Dr. Roslyn Fuller is a lecturer in International Law based in Ireland. She is a regular contributor to Irish and international media on world trade, privacy, whistle-blowing and the War on Terror. A great fan of the classics, she has been researching democracy for over a decade and is the author of Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed its Meaning and Lost its Purpose, to be published by Zed Books in November 2015. [Welcome to Equality-by-Lot! -YG]
When I first started researching ancient, democratic Athens, I was struck by the layers of randomness built into the political system. Sure, it wasn’t a utopia, but under Athenian democracy wresting control of the decision-making process was at least a difficult and continuous task, because the thrust of the system worked against what Robert Michels would have termed ‘the Iron Law of Oligarchy’.
Lottery selection for most office-holders, as well as for Athens’ enormous juries was one aspect of that randomness. The more I read, the more I was impressed not just with the practice of sortition, but the way the Athenians went about it: dropping their pinakia (identity-tickets) into baskets, having them shaken up, the presiding official randomly drawing a ticket, that person becoming the pinakia-inserter and in turn randomly drawing tickets, dropping the kyboi, or coloured balls, randomly down the kleroterion’s funnel. The Athenians were clearly determined to bastard-proof their system. In my view, their paranoia was justified, and represented nothing more than healthy respect for the criminal (or oligarchic) mind.
But there’s not much point in creating such a fool-proof sortition system if the overarching politics doesn’t change as well. As we all know, in Athens the process of sortition didn’t run in parallel to a sophisticated and expensive electoral system; it ran in parallel to the Assembly. Whatever else one may want to say about Assembly, it was the national focal point for the issues of the day. Assembly attendance was also somewhat random (if self-selecting) in that it generally depended on who showed up of their own volition. A rhetor never looked out on the exact same Assembly twice, and while the ‘professional’, often affluent, rhetors certainly wielded a great deal of influence, they never did know when some unknown citizen would pop out of the woodwork and carry the day against them. Power was possible; power consolidation more of a challenge.
It was this Assembly that was down with sortition in its various forms. It’s hard to look at Athens and see how sortition could have existed side-by-side with the kind of entrenched and powerful electoral politics practised today.
My book “DOWN WITH ELECTIONS!” will be available as an e-book on Amazon and Smashwords from 1st September for the princely sum of 99c US or equivalent. It’s a revised and corrected version of the articles published earlier on this forum.
Readers of this forum can have it free from my Dropbox account. It would be nice if you post a comment on Amazon or Smashwords. (Thanks)
Electoralist dogma accords voting with significant ethical importance. If elections are the centerpiece of democracy, a legitimization of government, an expression of the “consent of the governed” then seeing voting as anything less than a pledge of allegiance would be cynical. By casting a vote for a candidate the voter makes a declaration of support for the record and agenda of the candidate and to some extent takes on responsibility for policy the candidate implements if elected. The more extreme versions of this romanticized view apply these implications of support and responsibility to each and every act or position of the candidate. Other versions apply them only to the record and policy in total.
An alternative, less exalted view would be that voting in a mass election is a specific act with specific practical implications. It is no more than a political expedient. According to this view, when considering who to vote for – and indeed whether to vote at all – citizens simply need to consider which alternative can be expected to yield better policy. Voting is then not an assertion about the record or agenda of the candidate in isolation but the expression of a comparison between the anticipated outcomes of the available courses of action.
“Lottery Voting: A Thought Experiment” is a 1995 article by Akhil Reed Amar, perhaps the most influential Constitutional Law theorist in the US.
In the article Amar proposes using the lottery to determine representation only after a standard election campaign has determined the percentage of support each candidate has received.
In this case then, the ‘statistical representation’ (which he champions) would be only of those citizens willing to go through the process of standing for election.
This is much less representative — and less attractive to me — than eliminating campaigning altogether… and using only two parameters to enter the lot: 1.) registration for it, indicating a willingness to serve if chosen; 2.) a simple civics test (such as the Naturalization Test in the U.S.).
From an interview with investigative reporter Lee Fang about the recent retirement of Eric Holder from his job as Attorney General of the US and his resumption of his job at the law firm Covington & Burling:
Lee Fang: One of the perhaps most cynical and and most prevalent ways that you can legally bribe a government official or an elected official is to wait to give them a multi-million dollar check, not while they’re in office, but as soon as they retire. So if a politician helps a bank or an oil company, that oil company can’t directly buy them a boat or give them a million-dollar check. But if they wait until that official retires from office, as soon as they step out the door of Congress and find an employment contract with a lobbying firm or a big bank, then they can accept a multi-million-dollar payday; and so it’s simply delayed bribery, in my perspective.
Nicholas Ross Smith and Zbigniew Dumienski of the Politics and International Relations Department at the University of Auckland write at the New Zealand Herald, New Zealand’s largest circulation newspaper, arguing that using randomly selected juries to make some council-level policy suggestions may be a good starting point for organically growing a more democratic governance system:
A report by Bernard Orsman published in the New Zealand Herald on the state of Auckland City Council found that 88 of the 99 positions in the council’s boardrooms and executive teams were filled by “white men from wealthy suburbs.”
The reported demographic composition of the decision-making bodies in Auckland Council suggests that we are facing a potentially harmful democratic deficit. Yet, before anyone suggests quotas or other bureaucratic mechanisms aimed at diversifying the Council’s management structure, it would be good to consider a very different and far more democratic approach currently tried by our friends across the ditch: citizens’ juries as bodies that could breathe new, more democratic and vibrant spirit into our city’s old structures.
The democratic deficit evident in Auckland City Council is part of a broader trend in democracies worldwide, both at the local and national levels, which are increasingly seen as departing from the core democratic principles that they are supposed to uphold. Meaningful deliberations and political equality are the soul of democracy.
Increasingly, our electoral system is virtually devoid of the former and its outcomes suggest the erosion of the latter. Interestingly, such an outcome would have perhaps been predicted by the founders of democracy in classical Athens who were concerned that elections and campaigning contains in themselves anti-democratic and oligarchic seeds.