Down With Free Elections!

A post by Campbell Wallace:

It is universally accepted that free elections guarantee the happiness of a nation.

At a time when men and women risk their lives and die for democracy it may seem indecent, even sacrilegious to criticise it. I do not write in order to mock those who struggle heroically against tyranny. But where is the evidence that the longed-for democratic elections are any better than chance as a method of choosing leaders?

Of course, voting an unwanted leader out of office (when it works!) is much better than bombs, kalashnikovs, or foreign invasions. It is in choosing politicians that the vote fails so miserably. I hardly have to justify this statement: everyone can think of examples of incompetent, corrupt, dishonest – or worse – democratically elected leaders, even though we would not all draw up the same list.

Governments seldom please those who elect them; a recent poll suggested that 81% of Americans are dissatisfied with their government. And let us not forget the long and horrible history of human rights violations by democracies, nor that some of the most despotic and bloody tyrannies were installed or kept in power by the democratically elected leaders of other countries.

The failure of elections in democracy

There are many reasons why elections don’t work very well, including the following:

Those who seek office are ipso facto ambitious, and there is truth in the dictum that “no man who seeks power is fit to exercise it”. Does your candidate want to change the laws to suit his own interests, or does he just enjoy making rules for other people to follow? And too often the politician’s only aim, once elected, is to hang on to power and position, by any means available. Wwhich is understandable, if politics is his only way of making a living.

Successful political campaigns require huge sums of money. That money comes from powerful institutions and individuals who can make or break a politician. Politicians must put the interests of their backers before those of the nation, or risk losing their job at the next election.

Because politicians crave re-election, law-making is sometimes a bizarre form of horse trading. “Will you vote for the aircraft carrier?” “I can’t do that.” “Suppose you got a subsidy for planting new wheat varieties and a 150% tax rebate on farm machines?” “Get me a six-lane bridge across the Muddy River and I’ll vote for the war against XXX as well.” And so on.

Voters cannot know what a politician will do once in power. Any would-be politician who says clearly what he means to do puts himself at a disadvantage with respect to those who mouth meaningless formulas. A well-defined policy can be attacked, misrepresented, quoted out of context, and ridiculed. Slogans like “it’s time” “yes, we can” and so forth have too little meaning in them to be capable of being distorted.

The information the public receives from the media is always incomplete and biased, often grotesquely so. The media depend on advertising revenue, and even in the absence of overt pressure, self-censure their news content. Given the pressures on editors, it is not surprising that even the best sometimes uncritically reprint propaganda prepared by “spin doctors”.

Even if we had politicians with clear policies which were accurately presented to us by the media, those policies could not take account of events which are still in the future. Should we then vote for the declared policy, or for the person likely to make the best decisions in unknown circumstances?

Voting systems and counting methods are never perfect, and often very far from ideal. Votes don’t count equally: a vote in a swinging electorate is more valuable than one in a “safe” seat. As an example, in a system with one seat per electorate, a party with 30% of the popular vote will win no seats at all if its voters are evenly distributed in all electorates. On the other hand, it will win a very comfortable majority if its supporters make up 51% of the population in 59% of electorates.

Some countries have adopted quite complicated electoral systems to try to reduce such unfairness. Nevertheless, it is still common for a government to be elected which is not preferred by the majority, even when there are no irregularities.

People with similar political views tend to be grouped in certain areas. This makes possible gerrymandering, where electoral boundaries are drawn to favour one or another party.

In the case where there are two large, approximately equal parties, a small party may exercise power that is out of all proportion to its size, if it is needed to form a governing coalition. Conversely, if it is not needed, its voice will not be heard.

A close election may be decided by accident. In South Australia in the late 1960s an election was decided by a majority of one vote. If some mischance had prevented two people from voting, the result would have been reversed.

A spectacular event which stirs emotions can swing an election in a way that voters later regret.

There are no new discoveries here, of course. All this is well-known to the point of nausea. Nevertheless we still (thoughtlessly!) claim that free elections will bring good government. Yet look at the results of democratic elections: consider the last ten elected presidents or prime ministers of any country you choose; would you consistently get a worse result by picking names with a pin from a telephone book?

Give chance a chance

If elections are no better, and probably worse, than chance at picking leaders, why not use chance?

Imagine a chamber of, say, 500 members of parliament between the ages of 25 and 65 chosen at random by computer to serve for five years. Rather than changing them all at once, 10% of them would be replaced every six months to give continuity of government and allow time for newcomers to become familiar with procedures. In the event of inability to serve, a replacement would be chosen at random.

