Pros, cons and the liberation potential of random selection

Today elections are more manipulated spectacle than enforcing the real answerability of elected governments. Existing political systems make wise decision-making highly unlikely. Counter-intuitively, random selection in politics – “sortition” – offers us a chance to put democracy in the hands of the people, where it belongs. This post raises and counters many arguments brought against sortition and clarifies its very real potential – when properly used – to free us from the twin tyrannies of oligarchy and co-stupidity.

“Sortition” is the name for political and governance systems that use random selection. For 200 years random selection was the defining feature of democracy in ancient Athens – from filling government positions to the council crafting proposals for the popular Assembly to vote on. For almost 600 years (12th-18th century) sortition was used on and off by elite families and power centers in Venice, Florence and other Italian cities to figure out which of them was going to run things (so they wouldn’t have to fight each other while maintaining elite control). Today it is used in a number of countries to pick people for trial juries and globally for “policy juries” – aka citizen deliberative councils – like citizens juries, citizen assemblies, and the Citizen Initiative Review in Oregon.

The purpose of this article is to explore arguments I’ve seen for and against sortition. Since I believe it may be our most potent tool to transform governance into something workable and smart, I will also respond to the critiques. In addition to my general reading on the subject, two specific sources offered interesting arguments pro and con:

1. Wikipedia’s article on sortition
2. Yoram Gat’s post on the Equality by Lot blog “Short refutations of common objections to sortition”

You’ve got to be kidding!

The most common response I find when people first hear about sortition is that it would be insane to use random selection to pick people for roles in government or policy-making. They can’t imagine how randomly selected people could do the job. Ordinary folks aren’t competent enough. They don’t have the skills… or the time… or the personalities. And heaven knows what kind of weirdos you’d get with random selection! Who wants THEM in charge?!

OK, fair enough. But let’s look at the way we pick elected officials now. What qualifications and skills do they need to demonstrate before they are allowed to run for office? None – at least beyond age, citizenship and residency. This means nearly ANYONE can run for office – at least in the U.S. In fact we even think that’s a feature of democracy, not a bug! Now take a look at who usually ends up getting elected: What are the skills and traits that make for success as a politician? Seriously, politicians need to have strong egos and be good at self-promotion and pretense, and either have tons of money themselves or be able to raise it from (usually) wealthy people to whom they are then beholden. It also helps if they are already famous – perhaps as an actor or a comedian or media celebrity. Some are lucky enough to own major media themselves, always an asset when running for office. On the other hand, maybe they are the child, brother or spouse of an already famous politician. Name recognition helps!

Why do you suppose the overwhelming majority of elected positions – at least at the national level in the U.S. – are held by white men who are millionaires and/or lawyers? What does that say about our “representative democracy”?

Which brings us to another main concern about random selection: Will it really represent us?

Well, random selection is a science – albeit one with many complexities and variations. But whichever version is used, random selection would almost always represent our diversity far better than we find in governments today, so this objection boggles my mind. There are millions of us who don’t see many people like us anywhere in government positions.

So we might take note that not only do people randomly selected actually embody who we ARE, but the process itself is demonstrably fair (we all have the same chance of being picked), less biased (no political parties involved), and far more difficult to corrupt than our system of electing politicians. The chances of getting someone REALLY weird is actually rather small – and if we did, they would almost always be part of a group big enough to dilute their weirdness when it comes to making final decisions or recommendations. Of course, if we want to see weird people in positions of power, we can always find ample examples among politicians either running for office or already in power.

But let’s return for a minute to qualifications. It is totally possible for us to democratically decide on a set of qualifications that people have to meet before they can join the pool of people from whom the random selection will be made. We could, for example, say that registered voters are eligible for selection if they are at least 21 years old, have a high school diploma, and are willing to spend ten (or 40) hours a week for two years at whatever role we pick them for. Or we could say anyone can be part of the pool if they are older than 16 and have an IQ of 140, as long as they pass a special test about government. We could even say that they have to be millionaire lawyers with big egos. We could do whatever we wanted.

The point I’m making here is that we can do random selections from a pool of qualified people whom WE have defined as the kind of people WE want to govern us. AND we can set things up so that whoever we pick gets whatever support, training, and briefings they need to do a really good job at whatever role we’ve selected them for. There is tremendous knowledge about how to do that and it can all be overseen by panels of randomly selected citizens who have been part of previous citizen deliberations and have the integrity to ensure no one is messing with the process.

Take a moment to think about this. It just makes sense that teams of randomly selected diverse ordinary people would recommend policies that are good for people like themselves. Since they are all different, that means their decisions would tend to be good for all of us. They wouldn’t have special interests messing with their motivations. They would just need help working together – and there is already a tremendous amount of knowledge about how to do that. We just have to set it up right.

Compare that with politicians, who undergo a selection process that heavily biases them towards representing the special interests and political parties that got them elected and whom they will need later if they want to get reelected and/or get lucrative post-government positions in the private sector or pundit class – to say nothing of support to get their pet legislation passed today.

