgraced by gross abuse and scandal? Then so is the system of justice devised and ordained by the Lord God Himself. Didn’t He assume that the Noachian Deluge would be a lasting lesson to sinful humanity — that it would put an end to all manner of crime and wickedness, and convert mankind into a race of Presbyterians? And wasn’t Noah himself, its chief beneficiary, lying drunk, naked and uproarious within a year after the ark landed on Ararat? All I argue for the jury system, invented by man, is that it is measurably better than the scheme invented by God. It has its failures and its absurdities, its abuses and its corruptions, but taking one day with another it manifestly works. It is not the fault of juries that so many murderers go unwhipped of justice, and it is not the fault of juries that so many honest men are harassed by preposterous laws. The juries find the gunmen guilty: it is functionaries higher up, all politicians, who deliver them from the noose, and turn them out to resume their butcheries.
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Hugo Bonin: Democracy by lottery

The newspaper Le Journal de Montréal has an article by Jacques Lanctôt about Hugo Bonin’s book, La Democratie Hasardeuse [Original in French, my translation].

Games of chance in politics

“With luck, things will turn out well.” Who has not heard this saying at some point? A chance encounter, a decision taken offhandedly, a delay that turned out for the best, any of those may change our life.

Hugo Bonin believes that luck may be beneficial in politics as well even if it is not a magical solution to all our problems of representation. In a well structured essay, well supported by numerous concrete examples stretching as far back as antiquity (Athens and Rome) and where a future that is almost within our reach is imagined, Bonin aims to show that sortition is a hundred-fold better than the so-called representative elections.

Sortition has its limits but its great merit is that it takes no account of distinctions between races, genders, ages or social classes. John and Jane Doe are worth just as much as the elitist clique of doctors, lawyers and businessmen who have been governing us for too long a time.

More “egalitarian”
In an electoral regime such as the one know here and elsewhere in the West, the voters vote to elect the supposedly better candidate. While in an allotment system, the notion of “better” does not exist because everybody are equally politically qualified. Thus, this is “an egalitarian and a democratic procedure” where all external considerations are excluded.

Random selection is already practiced here in Québec and elsewhere. We need only consider jury selection in a criminal trial. Made of lay people rather than experts, following the British law, this jury is called upon to analyze the evidence and render a decision after deliberation.
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Wafawarova on sortition

Reason Wafawarova, columnist in The Herald of Zimbabwe, concludes a column in which he decries the disfunction of the the electoral system in Zimbabwe with the following:

Imagine having to develop a system today that would express the will of the people. Would it really be a good idea to have them all queue up at polling stations every five years with a bit of card in their hands and go into a dark booth to put a mark next to names on a list, names of people about whom restless reporting had been going on for months in a commercial environment that profits from restlessness?

We care deeply about our community, and we as people want to be heard. Maybe we can return to the central principle of Athenian democracy; drafting by lot, or sortition. In that era the majority of public functions were assigned by lot.

Renaissance states such as Venice and Florence worked on the same basis and experienced centuries of political stability. With sortition, you do not ask everyone to vote on an issue few people really understand, but you draft a random sample of the population and make sure they come to grips with the subject matter in order to take a sensible decision.

A cross-section of society that is informed can act more coherently than an entire society that is uninformed.

This perhaps brought about the idea of representative democracy or parliamentary democracy, but do our parliamentarians always act in our best interest?

Unger: We really don’t have much to lose!

Stephen Unger, formerly a professor of engineering at Columbia University has a short article proposing sortition as a replacement to elections with several points worth discussing:

Randomization:

Great care should be taken to ensure that the selection process is truly random. The method used should be very simple and transparent. No fancy technology. Note that every stage magician is expert at faking random choices.

Body size:

Assume that, in the new system, the legislative body consists of 200 randomly chosen citizens

Eligibility:

Assume that only American citizens at least 21 years old are eligible. Including a modest number of young people is desirable as they are likely to be more energetic, and it is worthwhile to have their views considered. Setting an upper age limit would be difficult. We might allow people over the age of 70 to decide for themselves whether they should be eligible for selection. There should be some minimal education requirement, such as limiting the selection to high school graduates.