A Prime Minister and a Cabinet would be chosen from amongst the members, initially by lot. At any moment MPs could, by vote, remove from office (though not from parliament) and replace the PM or individual ministers. The government would not “fall”, as in the case of a two-party system, it would merely undergo a sort of continuous tuning.

The parliament would have the authority to make all decisions except fixing MP’s pay and conditions, and the appointment of judges and civil servants.

There is a good reason for proposing a parliamentary government, not a presidential one. In choosing a sufficiently large group, you can be reasonably sure of getting a fair proportion of competent, perhaps even honest, members. Choosing a president with executive powers at random carries a small risk of choosing (for instance) a madman.

Depending on a country’s circumstances, there could be a uni- or bicameral parliament, and the members could be chosen one from each electorate, or all from the whole eligible population, there could be an upper house representing states in a federation, and so forth. And there is no reason not to have a president with purely symbolic functions, and chosen by popular vote too, if you wish, as long as he or she has no power.

The virtues of randomness

The first benefit is the huge saving in cost and public inconvenience. The random choice could be made at almost no cost by a very modest computer; compare this with the large sums spent on elections, particularly in the US.

A more important advantage is that the composition of the parliament would closely represent that of the public. Women and minority groups would automatically be present in the correct proportion. So would different political tendencies. The more MPs, the more faithfully they would represent the general public.

No elections would mean no election-rigging, no accusations of fraud, no riots and no tear gas. With public read-only access to a database of all eligible citizens, anyone could check that their name was listed. A few lines of open (publicly available) computer code – easily checked for fairness – would suffice to choose the members.

The members of parliament, owing their position to no-one, and knowing that they could not be re-elected, would be much less subject to the temptation – or necessity – to favour particular interest groups at the expense of the public. Lobbies would still exist, and would no doubt try to influence MPs by publicity or bribes, but could not threaten to withdraw support at elections, since there would be none.

Similarly, political parties could still exist, and put forward policies, or march in the streets waving banners, or call for strikes or the banning of bicycles, trout fishing, or red hair, but their influence would be moral and hortatory, not coercive. To threaten MPs with expulsion from a party or removal of party endorsement would be meaningless.

A political “caste” could not arise. There would be no “jobs for the boys” or nepotism.

Deselection, not election

But could you not get, in this parliament chosen at random, some members who are not fit to govern, or even to be at liberty in a civilised society? Yes, of course, just as happens now, though probably less often. What could be done about them? Well, here we fall back on the popular vote. It would cost very little to print a list, in a form not easily counterfeited, of all MPs chosen at each selection, and to furnish one copy (only) to each citizen on production of suitable identification. A citizen outraged by a particular MP would cut off a slip with that MP’s name and put it in a ballot box. If a sufficient number of slips were received, the MP would be replaced by another, chosen at random. Again, this would be a form of tuning. (How many votes is a sufficient number? Perhaps about a quarter of the population: more would be too difficult to get together, fewer might leave MPs open to malicious campaigns by small pressure groups.)

You might object that a bunch of “ordinary” people chosen at random would not have the necessary political skills. But what skills make a politician successful? A glib tongue, the knack of avoiding awkward questions, a talent for raising money by fair means or foul, the readiness to make behind-the-scenes deals, and a working familiarity with recent sporting events. In other words, the skills necessary to get elected, not to legislate intelligently – or honestly!

And if the public are competent to vote in elections, to serve as juries, or to decide on constitutional matters in referenda, why would a statistically representative subset be incapable of making the decisions necessary in government? If “ordinary people” had had the say at the time, would they have made worse decisions than those that landed the US in Vietnam, the Russians in Afghanistan, or the US and the UK in Iraq in 2003? Or than the deregulation of banks and the financial markets?

* * * * * * * *

The author has no qualifications whatever in political science, philosophy, sociology, or any other relevant discipline. He considers that the fact that he lives in this world, and thus suffers the consequences of the immoral and idiotic decisions made by elected leaders both near and far, to be sufficient justification for writing this diatribe.

© 2012 Campbell Wallace

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21 Responses

  1. >A more important advantage is that the composition of the parliament would closely represent that of the public. Women and minority groups would automatically be present in the correct proportion. So would different political tendencies. The more MPs, the more faithfully they would represent the general public.

