Randomly selected legislators? You’ve got to be kidding!

It’s easy to dismiss the idea of a randomly selected legislature. After all, how could a bunch of ordinary people create workable, sensible laws and policies? Well, actually there are some very interesting arguments and evidence that they could actually do that, and some creative ways to help it work out well. So in this post I explore that territory and suggest we might look into this possibility more seriously. As odd as it may seem at first, it may offer a way out of the oligarchic trap we find ourselves caught in. So open up your critically creative imaginations and dive in…

In my research on the use of random selection in politics (see also my earlier post “What is it about Random Selection??”) I hear many objections to using a lottery to fill powerful positions in government.

These objections are, of course, understandable. Although lottery was the standard way the people of ancient Athens filled most of their government positions – a process they felt was vital to democracy itself – our society is far more complex than theirs. On the face of it, it seems ridiculous to leave our government offices to chance.

So let’s not talk about staffing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission with randomly selected ordinary folks. Let’s talk about choosing legislators that way.

“Omigosh!”, you may object, “What makes you think that’s so different?! You’re going to pick Joe Schmoe and Mary Doaks off the streets to make our nation’s laws? That’s ridiculous! Either you’re kidding or you’re seriously out of touch with reality!”

Whoa, whoa, my friends. Hold on just a minute. I’m not kidding at all and I would really like to invite you to take a look at some realities – and some remarkable possibilities – that I’ve been getting in touch with recently. It’s actually quite interesting – even if just for the provocative fun of it.

Getting serious: As I’ve explored this question further, I’ve come to believe that most objections to the idea of sortition (random selection for government positions) arise from certain unexamined assumptions. Of course, many such objections have some validity that should be taken seriously. But all too often these objections – and the intensity with which they’re offered – suggest that our minds have been conditioned to think of democracy in only one way. And, unfortunately, that limitation is blinding us to pathways that could actually lead us out of oligarchic domination of our politics and government.

Given our current political and governmental dysfunction – and in many cases active manipulation and oppression – I suggest that we need to be more open to considering significantly different forms of democracy – forms that just might serve us better than the one we’ve got. In doing so, we need to reframe our objections as concerns to be taken seriously and explored for deeper understanding and possible creative resolution. This approach will carry us from stuckness and frustration into real breakthroughs in democratic possibility.

So for right now – just as a thought experiment, mind you – I invite you to consider the idea of a legislature randomly selected from the whole country. Let’s imagine it consists of 400-500 ordinary citizens (the size of the House of Representatives and the ancient Athenian boule), serving overlapping terms of three years. Let’s set aside for the moment how such a “citizen legislature” would function with other branches of government (for which there could be many arrangements, including one I describe in Chapter 13 of EMPOWERING PUBLIC WISDOM), and just tackle the obvious objection that randomly selected people simply wouldn’t be qualified to make laws for a whole country.

CONSIDERATIONS TO MITIGATE THAT CONCERN

I have to admit that the chances are good at least some of the randomly selected folks might not be qualified for legislative duty according to some standard or another. However, to be fair, we should really consider the process used to ensure the qualifications of today’s legislators, to see if they meet the same standards.

The legal qualifications to serve in the US Congress are quite minimal: you have to be an adult citizen at least 25-30 years old residing in the district you are to represent.  No IQ tests, no policy or political science knowledge, no background checks, no petition signatures, and no credentials are required. In practice, what you need most to run for national legislative office is the backing of a political party embedded with special interests, and/or a very rich sponsoring person or organization. Evidence painfully available to all of us suggests that the current electoral system favors ambitious egotists, dealmakers, equivocators, PR personalities, and rich lawyers (who are able to at least make us think they represent our highest values and/or the common good). This seems to dependably produce an abundance of legislators of exactly the sort we DON’T want making our laws. Not entirely, of course, but to a tragically significant extent.

In contrast, experience with citizen deliberative councils suggests that randomly selected ordinary citizens routinely rise to the occasion, have surprisingly good collective analytic skills, and tend to operate with tremendous integrity. The vast majority of ordinary citizens chosen at random for such deliberative bodies are able to do quality deliberative work to the exact extent they are given adequate information and support. Perhaps most importantly, they tend more than existing legislators to consider the common good rather than any particular special interest, constituency, or ideology.

The intensely partisan and irrational behaviors of ordinary citizens that we witness every day in the context of our adversarial political battleground drenched in misinformation and manipulation is not what we find in a properly run citizen deliberation. In fact, a citizen legislature would almost certainly be superior to juries which, after all, we trust with decisions of tremendous consequence. Citizen deliberative councils are set up to involve far more participant engagement and deliberative facilitation than most trial juries who are prevented from asking questions during testimony and then receive no help hearing each other and thinking together while they deliberate. We have tremendous know-how we can apply to increase the deliberative competence of ordinary people under the right conditions.

A few additional thoughts: A randomly selected citizen legislature would not have their legislation degraded by irrational influences like horse trading, partisan war games, irrelevant special interest riders and amendments, public misinformation, and lobbyist pressures. Nor would they have to spend half their time fundraising for reelection, which degrades the ability of even the best of our current representatives to do their jobs well.