I would suggest that the lesson here is that the most important qualification in public service is less about a person’s knowledge and skills than whose interests they serve, what motivates them, and how free they are to act in principled ways on behalf of the rest of us. Knowledge and capacity can be built. It’s much harder to build high integrity and deep commitment to public service. Experience so far has shown that people brought together at random to work together on behalf of their community are highly motivated to do that – and then, if they are given adequate support, they just do that.

Here’s another argument – one that Yoram Gat made that I hadn’t thought about before: If ordinary citizens are not competent to make decisions on public issues, what makes us think they are competent to pick candidates that will make those decisions for them? A very high percentage of potential voters in the U.S. don’t even vote and most of those that do are heavily influenced by PR and personalities rather than deep knowledge of the candidates and the issues. Yet we let them vote! And then they complain that the people they chose are bums that should be thrown out!! This is not a demonstration of competence.

In contrast, imagine a group of randomly selected ordinary people who spend a few days or a week together studying an issue – or a candidate! – and who come to shared conclusions about what choice would be best. That kind of group tends to make really smart recommendations.

This is not rocket science. It isn’t that these smart choices are made by especially smart people. After all, they are just randomly selected citizens. But notice the CONTEXT within which they make their decisions: the stirring mandate they are given, the quality of information they get, and the help they receive to talk and think together well. THAT’s the big difference between an isolated individual voter (aggregated into that seemingly incompetent group we call the electorate) and a randomly selected citizen working with his or her peers in a citizen dialogue, deliberation or choice-creating process.

But wait a minute! Couldn’t these naive ordinary people be easily corrupted or manipulated by special interests?

Of course they could! But it would be far less likely than if they were politicians – especially if they were paid as well as members of Congress and overseen by other similar groups of ordinary citizens! A legislature made up entirely of randomly selected people would most likely create laws and a group culture that would ensure they all behaved ethically. Compare that to a legislature made up of politicians who depend on corruption and manipulation for their livelihoods and career prospects. (Take a look, for instance, at how rigorous existing politicians have made the laws restricting the “revolving door” between government service and being on corporate boards and doing paid corporate lobbying.)

But where’s the accountability in a randomly selected group?

Opponents of sortition often note that under the electoral system, elected representatives are accountable to their constituencies – they can be removed in elections if their constituents don’t like what they do – whereas in sortition the randomly selected people are accountable to no one but themselves. I have two responses to that.

First of all, I think it is becoming clear that elections are a very weak form of accountability. When we look at the U.S. electoral system what we see are districts gerrymandered to ensure the party holding a legislative seat retains that seat, biased election laws, and most elections drenched in money for distorted partisan ads and computerized political organizing. All these and other similar factors play a far greater role in electoral outcomes than what a politician actually did in office. How much actual accountability is happening? What do we make of the fact that the VAST majority of Americans distain Congress – and that so many of them don’t even bother to vote? It certainly doesn’t suggest they feel they have much control over their legislators.

My second response – which is even more important and less understood – is that sortition operates on a totally different paradigm. When we elect representatives, they are (theoretically) our agents: they are there to do what we want them to do. In this, so the theory goes, they are – and need to be – “answerable” to us, their constituency, and subject to rewards and penalties from us when (in our judgment) they do well or poorly.

With sortition, on the other hand, there is no “they”. The people selected do not have a constituency like an elected official does. “They” are actually “us”. They are doing what we would do if we were selected. And more of us WILL BE selected in the next round of selections. “They” are us, the People, doing the work of co-creating our shared destiny. They may make mistakes or do things some of us individually don’t like, but that is more like when we individually make mistakes or do things we don’t like in our own lives. There isn’t the same kind of answerability needed as there is when someone else is doing things FOR us. If we the People are really in charge, we the People need to take responsibility for what WE do.

OK, but really now, how can you say that randomly selected bodies are as legitimate as the ones we elect?

Yes, it’s true: elections are what we have established to make government “legitimate” – to represent “the consent of the governed” and enable mass participation in politics and government. But I want to reiterate that the level of “consent” and “legitimacy” is dropping rapidly in the US and many other parts of the world. More and more people just don’t believe their governments are acting in their interests anymore. Furthermore, once we realize how informed conversation among randomly selected “mini publics” made up of people like us are actually more representative of us and our interests than the current elected bodies, we can transfer our consent and sense of legitimacy to them. After all, “legitimacy” isn’t something intrinsic and objective. It is simply a matter of where we choose to place our allegiance. Our consent to be governed by elected politicians who do not act in our interest can be withdrawn at any time, just as dozens of colonies – from America to India to most countries in Africa and elsewhere – have for more than two centuries withdrawn their consent to be governed by colonial powers who exploited and abused them.

