The Argument for Randomly Choosing Governments and Parliaments in Democracies

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Beyond the fact that it can solve your life with a few million euros, the lottery — thus, in lower case, as a general concept — offers some interesting features. One of them, and no less, is that, in its own way, it is incorruptible. If applied well, there is no human way to circumvent it. Chance plays its role and smiles at one or the other in a totally random way, regardless of whether they have spent a fortune on their organization. Another is that, precisely for that reason, it is fully democratic. In the hype there is not a ball with more possibilities of coming out than another.

With such a cover letter, the question we could ask ourselves is: Would a democracy work based on draws, on randomness? would it work a “lotocracy”?

Neither the question nor the term is new. Not at all. What’s more, something similar was proposed by the Athenians —pioneers par excellence in democratic governments— a couple of centuries before our era, when they used draws for the election of some public positions. The same mechanism continued kicking in certain cases and with conditions throughout history.

A formula with history… and supporters

We find it in cities of what is now Italy during the Middle Ages and also in the Renaissance; but it declined in the XVII, with the representative systems. From a formula similar to the one we continue to use today to choose the presidents of the neighborhood communities, we passed to another that, at least on paper, aspires to choose the best for public office.

In a 21st century with a system moth-eaten by corruption and patronage networks, there are, however, those who advocate recovering the philosophy of “lotocracy”. In the academic sphere we find respected voices, such as the philosopher Alex Guerrero, the political scientist Helene Landemore or the historian David Van Reybrouck that invite, at least, to dwell on its virtues. Beyond the stands and atriums of the universities there are also movements, such as Sorting Foundationwho advocate a formula that wants to place the citizen in the center of political decision making.

“By selecting representative groups of ordinary people by lot and bringing them together in citizens’ assemblies we can break the stranglehold of career politicians over decisions and circumvent powerful vested interests,” Advocates Sortition, with offices in the United Kingdom, Austria and the United States, before putting their finger on one of the great problems of modern democracies: the “disillusionment” and “distrust” that the political class arouses. You don’t have to go to the Anglophone world to find it. In Spain, the CIS places corruption, fraud and the behavior of public officials among the main concerns of citizens, even ahead of education or housing.

Funeral Speech Pericles

19th-century painting by Philipp Foltz depicting the Athenian politician Pericles before the Assembly.

According to Sortition’s registry, a good handful of initiatives verified by the OECD are distributed throughout the world that, in the style of open assemblies, share or have shared their philosophy of empowering neighbors. In Spain, it identifies several, such as the participatory platform Madrid decideswhich was created with the aim of making proposals, achieving participatory accounts and voting in citizen consultations; G1000, also located in the capital; or Besaya Citizen Jurywhich proposes ways of using European funds in the Besaya basin.

Beyond the isolated initiatives that seek to reinforce the political weight of citizens, can a system be recovered, lottocracywhat –as Leandro Omar El Eter collects— was conceived as “a form of government that promotes access to public office through lottery”?

Paul Simonpolitical scientist and editor of Politikonrecalls that the formula of democracy by lottery has little that is new, but points out the advantages that could be brought by “exploring” a hybrid model that combines its strengths with those of the current system, as in the irish constitutional convention, formed in 2012 to discuss proposals for amendments to the nation’s Magna Carta and which included, among other members, randomly selected people. There, in Ireland, the citizens’ assembly served, for example, to deal with complex problems, such as the legalization of abortion. The United Kingdom also proved its usefulness, with a forum of 108 people which, after weeks of debate, produced a report with a battery of proposals to combat climate change.

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“I find it interesting to explore this system in combination. For example, the experience of the irish constitutional convention. In those cases, the draw was hybridized with the representatives. That we create more forums or spaces with a lottery of citizens and allow them a part of the management would not seem bad to me. Just as we have participatory budgets or the ILPs, that a part of the budget could be managed by a committee chosen by citizens randomly, but with technical support. I think we should explore this type of thing because it would help people feel more connected to the institutions,” reflects Simón.

The key, abounds, would be to find “good design”: “Knowing how it would be done, with whom and what attributions or powers would be given to that body chosen by lottery. Always looking for combinations that make it possible to correct, return to a model in which this mechanism of direct citizen participation has a greater perception of surrender of accounts, of proximity”.

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weaknesses and strengths

The system in its pure state, of course, has its strengths and weaknesses. Among the former, the political scientist insists on its fully democratic character. “There is no electoral rule more radically democratic than the drawing of lots, and this is so because deep down it is assuming that everyone is competent to carry out the functions of government,” he explains. What does it imply that this is so? From the outset, it greatly complicates one of the great evils of the current system: clientelism, the networks of supporters that end up congealing around whoever holds political power. How to do it when whoever holds a position does so by chance and with no guarantee that they will retain it?

“It is a system that is contrary to patronage and corruption. In a lottery, by definition, you don’t know who you have to govern because you don’t know who is going to get it,” says Simón. Another peculiarity is that it polishes the differences that now exist between parties in the electoral race, very marked by the access of the different forces to financing, which can lead to the same problem.

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“Right now, in our democracy, not all political options start with the same advantage or disadvantage. If you are a party and have more access to public or company funding, you are more likely to win some selections than if you don’t. But in a draw that disappears. That is radically democratic. The influence of economic and political powers does not filter into the system,” says the political scientist and editor of Politikon.

Not all are advantages, of course. The “lotocracy” also has its weaknesses. For example, political motivation. The parties have a caliber reason to manage well. If they don’t, they risk losing support and losing elections; but… will a position that depends on chance and that does not have in its hands reissue its responsibilities be just as motivated? “In addition, these people do not have to render accounts later. They can make it fatal that later they do not go to an election in which they are rewarded or punished. It does not matter. The draw will be held again.”

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Another handicap is representativeness itself. If the door is opened at random, it is assumed that whoever comes out of the “hype” can exercise their responsibility from affiliation with a support that is not majority or reflect the sensitivity of society. “The draw does not say how many people agree with the candidate who is elected. Imagine that now I draw the presidency of the government in Spain and it is up to the leader of the PACMA. I am electing someone to the position who does not have support in his society project at the level of others who have not been elected,” says Simón.

Hélène Landemore proposes for example, that citizens’ assemblies propose changes that must later be ratified in a public vote and points to the need for additional accountability mechanisms, including laws that regulate the use of money.

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On the table there would also be other questions: Who should participate in the draw, all citizens or those who have applied? Should the maxim that everyone can command and learn to manage public affairs be assumed as a starting point? It is not a minor issue. If plurality were lost, one of the great attractions of the system would also be laminated. To address the problem, random sampling and facilitating choice with financial incentives and measures that make it possible, for example, to relocate are aimed at.

The proposal is complex, but certainly not from scratch. In British Columbia, without going any further, randomly selected citizen assemblies have already been convened to address issues as relevant as electoral system reform. The objective: to spice up the system with a “radically democratic” model. And, who knows, facilitate citizen reconnection with politics.

Pictures | Edwin Andrade (Unplash), Alejandro Garay (Unsplash), Arnaud Jaegers (Unsplash) and Wikipedia

Beyond the fact that it can solve your life with a few million euros, the lottery — thus, in lower…

Beyond the fact that it can solve your life with a few million euros, the lottery — thus, in lower…

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