The Sortition Solution: Representation by Randomly-Chosen Representatives


The US political system is clearly broken. To name just a few problems:

  • the legislative agenda is largely driven, not by citizen need, but by lobbyists and special interests that can afford large political contributions;
  • corruption is rampant;
  • the budget never gets balanced because existing funded items have strong special interest support;
  • new budget items get added (but rarely removed) by special interests;
  • special interests consistently block action where there is widespread public support (e.g., gun control);
  • political parties induce a tribalist “us vs. them” mentality that leads to gridlock and an inability to deal with corruption within a party;
  • minority political viewpoints (Greens, for example) rarely get elected because they cannot achieve a majority in their district;
  • representatives are typically chosen from a small number of professions (e.g., law), while other sorts of expertise (e.g., science) are not adequately represented;
  • almost all representatives are Christians; atheists and other minority religious viewpoints are wildly under-represented;
  • incumbents have a huge advantage over challengers, even when they are clearly unfit;
  • women and minorities are wildly under-represented;
  • rural voters and interests are over-represented;
  • instead of being seen as employees doing the work of citizens, representatives become media celebrities in their own right;
  • legislators are extremely reluctant to address controversial issues, for fear of being voted out in the next election;
  • first-past-the-post voting means that candidates that most voters dislike are often elected.

Proportional representation is often proposed as a solution to some of these problems. In the most typical version of proportional representation — party-list — you vote for a party, not a candidate, and representatives are then chosen from a list the party provides. But this doesn’t resolve the corruption and tribalism problems embodied in the first few items on my list.

My solution is exotic but simple: sortition, or random representation. Of course, it’s not original with me: we use sortition today to form juries. But I would like to extend it to all legislative bodies.

Support for sortition comes from all parts of the political spectrum; William F. Buckley, Jr., for example, once said, “I am obliged to confess that I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.”

Here is a brief outline of how it would work. Legislators would be chosen uniformly and randomly from a universal, publicly-available list; perhaps a list of all registered voters.

In each election period (say 2-5 years), a random fraction of all representatives would be completely replaced, perhaps 25-50%. This would allow some institutional memory and expertise to be retained, while insuring that incumbents do not have enough time to build up fiefdoms that lead to corruption.

Sortition could be phased in gradually. For the first 10 years, sortition could be combined with a traditional electoral system, in some proportion that starts small and eventually completely replaces the traditional electoral system. This would increase public confidence in the change, as well as avoiding the problem of a “freshman class” that would be completely without experience.

I suggest that we start with small state legislatures, such as New Hampshire, as an experiment. Once the experiment is validated (and I think it would be) it could move to replace the federal system.

Advantages

Most of the problems I mentioned above would be resolved, or greatly reduced in scope.

The new legislative body would be truly representative of the US population: For example, about 50% of legislators would be women. About 13% would be black, 17% Hispanic or Latino, and 5% Asian. About 15% would be atheists, agnostics, humanists, or otherwise religiously unaffiliated.

Issues would be decoupled from parties: Right now, if you vote for the Republicans, you get lower taxes and restrictions on abortion. What if you support one but not the other? There is no way to express that preference.

Difficult legislative choices will become easier: Experiments have shown over and over that balancing the federal budget — traditionally one of the most difficult tasks in the existing system — turns out to be a brief and relatively trivial exercise for non-partisan citizen groups. (Here’s just one such example.) Sortition would resolve this thorny problem.

One significant motivation for corruption — getting donations for re-election — would essentially disappear. Of course, there would be other opportunities for corruption (there always are), but at least one would be gone.

A diverse elected body would be able to consider issues from a wide variety of different perspectives. Effective action could be taken where there is widespread public support (e.g., gun control).

Objections answered

People will not want to serve: We would pay them very well — for example, $250,000 per year. We would enact a law requiring employers to release representatives from the employment with a guarantee of re-employment after their term is over. If someone refuses to serve, we’d just move to the next person on the random list.

Sortition will produce stupid, incompetent, and dishonest representatives: Very true. Some will be stupid, some will be incompetent, and some will be dishonest. But this is also true for the existing system. (Have you ever seen Louis Gohmert being interviewed?) In my view, those with genuine expertise and leadership ability will naturally be seen as leaders by others and acquire some influence within the chamber. Stupid and incompetent people will quickly be recognized for what they are and will not have as much influence in the legislative agenda.

The public will not have trust in the selection process: Trust is a genuine issue; people will naturally distrust a new system. That’s one reason to phase it in gradually. Mathematicians and theoretical computer scientists know a lot about how to sample randomly; whatever specific method is chosen would be open-source and subject to scrutiny. To make a truly random choice even more convincing, a combination of different methods could be used. For example, we could use algorithmic methods to choose a sample of (say) a thousand names. Then we could use physical means (for example, the ping-pong balls used for lotteries) to choose 200 names of the legislators from this group.

The legislative agenda will not be clear: Political parties offer a legislative agenda with priorities, but where will the agenda come under sortition? My answer is that the major issues of the day will generally be clear. For example, today’s issues include anthropogenic global warming, terrorism, immigration, wage stagnation, and health care, to name just five. These are clear issues of concern that can be seen without the need of a political party’s ideology. The existing federal and state bureaucracies — civil servants — will still be there to offer expertise.

People will feel like they have no voice: Without elections, how do people feel their voice is heard? Another legitimate objection. This suggests considering some sort of mixed system, say, with 50% of representatives chosen by sortition and 50% chosen by election. Or perhaps two different legislative bodies, one based on sortition and one based on election. We have to be willing to experiment and innovate.

Sortition should be seriously considered.

Comments

  1. sonofrojblake says

    Amongst much that is naively utopian, this stands out:

    the major issues of the day will generally be clear

    In particular, this line is baffling:

    today’s issues include anthropogenic global warming…

    Says who? (I mean, I know who, obvs – 97% of people who are literally qualified to comment, but bear with me…)

    No lesser person than the elected President of the United States himself is on record as considering AGW to be a Chinese hoax. And that’s a guy who could get himself elected. Under sortition, by definition, half of those selected would be of below average intelligence, and the averagely intelligent person is (to me) terrifyingly stupid. The “major issues of the day” might well, to a workably large proportion of them, be chemtrails, the rights of Free Men on the Land, proper public funding for homeopaths and at last a public investigation into what really went on with those captured aliens in Area 51.

    those with genuine expertise and leadership ability will naturally be seen as leaders by others

    Perhaps that was true in the 50s and 60s. The anti-intellectual, anti-elitist backlash is in full swing. For proof, look no further than the current occupant of the White House, or even better, this notorious quote from Michael Gove in the run-up to the Brexit referendum in the UK – people have “had enough of experts”.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sz1_LHtfuCI

  2. says

    People will feel like they have no voice

    Well, there could be ways for the public to communicate with these representatives. In a random sample, surely some of them will side with you.

    But then you’ve got issues of spam and trolling and so forth…

    But then people might take spam and trolling more seriously 🙂

  3. hrafn says

    One issue I’d have with this system would be the complete loss of institutional knowledge. All the random representatives would be new to politics, so there’d be very little understanding on how to get laws passed, budgets negotiated and passed, etc, etc.

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