Joshua Davis writes in Wired:
Roughly 2,500 years ago, the citizens of Athens developed a concept of democracy that’s still hailed by the modern world. It was not, however, a democracy in which every citizen had a vote. Aristotle argued that such a practice would lead to an oligarchy, where powerful individuals would unduly influence the masses. Instead the Athenians relied on a simple machine to randomly select citizens for office. It’s an idea whose time has come again.
Two separate research initiatives—one from a pioneering cryptographer and a second from a team based at Stanford University—have proposed a return to this purer, Athenian-style democracy. Rather than expect everyone to vote, both proposals argue, we should randomly select an anonymous subset of electors from among registered voters. Their votes would then be extrapolated to the wider population. Think of it as voting via statistically valid sample. With a population of 313 million, the US would need about 100,000 voters to deliver a reliable margin of error.
“The Stanford team” refers, of course, to the activities of James Fishkin that have been discussed here before (for example, here).
The pioneering cryptographer is David Chaum. He proposes to use sampling in voting (with some cryptographic sauce keeping the identities of those in the sample secret) and his major selling point is that this would reduce the cost of elections.
He also makes arguments that are quite familiar in the “policy juries” line of proposals: that with more influence per voter, those sampled would put more effort into information gathering and study, and that many such votes could be carried out in parallel, each dealing with a different issue.
Chaum concludes with the following comments:
Random-sample elections can thus be interpreted more broadly as providing a way forward, from our current paradigm-induced disparity in access to the power of information technology, towards allowing effective voter input to governance.
There may be some who would like to be randomly selected to run government for a limited period, though few today seem to relish jury duty. And there may even be those who wish for a return to Athenian random selection of representatives, ignoring the complexity of today’s policy issues. Similarly, in future there may be some who long to vote in mass elections, perhaps romanticizing about the act of casting a secret ballot in person among one’s neighbors. But there will likely be few who oppose the deeper and wider and more continuous monitoring of the will of the electorate provided by random-sample elections, at least informing if not being binding on government. The Ancient Greeks’ conflation of random selection of officials with democracy may in future be considered no more naive than today’s conflation of mass elections with democracy.