Term of service:

What should be the term of office for the legislators? Too short a term would not give them enough time to learn the job. Too long a term would disrupt their lives, and/or make them feel too special, perhaps to the point that they were corrupted. One year seems like a good compromise–enough time to learn the job–but not likely to upset their lives too much.

Probably the most important problem that most people would face would be the disruption of the education and social lives of their children. High level professional athletes might suffer from a substantial layoff. Physicians might have problems–possibly interrupting the treatment of some patients. If the term of office did not exceed a year, this would not be all that bad, assuming special treatment for special cases. For example, we might have some minimal interval, say 3 months between selection and the start of service. Delaying start of service too much might open the door to people being corrupted. Let us assume a one-year term, which seems plausible.

Salary:

If we assume the salary of a member of congress would be about what it is today (of the order of $174,000 annually [7]), then this would be, for most people, very generous (median annual income of individual Americans is roughly $31K [8].) Wealthy people would probably not suffer too much–in most cases their incomes are largely from capital. Poor people would benefit substantially.

Selection of the executive:

The parliament might, as in most European countries, choose one of its members to be the chief executive (prime minister). But a one-year term might not be feasible, as it really isn’t enough time to master the job. It might be a good idea to have those completing their 1-year terms to elect one of their members, i.e., an outgoing member, to serve an additional year–or perhaps 2 years–as chief executive. Or maybe they should choose more freely from among the general population. This is a point that calls for more thinking.

Procedure for introduction and testing:

Sortition could be tested on a small scale by implementing it for some small municipalities. Then for governments of larger cities, then states, etc. Given the prevalence of scandals and failed governments, more and more people might be open to such experiments.

The people’s voice: as rage and as healing

There’s a spectre haunting Europe … and the rest of the Western world. We have elaborate ‘diversity’ programs in good upper-middle-class places to prevent discrimination against all manner of minorities (and majorities like women). It’s a fine thing. But there’s a diversity challenge a little closer to home which is tearing the world apart. There’s a war on the less well educated.

They’re falling out of the economy in droves, being driven into marginal employment or out of the labour force. This is a vexing problem to solve economically if the electorate values rising incomes which it does. Because, as a rule, the less well educated are less productive.

Still, the less well educated are marginalised from polite society. Polite society even runs special newspapers for them. They’re called tabloids and they’re full of resentment and hate. And yes, a big reason they are the way they are is that the less well educated buy them. They’re also marginalised, except in stereotyped form from TV.

Then there are our institutions of governance. While less than 50 per cent of our population are university educated, over 90 per cent of our parliamentarians are. Something very similar would be going on down the chain of public and private governance down to local councils and private firms.

And I’m pretty confident that a lot of this is internalised even by those not well educated. The last working-class Prime Minister we’ve had in Australia was Ben Chifley who was turfed out of office by a silver-tongued barrister in 1949. Barrie Unsworth in NSW going down badly in his first election as NSW Premier despite seeming – at least to me to be doing quite a good job. But he sounded working class – because he was. I wonder if that was it?

The world is made by and for the upper middle class, those who’ve been to the right schools and gone to unis (preferably the right unis), to get on. The ancient Greeks had a political/legal principle of relevance here which is entirely absent from our political language. In addition to ‘παρρησία’ or ‘parrhesia‘ which is often translated as ‘freedom of speech’ but which also carries a connotation of the duty to speak the truth boldly for the community’s wellbeing even at your own cost (as Socrates did), they also had the concept of ‘ισηγορια’ or ‘isegoria‘ meaning equality of speech.1

In Australia Pauline Hanson’s One Nation represents the political system’s concession to isegoria – toxified as a protest party within a hostile political culture. My own support for a greater role for selection by lot in our democracy is to build more isegoria into our political system in a way that, I think there’s good evidence, can help us get to a much better politics and policy.

In any event, the big, most toxified political events illustrating these problems are, of course, Brexit and Trump – concrete political acts of transformative significance standing before illustrating the power of isegoria as rage. Continue reading