Elections and consent

It has been claimed, notably by Bernard Manin (The principles of representative government pp. 79-93), that the reason that sortition of representatives was never considered, and in fact hardly ever mentioned, by the founding fathers of the Western system was because it conflicted with their commitment to the notion that a just system must be based on consent. The argument is that only elections, which institutionalize the act of explicit selection, are compatible with this principle and thus sortition was ruled out a-priori to such an extent that it was never part of the set of ideas being discussed.

While the commitment of the founding fathers to the principle of consent cannot be realistically disputed, the notion that they saw a strong link between elections and consent is much less convincing. This link is far from obvious since, as Manin notes, the principle of consent long predates the modern era. Such a link would therefore not have been taken for granted by the founders, and presuming that it were important to them it would surely have merited a central place in their rhetoric. In fact, however, Manin cites no primary source which argues that elections are a mechanism of consent. He quotes, for example, John Locke as saying:

And thus that, which begins and actually constitutes any Political Society, is nothing but the consent of any number of Freemen capable of a majority to unite and incorporate themselves into such a Society.

But this, of course, makes no mention of elections. Quite the contrary – it is the consent to the incorporation itself, rather than any particular procedures of the newly formed body, that is crucial.
Continue reading

Schulson: Why not select Congress by lottery?

Michael Schulson has published an article about sortition in The Daily Beast. Schulson’s presentation is short but hits several important notes. It is certainly a good candidate for being the proverbial good three-minute introduction to sortition.

Is It Time to Take a Chance on Random Representatives?

If you’re looking for an unrepresentative group of Americans, the House of Representatives isn’t a bad place to start. Its members are disproportionately old and white. More than 80 percent of them are men. They spend around four hours per day on the phone, asking people for money. Unlike most other telemarketers, they have a median net worth of almost $900,000. More than a third of them hold law degrees.

Last Tuesday, not much changed. Once again, the American people went to the polls and elected a group of people who, in aggregate, only vaguely resemble the American people.

The problem isn’t new. A representative assembly, John Adams wrote in 1776, “should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large.” (By “people,” of course, he meant “white men”). But by the 1780s, when Anti-Federalists challenged the young Constitution, a big part of their concern was that “representation as provided for in the Constitution would be skewed in favor of the most prosperous and prominent classes,” writes the political scholar Bernard Manin.

Continue reading