As Ernest Callenbach and Michael Phillips wrote 30 years ago in words disturbingly fitting today:

“It is certainly not obvious, in any case, that our present representatives are really the kind of people we would ideally want to have making critical, life-and-death decisions for us. Nor is there any convincing evidence that they are superior in wisdom, judgment, compassion, and sense of responsibility to 435 people chosen by sortition [random selection] from the citizenry at large. The latter would certainly have, among themselves, a livelier and more realistic sense of the life of the country and its pressing problems; they would have a more varied collective experience to draw upon; and they would not be constrained in their thinking by a desire to cosset corporations. As personalities, they would probably be on average less aggressive, greedy, and sexist. In personal morality, it is hard to believe that their peccadilloes and perversities would be greater than those revealed by the Congress….”  A CITIZEN LEGISLATURE (1985), p. 29.

DESIGN VARIATIONS TO ADDRESS CONCERNS ABOUT COMPETENCE

OK, given all that, maybe the issue of the competence of ordinary people isn’t as great as you may have initially thought, but it IS still a legitimate concern.

So what might we do to minimize that factor so we could benefit from the tremendous advantages a citizen legislature offers us in terms of political integrity and productivity.  Here are a few thoughts, just for examples. See what other possibilities come to mind as you read them…

1. If we had one third of the legislature replaced every year – as proposed above – then at any given time at least a third of the legislators would have had at least 2 years experience. That’s a lot of experience – if the citizen legislators are actually doing positive work together instead of fighting each other, doing photo ops with constituents, gaming the system and raising money for reelection.

2. We could directly address the issue of competence by randomly selecting our legislators from a giant national pool of qualified volunteers. The qualifications could be set (and occasionally reset, according to experience) by randomly selected citizen deliberative councils who consulted with relevant experts, keeping in mind the goal of effective government of, by, and for the people. Citizens who wanted to be considered for legislative service would submit an application and automatically be entered in the pool. The 150 or so who were randomly chosen in the annual lottery would then be vetted to verify that they actually met the qualifications – perhaps by citizen deliberative councils convened for that purpose – with penalties for lying on their applications. Various demographic, geographic, or interest groups would encourage or help their people to apply and then, when they were chosen, could support them in their work to help them succeed. Thus the pool from which legislators were picked would progressively expand, just as the franchise has expanded over time, driven by groups who want to empower their type of people. As the pool grew to millions of diverse people, it would be increasingly hard to manipulate by the partisan recruiting groups, who would become less important and influential as the system became established.

3. As with Congresspeople, there could be support staff and organizations to inform and train citizen legislators and develop their expertise on issues and procedures. Forms of random selection could be used with these support groups to impede their being used for manipulation: For example, there could be a dozen companies available to provide policy research and legislative drafting capacities. Each year they would be assigned by lottery to help a different group of citizen legislators. Even if one of these were surreptitiously formed or taken over by a special interest, they would have difficulty developing dependable allies among the citizen legislators (who would, after all, be gone within 3 years). The legislators’ experience of diverse assistants might lead those legislators to remove some of those assistants for bias or incompetence.

4. Their legislative decisions could be made by supermajority (2/3 or 80%) rather than simple majority, pressuring them to take all perspectives and information creatively into account while simultaneously reducing the capacity of any particular special interest group to sway enough legislators to manipulate the total vote in a bad direction. This level of “consensus” would also address the concern that they are too few to adequately “represent” the population in a demographic sense. Any decision with that much support among the randomly selected legislators would likely have had at least majority support among (ethical) elected legislators as well as among the population at large. The likelihood of pushing an unpopular proposal through such a citizen legislature would be very small indeed. All this would result in what most observers would consider legislative competence.

5. Things could be set up so that if enough people signed a petition, a legislator’s actions on the job could be reviewed by a randomly selected citizen deliberative council which could recommend removal, rewards, or penalties. (In ancient Athens, randomly selected government officials were routinely subject to “scrutiny” and, if needed, judged by a jury, with sometimes dire penalties for corruption or oligarchic tendencies.)

PS: While on a bus a couple of months ago I was thinking about the rare arrangement whereby voters can vote for “None of the above” for an elective position when they don’t like any of the candidates listed. Various procedures are then followed if “None of the above” gets the most votes. I began to wonder what it would be like if “None of the above” won a legislative position and a replacement was selected at random from voter rolls until someone was found who met minimum requirements and was willing to take the job. (This would work best if there were an organization dedicated to impartially supporting such courageous people, since they wouldn’t have political party backing.) It would provide an interesting transition process toward more full use of random selection – especially if voters liked the way their randomly selected peers performed better than their elected representatives. (This may or may not be a good idea, but I believe it represents the sort of creative thinking needed if we wish to envision sortition playing a greater role in our political process.)

CONCLUSION: IN ALL FAIRNESS, ISN’T THIS A POSSIBILITY WORTH CONSIDERING?

I didn’t write all this to convince you that we should have a randomly selected citizen legislature. I wrote this to try to break down the common assumption that the very idea of such an institution is more worthy of ridicule than serious consideration.

Random selection offers such profound benefits in terms of fairness and integrity – it is such a powerful tool to break the hold of special interests and powerful elites on our democratic system (or what SHOULD be our democratic system) – that I want to encourage democracy advocates, activists, reformers and visionaries to take a good look at it.

There are many issues and concerns that should be addressed if we were to actively promote political and governmental institutions using random selection. Let’s see if we can creatively address them instead of dismissing the whole idea out of hand.

Because I really think we need this tool in our hands, in one form or another – the sooner the better…

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Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440
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