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Ideas

The case for governing by lottery

America really would be better off picking its leaders at random, says a group of political scientists

Globe staff photo illustration

After November’s election, after the seemingly endless campaign and billions of dollars in advertisements, Americans are now sending to Washington a new Congress that looks very much like the previous Congress, despite the fact that years of gridlock have earned the chamber some of the lowest approval ratings in American politics.

The performance of our elected officials has led many people to wonder whether we might as well just pluck people at random and send them to Washington. For a small but fervent group of political philosophers, that’s not a joke—it’s a serious idea. They argue we’d be better off if we scrapped congressional elections altogether and instead filled the House of Representatives with 435 Americans selected lottery-style from the population.

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Elections may be deeply intertwined with our conception of democracy, but these thinkers argue that when it comes to much of what Congress does, they aren’t always necessary, and can even harm a democratic state. Shifting decisions to a rotating pool of citizens, they say—a political system called “lottocracy” or “demarchy”—would limit the influence of money in politics, because there would be no more campaigns to fund; end the divisive rhetoric that politicians use to corral voters; and solve the problem of having politicians duck big issues like entitlement reform because they’re worried about their reelection prospects.

“My main worry is that electoral accountability has broken down,” says Alex Guerrero, a philosophy professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “In a lottocratic system, where the representatives haven’t necessarily sought out power, you might get policies that are more responsive to the people and less distorted by powerful special interests.”

Guerrero is an enthusiastic advocate for government by random selection. In a forthcoming book called “The Lottocratic Alternative,” he explains that while elections seem intrinsic to democracy, there might be other, smarter ways to preserve the one indispensable quality of democracy, rule by the people.

His idea is one of a number of provocative proposals offered by academics who contend that introducing elements of random assignment into legislative politics is just what we need to shake up a corroded system. Economist Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago has argued that randomly assigning and reassigning legislators to committees would limit the possibility of influence peddling. Peter Stone, a lecturer in political science at Trinity College in Dublin and contributor to Equality by Lot, a blog about lottocratic politics, has, along with Scott Wentland of Longwood University, put forward the idea of having congressmen run for reelection “in a district picked at random at the beginning of each election season.”

These schemes are unlikely to supplant elections any time soon, but at a time of particular dysfunction in American politics, they do force us to examine whether a political system defined by competing self-interests might actually be improved—strange as it seems—if we gave more political power to chance.

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Government by random selection may seem incompatible with democracy, but the two have been conjoined from the start. Our democratic forebears in ancient Athens used randomness to prevent political power from accumulating among the wealthy and the well-born: Through the drawing of lots, they ensured that, in Aristotle’s words, every citizen had experience “ruling and being ruled in turn.”

It has also been tried more recently. In British Columbia, an assembly composed of randomly selected citizens was convened to reform electoral laws, though the proposal they came up with was ultimately rejected by voters in a referendum. In 2010, California used a highly modified form of random selection to fill eight seats on a commission charged with redrawing congressional districts. That experiment worked: The commission has been praised for producing non-­gerrymandered congressional districts that have made elections there more competitive.

Guerrero’s idea is more sweeping. As he envisions it, the responsibilities currently given to state legislatures or even the United States Congress would be broken up and apportioned among “Single-Issue Lottery-Selected Legislatures,” or SILLs. Each SILL would be tasked with legislating on one issue—say, energy or agriculture or tax policy—and would be made up of 200 to 500 citizens chosen at random from the population to serve each for a single three-year term. The terms would be staggered so that only one-third of the members would turn over each year. The SILLs would solicit expert testimony, hold town hall-style meetings to gather citizen input, and then deliberate and vote on legislation that, depending on how the system was constructed, would still have to be signed by the president. It’s all very similar to the way Congress works now, only without the backdrop of elections.

