The advantages of legislature by lottery

Note: This post is meant for readers who are already fed up with traditional elections and are looking for viable alternatives. If you are not convinced that we need to get beyond traditional elections, read my previous post first: Why traditional elections will never work

It is strange that democracy has become synonymous with voting, because for most of human history it was synonymous with lotteries. The ancient Athenians used lotteries (also called election by lot, random selection, or sortition) to fill the vast majority of public offices as well as their most important legislative bodies. Right through the Renaissance, it was widely accepted that aristocracy was built on voting and democracy built on lotteries. Indeed, lotteries are still fundamental to arguably our most democratic institution: trial by jury.

Election by lot holds so much potential for reinventing politics because it allow us to form legislatures that are mini versions of the broader population. Legislatures filled with everyday citizens that look like us, live like us, and share our concerns. And when you give these normal people access to expert opinions and the time to investigate policy issues and deliberate together, they can make sensible decisions that actually represent us.

And this has been proven by the sound decisions of countless randomly selected Citizens Juries, Citizens Assemblies, and Deliberative Polls over the past several decades. The following interactive map shows just a few of these events and the growing number of organizations advancing the use of lotteries:

Global Movement Placeholder
Global Movement

Randomly selected Citizens' Juries and Assemblies

Randomly selected Deliberative Polls

Organizations advancing the use of lotteries

Click on the dots for more info

Moreover, lotteries have the potential to give us good, democratic government, while at the same time doing away with the need for politicians, donors, campaigns, political parties, and so many other aspects of our current politics that divide us and pervert the very idea of democracy.

Similar to government in ancient Athens and jury duty today, we can randomly select diverse groups of citizens to take turns serving a few years in office. These representatives would be free from the typical political concerns of repaying campaign donors, following party lines, or needing to win the next election. Instead, they could decide what is best for their community or their country based on the best evidence, the most convincing arguments, and their conscience as everyday people who will soon return to their normal lives and have to live with their decisions.

This would undoubtedly increase the legitimacy and trustworthiness of government, and it would also increase the civic skills and commitment of those who take a turn governing. Bringing people from all walks of life together to grapple with complex issues, without the spectacle of competitive elections could even help heal our growing political divide.

“An interesting idea…would be to reintroduce the ancient Greek practice of selecting parliaments by lot instead of election. In other words, parliamentarians would no longer be nominated by political parties, but chosen at random for a limited term, in the way many jury systems work. This would prevent the formation of self-serving and self-perpetuating political classes disconnected from their electorates.”

Kofi Annan

Former Secretary-General of the United Nations

Election by lot also opens up new possibilities. We could used lotteries to fill many legislatures and allow each one to specialize in one area of public policy, instead of asking a single group of representatives to decide on so many different issues that they can never become adequately informed (as is inevitably the case with elected legislatures). Or, we could use randomly selected panels of citizens to choose our executives, providing these hiring panels the resources and time needed to find, interview, and evaluate the most experienced and qualified public administrators.

Lotteries hold great potential, but they commonly face the same objection: What if everyday people aren’t smart enough to govern? What if they make bad decisions?

This objection ignores a large body of evidence from deliberative events around the world that suggests that groups of randomly selected people, when given adequate time and information, make very sensible decisions. They exhibit a certain wisdom that comes from their diverse perspectives and lived experiences.

Also, let’s not forget that the bar is currently pretty low. While we may like to think that the candidates we vote into office are the best and brightest, it is becoming increasingly clear that this is not the case.

And given the current state of politics, shouldn’t we be less worried about competence and more worried about corruption? Even if randomly selected citizens only made mediocre decisions while representing us, wouldn’t that still be better than politicians making smart decisions while representing billionaire donors, their party, and corporate lobbyists?

Either way, we won’t really know how well citizens elected by lot can govern until we give them a chance. With our politics in shambles, even those who are skeptical should agree that it is at least worth trying lotteries on a small scale. Because if it works, it would give us a new and inspiring way to reinvent our politics before traditional elections drive us deeper into crisis.

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