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Do We Need Elections?
Wait, wait, wait—hear me out. What if we chose our representatives at random?
“Depend upon it, sir” wrote Samuel Johnson. “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” If you’ll pardon the analogy, and even if you won’t, we might say the same thing about election speculation and preparations. In parliamentary democracies like Canada, where election dates are not fixed or where they are are semi-fixed, such chatter comes and goes with the political fortunes of the day and the gossip of journalists who spend their lives bending an elbow at pubs frequented by the in-crowd. In the United States, where election dates are fixed, the contests never stop. In recent years, however, the distinction has collapsed, as perpetual campaigns become more common.
Election speculation focuses the mind on what a country has, what it might gain, and what it might lose. In some cases, that distinction itself collapses, too, into a pile of broadly similar—broadly similar, not the same—offerings. Where strategic considerations come into play, as they often do in Canada, one’s options are said to shrink further still, so that you’re stuck, or at least you are told you are stuck, choosing the least-bad viable option. But what if we didn't have elections at all?
I’m not talking about autocracy. I’m still talking about democracy. It’s possible to have democracy without elections, at least as we understand them. And it’s certainly possible to have democracy with fewer elections. Indeed, one of the ailments of American democracy is that there’s too damned much of the wrong sort of it.
But imagine if a state could do away with or limit elections and instead use a random drawing of lots (from a representative sample) to choose representatives. You, me, your dentist, your Uber driver, your neighbour. It could be just about anyone, based on broad criteria with few exclusions. This process is known as sortition, and anyone familiar with ancient democracy of the Greek, particularly Athenian, variety knows it. It’s not new. It’s just unfamiliar to contemporary democratic—though it may be known as it’s used in jury selection.
The late American political writer and commentator William F. Buckley expressed something like a commitment to the principle of sortition when he wrote in the 1960s, “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.” Buckley’s reasoning is important, as the acerbic conservative might be mistaken for anti-intellectualism. That wasn’t precisely the case here. He would prefer the names in the phone book, he reasoned, “Not, heaven knows, because I hold lightly the brainpower or knowledge or generosity or even the affability of the Harvard faculty: but because I greatly fear intellectual arrogance, and that is a distinguishing characteristic of the university which refuses to accept any common premise.”
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Today, we might critique our politicians for a similar reason. We might say they are out of touch; we might say they are beholden to donors or the corporate lobby or their party or the ‘common sense’ and ‘logic’ of their milieu, even when it conflicts with those of the public; we may say they are entrenched and self-interested and thus self-serving. Or at least enough of them are that we have a structural problem that produces bad outcomes.
That structural problem with elections exists because of the incentives and imperatives our system produces. The problem is not that everyone who enters electoral politics is inherently wretched, though some certainly are. If that were the case, our problems could be solved with “better people.” No, the problem is that our system welcomes good and bad people alike and incentivizes each of them to make bad decisions—decisions that all too often fail to inspire, mobilize, serve, and represent the people they are there to nspire, mobilize, serve, and represent.
Proponents of sortition, such as the Belgian historian David Van Reybrouck, author of Against Elections, argue that a move away from electoral representative democracy would be a move away from electoral aristocracy, democratic fatigue, and crises of legitimacy and alienation. Sortition eliminates the perverse incentives inherent in representative elections: pandering to voters with poorly formed political preferences, being bought by big money, thoughtlessly repeating the party line, or narrowly representing the interest of one’s plurality of constituents (that is, the small handful of people who’ll vote for you and keep you elected time and time again).
As the argument goes, once you strip away electoral incentives, you’ll diminish the sorts of legislative and executive incentives that produce poor governance—political theatre, inter- and intra-party manoeuvring, lobbyist pressure, and so forth. In its place, ideally, you get democratic deliberation, the exchange of reasons for and against policies and laws based on data, reasoning, and good-faith arguments rather than strategic considerations such horse trading, personal grievances or ambitions, or electoral incentives. That sounds much better than the “debate” we get now. So, a sortition system is not only democratic—governance of and by the people—it’s deliberative, based on reason-giving. It’s a hell of a twofer.
So, what’s the catch? In Against Elections, Van Reybrouck addresses a handful of expected critiques. People aren’t experts, for instance. That’s the big one. To that he says “everyone is an expert on their own life,” before adding, astutely, “What is the point of a parliament full of highly educated lawyers if few of them know the prices of bread? Sortition produces a legislature that includes a great cross section of society.” Indeed, it does. Moreover, people can learn on the job and, as citizens’ assemblies have taught us, deliberative democracy is a great way to process the complexity of policy options and come to conclusions by bringing in experts and others to educate decision makers without all the extra baggage that elections ental. Plus, as Van Reybrouck notes “Those elected are not always particularly competent either.” Can confirm.
In some models of sortition, such as Van Reybrouck’s, “a chamber of representatives chosen by lot would not stand alone…legislation would arise from the interaction between it and an elected chamber.” He calls it a “bi-representational” model. One might imagine, for instance, the Senate of Canada being a place where this model might work. Each body can check and balance and enhance the other.
Whether you support sortition or not, the arguments for it ought to focus the mind, asking us to evaluate why we hold elections the way we do, what outcomes they produce, and what they get wrong as-is. Our elections return the same sort of people time and again, they narrow the ideological spectrum of what is possible or desirable, they entrench a class of aristocratic governors who govern us but don’t necessarily govern for us. Our system turns people into passive objects of governance rather than active subjects of self-government. Is that what we expect and want from our democracy—and ourselves? Or can we do better by relying less on electoral democracy and more on the people it’s ostensibly there to serve?