Would we be better off if government officials were chosen at random, rather than elected? It sounds like a radical idea, but it has an ancient pedigree. Some countries have experimented with it today and reaped surprising successes.

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Ancient Athens is the birthplace of democracy. Everyone knows that.

However, this is an oversimplification at best. Athens wasn’t the only historical civilization with a system akin to modern democracy. More importantly, Athens didn’t have elected representatives at all. On the contrary, they thought elections led to oligarchy and elitism. (Given modern experience, they might not have been wrong about that.)

What did they do instead?

Ancient Athens was a direct democracy. Any (adult, male, property-owning) citizen had the right to participate in the Ekklesia, a popular assembly that voted on decisions taken by the city. Athens’ equivalent of an executive branch was a council called the Boule. It set the agenda for meetings of the Ekklesia, supervised other government officials, and oversaw the city’s finances.

The Boule had 500 members, who were chosen not by election, but by lot. The Athenians had a device called the kleroterion, which was effectively a lottery. Candidates had small inscribed tabs called pinakia which they inserted into slots in the kleroterion. The fall of dice would indicate positions, and the citizens whose pinakia were in those positions were chosen to serve on the Boule. Athens also used this system to select juries.

The modern name for this procedure is sortition. It’s a government where officials are chosen by lottery, rather than by election. Of course, we still use this procedure for juries. However, we’ve scrapped it for most other offices.

It’s safe to say that Athenian-style direct democracy wouldn’t work today. The country is too big and too dispersed. It would be impossibly burdensome to hold a national referendum on every policy issue.

But what about sortition—were the Athenians on to something there? Would American democracy be better off if some—or even all—of Congressional seats or other positions in government went to citizens chosen at random from the populace?

The benefits of sortition

The biggest benefit of sortition is that, if selection is truly random, it ought to yield a representative cross-section of the population on average.

The current makeup of our democracy is heavily unrepresentative. Above all, it excludes poor people and overrepresents rich people. It almost has to, because running for office in a capitalist society is an expensive endeavor. You have to rent a headquarters, hire campaign staff, and run ads. Politicians who aren’t rich themselves have to appeal to wealthy individuals and special-interest groups that can afford to support their election. Either way, the opinions of the rich end up holding outsized weight in government.

Popular prejudice can also give rise to a government that doesn’t look like the governed. For example, if atheists make up 15% of the population, they should hold 15% of legislative seats. But if a majority of voters believe atheists are immoral, untrustworthy and unfit to serve, then atheist candidates will consistently lose elections. They’ll be underrepresented relative to their actual numbers. (You can repeat this exercise with any disfavored minority.)

Last but not least, voter suppression and voter intimidation can result in a legislature that’s out of whack with the true views of the populace. Legislators can use all manner of dirty tricks to cement their own power: gerrymandering so elected officials choose their voters and not vice versa, arcane rules that disqualify potential challengers, scheduling elections at awkward times to ensure low turnout, and more.

Sortition would solve all these problems. If legislators were selected at random, it ought to yield a body that’s truly representative—both demographically and, more important, in their political views. The rich couldn’t tilt elections in their favor with campaign donations, and officeholders couldn’t scheme to hold on to power or choose their own successors. Opinions would be represented in government in genuine proportion to how common they were. They’d neither be excluded nor overrepresented because of prejudice or voter suppression.

This all sounds like armchair reasoning. However, the best evidence for sortition is that one country tried it.

Sortition in Ireland

In 2016, Ireland convened a “Citizens’ Assembly” to debate weighty political questions like abortion and climate change. The assembly consisted of 99 ordinary Irish citizens, drawn at random from the electoral rolls, and one civil servant to serve as a chairperson.

Over a period of several months, the Citizens’ Assembly heard expert testimony, invited public comment, held Q&A sessions, and debated. And the result:

[T]he proposals which emerged from the Assembly were more progressive, more radical and potentially more world-changing than the politicians who commissioned it expected, or even believed possible. The Assembly’s recommendation on abortion—which had been made illegal in Ireland in 1861 and remained so following a nationwide referendum in 1983—was that it should be put to another referendum. Abortion is the most contentious issue in Irish public life, with politicians losing their posts for even suggesting that it should be debated, and this fear of open discussion had strangled the possibility of reform for decades.

James Bridle, Ways of Being, p.244

That referendum took place in 2018. By a landslide margin, the Irish people voted to repeal the 8th Amendment and legalize abortion in this former Catholic stronghold. As one newspaper wrote at the time, it was an “overwhelming desire for change that nobody foresaw”—except the ordinary citizens who made up the assembly. They knew public opinion had shifted in ways that politicians hadn’t known or suspected, because they were the public and it was their opinion!

Six months later the Assembly came to similarly radical conclusions, this time on the subject of climate change. After taking testimony from experts and the general public, the Assembly issued a series of recommendations, each one passed by at least 80 per cent of its members, arguing for the institution of an independent body to address climate change; the imposition of a tax on carbon and other greenhouse gases; the encouragement of electric vehicles, public transport, ecological forestry and organic farming; the ending of subsidies to fossil fuels; the reduction of food waste; and support for sustainable electricity micro-generation. All these measures had been proposed to the government before, but had been abandoned or left to languish because politicians thought them unworkable or unpopular, or both.

James Bridle, Ways of Being, p.244-245

Another Citizens’ Assembly, convened in 2019, recommended sweeping changes to improve gender equality. One of their recommendations was to delete Article 41.2 of the Irish Constitution, the sexist “women’s place in the home” clause. Ireland will hold another referendum on that question in November 2023.

Of course, these citizens’ assemblies—in Ireland and other countries that have experimented with them—are only advisory. So far, no nation has actually handed over the keys of power to one.

Even so, where they’ve been tried, they’ve had a positive effect. They’ve made democracy more direct and more responsive. They’ve created space for debate and reform on issues that politicians were too afraid to touch. They’ve broken through inertia and created cover for elected officials who might have wanted to act but feared backlash.

Possible problems with sortition

There are two real problems I can see with sortition, especially if any country ever uses it to choose representatives directly and not just to advise them.

First: If legislators were chosen randomly, they’d have no need to worry about reelection. That means they wouldn’t have to tailor their policies to appeal to a majority of the electorate. While that would free them to express their honest convictions, it would also mean they could push wildly unpopular ideas with no fear of backlash.

And that’s a problem, because if we do it enough times, it’s statistically inevitable that we’d eventually get a random sample that’s unrepresentative. You can ensure it’s balanced demographically, but you can’t guarantee it’s a fair sample of people’s opinions. What if we choose 100 representatives by lot and get 75 QAnon-believing evangelicals? A legislature that’s far out of the mainstream could wreak tremendous harm or radically reshape society in disastrous ways.

The other problem I see with sortition is that, even if it’s representative, it wouldn’t necessarily be responsive. People mounting a campaign on issues that matter to them is one of the safety valves of democracy. If there’s a problem that the government is ignoring—anything from potholed streets to rampant gun violence to unpopular wars—someone can, and probably will, run for office on a platform of fixing it.

Under sortition, that’s impossible. No matter what your cause is, you have no lever to force the government to act. You have to sit back and hope that someone who shares your views gets chosen on the next go-round.

Despite these problems, I can see real potential for sortition—if not as the sole basis for government, then maybe as a component of it. What if, instead of a House and a Senate, we had one democratically elected chamber and one made up of citizens chosen by lot?

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM—Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...

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