Shifting responsibility to SILLs would eliminate the gridlock of the filibuster-plagued Senate and the polarized House of Representatives, Guerrero argues; SILLs would make pay-to-play scandals much less likely, and they’d allow representatives to spend more time legislating and less time campaigning and fund-raising. It’s true that their members wouldn’t necessarily be experienced in the areas they’re asked to govern, but neither are many of the lawmakers we elect.

SILLs would have other advantages as well. Guerrero explains that the single-issue focus of the SILLs would allow the country to work on a range of important policies simultaneously, in contrast with the current system where Congress typically only has the bandwidth to take up one or two big issues each term. “I worry,” Guerrero says, “that [campaigns] lead to a narrow focus on a few concerns and leave a lot of things that matter to people on the sidelines.”

Guerrero’s proposal would almost certainly produce a Congress that looks a lot more like America. John Adams wrote that the legislature “should be an exact portrait, in miniature, of the people at large,” and by that standard there’s no denying that our current Congress—which is whiter, wealthier, more male, and more Protestant than the population as a whole—falls short. “Rather than having the Senate which is more than half lawyers and more than half millionaires,” Guerrero says, “with this system, you would get a more diverse group of people involved in the process and you wouldn’t have these vested interests watching in the background.”

Even as a thought experiment, however, Guerrero’s lottocratic alternative doesn’t hold water with some political scientists. Susan Stokes, professor of political science at Yale University, agrees that more diversity in Congress would be a good thing, but she also worries that Guerrero ignores something important: Often we really do elect representatives because we believe they’re good at their jobs. “There are ways in which we want our elected officials to look like us and then there are other ways in which we want them to be better than us,” she says. “We actively try to select for some skills and talents when we choose politicians.”

The lottocratic alternative also triggers all the objections made by opponents of term limits—that by creating a revolving door of lawmakers, it effectively weakens the legislative branch relative to the other parts of government, and relative to the career lobbyists who prey on them. “Basically what would happen” in a lottocratic world, says Bruce Cain, professor of political science at Stanford University, “is that regular staff and the president would become more powerful.” He continues, “You really do need to know something to pass legislation. By the time these [lottocratic legislators] learn where the bathrooms are, they’d have to leave.”

***

We may never see an America where on the first Tuesday of every November Americans open their mail to find out if they’ve been chosen for Congress. But the debate around random selection shines a light on what we do get out of elections, as frustrating as they are.

One of the main purposes of elections is—or should be—to provide citizens with the opportunity to hold their representatives accountable for the decisions they’ve made in office. But political scientists broadly agree that electoral accountability works imperfectly in practice. They point to 50 years of research (much of it coming out of the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan) which shows that most voters have insufficient knowledge to really evaluate how well their representatives are performing, and they agree that we’d all be better off if campaigns were shorter and cost less money than they do.

But even in this degraded state, political scientists contend, elections still serve to educate and invigorate the electorate in ways that are not easily replaced.

“Overall, there’s a fair amount of information delivered even in this hostile type of campaign environment,” says Sam Issacharoff, professor of constitutional law at New York University. “Politics ennobles the population as a whole, and elections force officials to come to me and educate me.” While Guerrero’s model specifically includes a period of community consultation, Issacharoff thinks that absent the competitive energy created by elections, it would be hard to get people to pay attention to the relatively dull business of day-to-day legislating.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there’s no room for shaking things up in our policy-making. Guerrero argues that even if we don’t abandon an elected Congress altogether, we could still task ad-hoc lottocratic bodies with deciding the most intractable, electorally charged issues like how to handle the looming fiscal cliff.

It might seem unlikely that a random collection of Americans would be capable of hashing out the minutia of tax policy or figuring out how to reform Medicare. But then again, that may be selling our own judgment short. There is already a place in American life where we count on randomly selected groups of ordinary citizens to decide crucial questions, often highly technical and morally momentous. It’s called the jury system, and so far it has worked out pretty well.

Kevin Hartnett, a freelance writer, lives in Ann Arbor, Mich.
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