As far as mass participation goes, watching a few evening newscasts during an election will show just how meaningless electoral participation really is. So much of politics has become pseudo-democratic theater, a tragicomic spectator sport lacking exactly the kind of substantive engagement we really need. I suspect that councils and legislatures made up of US – we the People – would be inclined to establish authentic, creative forms of mass engagement – and then to pay attention to what came out of that engaged participation. Can we say the same for bodies of elected politicians who really don’t want “the masses” to mess with their power to make decisions that are PR popular and well-crafted to serve the special interests that support them? I suggest that the current system of politicians generates little motivation to truly welcome the public into the decision-making process. Furthermore, our capacity to actually use our most remarkably creative and productive engagement methods both in and around the halls of power would be greatly enhanced if we could be freed from the limitations of unduly linear and spirit-deadening traditional processes like most “parliamentary procedure”.

What about continuity and direct democracy?

The only argument for elected representatives that I find unconditionally valid is that over long terms of office elected (and bureaucratic) public officials provide continuity to public policy and, since their activities have covered all policy domains, they can more easily see how one policy proposal may interfere with others. If that were the primary function of elected representatives – AND if the behavior of those long-term elected representatives was overseen by official oversight committees of randomly selected citizens – I think that would be fabulous, a great combination of representation and sortition. I could also see a citizen legislature of 450 people serving 3 year terms electing 20 of their peers from the departing cohort each year to serve another term specifically to provide that kind of continuity. In other words, this is a problem to be solved, not an obstacle to actually using sortition.

The only other significant argument against sortition comes from another major democracy reform movement – the advocates of direct democracy. Nowadays in the U.S., direct democracy takes the form of the initiative process where citizens and groups propose laws that are then voted on in a regular election. In its visionary form, however, computerized and cellphone systems are being developed to enable everyone to directly vote on everything. Direct democracy visionaries think of this as the ultimate in participatory democracy. I see it as potentially the ultimate in mob rule and chaos and I therefore strongly oppose it in its current forms. HOWEVER, if it includes the capacity to transmute manipulated mob dynamics into real group wisdom, I would support it.

I think Oregon’s Citizen Initiative Review shows us what sane visions of direct democracy might look like. In that design, sortition is used to establish citizen panels which carefully examine proposed laws and then share with the voters what they found. This is valuable because most voters don’t have the time and resources to intelligently investigate and reflect on ALL the issues and proposals, to say nothing of talking productively with people different from themselves. However, if an online system enabled true deliberation by adequately diverse groups of citizens – for example, by crowdsourcing ways to meet people’s concerns about a given proposal or solution – I can imagine forms of direct democracy that could avoid mob rule and chaos. But without that, I think that direct democracy – so delightful in theory, so often tragic in practice – is asking for a level of elitism, manipulation and groupthink that we would deeply regret.

So what’s next?

Given our urgent need for both integrity and wisdom in our collective decision-making, I can think of no better guiding principle than the principle of sortition. There are many ways to do it and many different realms and aspects of politics and government where it could be applied, with different levels of power granted to any particular form or application of it.

Random selection is like the principle of majority rule and voting: Notice how many places the voting principle is applied. We can apply the principle of random selection in as many different places. It is just as flexible and important.

Two of the best places to start would be to upgrade the process of voting, itself, for example by creating the following:
(1) more applications of the Citizen Initiative Review, because if we could take control of the initiative process away from special interests and make it wiser, we’d be way ahead, democratically speaking; and
(2) citizen panels that review both candidates and the performance of officeholders. Imagine if a group of several dozen randomly selected citizens spent a week or two studying and interviewing every major presidential candidate and their critics (as well as any other presidential candidates they wanted to investigate) and then made their recommendations to the voters. Or imagine if a citizen review panel were convened whenever 10% of the population signed a petition to review the behavior of a politician in office or a piece of legislation. After all, we need job interviews and performance reviews as much in politics as corporations need them in business, right? We are the folks who hire our elected representatives, so let’s get our act together.

We need this.

Blessings on the journey.


FINAL NOTE: You may think from all this that I believe all elected officials and politicians are corrupt. I don’t. I think many of them are highly principled and competent and many more of them are well intentioned and frustrated by the ways the current political system – from money in politics to crazy public hearings – undermine their efforts to do good.

My main point here is that our existing political and governmental systems are not capable of providing the kind of guidance we need and that ordinary people, under the right conditions, could provide it. Our current systems reward, empower, and make inevitable certain kinds of collective corruption and incompetence – collective, not necessarily individual – that guarantee control by elites and big egos and the creation of policies that look disastrous to the rest of us. The higher the level of government involved, the truer this gets. And if we don’t change those systems we are, quite literally, doomed. The collective challenges we face are too great and dangerous to be left in the hands of corrupted, dysfunctional systems run by narrowly self-interested or ideological elites and factions. Especially now that we know how to handle such matters far better than ever before.

As is often noted, it is insane to continue doing the same thing over and over and expect different results. In this 21st century our electoral systems obviously do not do the jobs they were supposedly designed to do. It is a deadly pretense – and the democratic mythos that surrounds it prevents us from taking action together to change it. I think any future politics that actually works will necessarily include both elections and sortition as central features (among many others). We don’t yet know the ideal combination, but we have a lot to get started with. Experiments and conversations about it need to get rolling very soon and very fast. It should be quite an adventure – and elected public officials are welcome to play a central role in it, along with the rest of us.

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