Sunday, February 04, 2018

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.


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.


JimV said...

Your answers to the objections cleared up most of my concerns. I still wish the selections could be filtered some way so as to evolve towards an optimum. I don't want any morons or sociopaths or both. The answer of course is that we have those now, and your method couldn't be any worse - unless of course the average is pretty bad.

In jury selection, the judge can remove a prospective juror, and the lawyers of both sides can remove a juror for cause, or arbitrarily for a certain number of jurors. The judge and the lawyers have had to get an advanced degree and pass an exam in order to qualify as selectors. I want something like that system added to the sortition.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

It's a valid objection. I have thought about it.

One way would be to implement yet another innovation I'd like to see. Each year, the representatives get to vote on the single person (or perhaps two or three) they would like to see ejected from the body. Such a person is then removed.

For example, if this system were implemented in professional sports for referees, we'd quickly get rid of the handful of baseball umpires that everybody agrees are terrible.

fudo said...

Very convincing! I wonder how the government could be formed, in such a situation. One solution, for presidential systems like the US, could be just keeping the current method, i.e., letting the people elect a president, then letting him form a cabinet and deal with the (random, in this new situation) representatives. Of course, this would have its limits, but I can't see an easy alternative (a random president does not really make sense, etc).

By contrast, in a parliamentary system such as the Italian one, some adjustments would be needed; currently, the Parliament elects a President, whose main job is to appoint a Prime Minister (and then the secretaries chosen by the PM) in a sensible way, that is, by looking at the Parliament's composition. With no parties and random representation, that task would be very difficult. How could we make it work instead, in your opinion?

philosopher-animal said...

Back in the 1990s us (then) hapless undergraduates debated all sorts of things. One was (Canadian) Senate reform. I proposed a "Jury Senate" so that we could get the random selection benefits and continue to have the House of Commons with "career politicians" for its benefits (like stability and parties, such as they are, etc.) (I would also suggest some sort of ranked ballot or run-off voting for HoC, but that's an independent matter.)

I was a philosophy student and a lot of my classmates were interested in "political theory" and I (the philosopher of science) proposed the above and was looked at funny as if somehow some high-falutin' solution to the Senate problems would work better.

It is arbitrary to me which would be done which way, though. Senate was the proposed one to change because that's what people were already talking about reform of.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Good job!

To have a chance, I think it should be tried in some small inoffensive jurisdiction first. How about PEI?

philosopher-animal said...

PEI has a unicameral legislature. Does that matter?

yoramgat said...

The question is: how can sortition be promoted?

It is obviously going to be a threat to established powers, so it is unlikely that the idea will get exposure in mass media until there is a lot of public interest in it. But of course, how can the public become interested in an idea that is hardly ever discussed in public?

So, again, the question is, how can sortition be promoted?

Yoram Gat
<a href=">Equality-by-Lot</a>: the blog devoted to information, discussion and promotion of sortition.

Nicholas Gruen said...

I've written out some of the arguments in favour of sortition in the context of the Westminster system proposing an additional house chosen by sortition here. and here

But waiting for people to change the constitution anywhere is going to have you waiting a long time.

So I've proposed that the way forward here is to embrace sortition as a kind of activism with citizen's bodies chosen by sortition funded by philanthropists and crowdfunding. The undoubted democratic legitimacy of a substantial majority of a citizens' jury would have a powerful influence on the established system.

One can imagine such a thing set up regarding any issue – I've proposed one for Brexit here

And one could also see if one could fund a multi-purpose chamber that would sit as if it were a house of Congress/Parliament. At least for as long as you didn't have government funding, you might have salaries a lot lower than $250,000. That would be OK with me. A lot of people would accept on average wages.

cody said...

In the past when you've wrote about this the one main concern I had was institutional memory, but you've addressed that here.

As a resident of NH I'd love to give it a shot, especially as a combination (with one legislative body elected & the other randomly selected), but I see one more very big hurdle: how do we convince legislators to implement a system that essentially puts them out of a job?

Other issues (specific to NH) might be that the current system is notoriously large—400 House members (24 Senators), and that they are paid $100 annually. (I suppose if we could replace the House with a smaller sortition body we could raise their pay substantially, even $130k/yr would be about twice the median income in NH.)

Simon Threlkeld said...

Some of what is suggested in this post seems good to me.

Here are my published articles, since 1997, on how juries (aka "minipublics," "citizen juries," and "jury assemblies") can make modern societies far more democratic than they are.

I argue that the final say in lawmaking should be transferred to juries, and that many public officials should be chosen by jury (rather than by popular election or by politicians).

I am in favour of such juries serving for short terms of service. This is presently the case with trial juries, and was the case with juries in Classical Athens, including the jury courts (a new jury court was chosen for each trial), legislative juries (an new one was chosen to decide each proposed law that went to such a jury), and the Council (Boule) on which jurors served for one year. (All of these decision-making bodies were chosen by sortition, aka lottery.) I believe that trial juries and the Ancient Greeks got it right regarding it being best for juries to serve for short terms of service, and avoiding needless concentrations of power(such as on jury deciding many laws, or deciding many trials).