    That’s undeniably the case with a group of 500 people, but your argument breaks down once you select a prime minister and cabinet. Why are you so beholden to the fused parliamentary system (which was created by an accident of UK history) that you assume we only need one mechanism? In addition to the competence argument, your lot-appointed PM and cabinet would fail the test of statistical representativity and would, in the absence of party discipline and career ambitions (which at least oblige elected politicians to try to appear uncorrupt), immediately be the target of lobbying and bribes. The value of sortition is a means of establishing statistical representation, so it is unsuitable for the appointment of individual office holders in large modern states where the principle of rotation is no longer applicable.

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  2. There’s a lot of truth to the idea that “Those who seek office are ipso facto ambitious, and there is truth in the dictum that ‘no man who seeks power is fit to exercise it’.” It points to a more general problem in decision-making. Those who are most competent to make a decision are often those who have the most motivation to corrupt that same decision. If I stand to gain personally from a decision, I have a major incentive to become knowledgeable about the decision that a more impartial observer does not. This does not, of course, automatically produce an argument against self-selection; if it did, nobody should be allowed to choose their line of work. It just suggests that we need to be wary of how this tradeoff works in different contexts.

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  3. Agreed, and this is the principal argument in favour of checks and balances. That’s why it’s sensible for government officers to be selected on account of their competence but to be held to account by a group that has no particular interest, other than the general good. Note that the “competence” criterion is not the same thing as self-selection although there will be some overlap. To get in to a top university you have to put yourself forward AND convince the admissions tutors. There is not much call for random selection for university admissions, so why would be want to fill the key offices of state randomly?

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  4. First, sorry for leaving these very welcome comments unanswered for so long: my email alert seems not to have worked.

    >That’s undeniably the case with a group of 500 people, but your argument breaks down once you select a prime minister and cabinet . . .

    >your lot-appointed PM and cabinet would fail the test of statistical representativity.

    You will never get anything done, apart from discussion and voting, in a group of 500 or so. (see C Northcote Parkinson “Parkinson’s Law”, the chapter on the “coefficient of inefficiency”. A smaller group is necessary to organise business, propose policy, and so forth.
    Groups larger than about 15 or 20 tend to break up into smaller groups, which try to circumvent each other.

    I believe the best answer is a cabinet system. Remember that the 500 MPs have the right to demote any cabinet member, including the PM, at any time by vote. So the cabinet will reflect the wishes of the 500, or lose their places.

    >Why are you so beholden to the fused parliamentary system (which was created by an accident of UK history

    Not sure what you mean by “fused”.
    Having lived under both a parliamentary system and a presidential one, and observed the total disaster that the US constitution has produced, I prefer the parliamentary system. I am not going to argue that it is without faults, particularly in Britain.

    >your lot-appointed PM and cabinet . . . would, in the absence of party discipline and career ambitions (which at least oblige elected politicians to try to appear uncorrupt), immediately be the target of lobbying and bribes. The value of sortition is a means of establishing statistical representation, so it is unsuitable for the appointment of individual office holders.

    Party discipoline and personal ambition, IMHO are part of the problem and in no way part of the solution.
    As for lobbying and bribes: You will never get rid of groups making noises and promising the ruin of civilisation and motherhood if their particular apple cart doesn’t roll smoothly. However, since the lot-appointed PMs cannot be re-elected, most of the present means of coercing politicians are absent. There are, of course, a number of measures necessary to reduce the risk of bribery, such as disclosure of financial interests before and after office, limits on employment after office, and the like. I didn’t go into these for the sake of brevity. They are details which, although important, are not part of the core principles.
    I’ll try to produce a “part 2” which addresses them.

    >It just suggests that we need to be wary of how this tradeoff works in different contexts.

    Yes indeed.

    >Agreed, and this is the principal argument in favour of checks and balances. That’s why it’s sensible for government officers to be selected on account of their competence but to be held to account by a group that has no particular interest, other than the general good. Note that the “competence” criterion is not the same thing as self-selection although there will be some overlap. To get in to a top university you have to put yourself forward AND convince the admissions tutors. There is not much call for random selection for university admissions, so why would be want to fill the key offices of state randomly?

    Why are you so beholden to the (fused?) US constition and that hackneyed “checks and balances”?
    I cannot understand the religious awe that Americans seem to have for that document.

    “The tree shall be judged by its fruits”. Look at the mess the US is in. You cannot pretend (I humbly submit) that America is a functioning democracy. One of the most obvious reasons is those famous checks and balances, which have their place in a chronometer, not in a system of government. The result is the President and Congress fighting like two dogs over a hunk of carrion, with the Press and Big Business cheering on first one and then the other, as suits their needs of the moment. Whoever wins, the people – who have the unenviable role of the carrion – of course get torn to shreds.

    Checks and balances don’t protect the people. They do make for a huge amount of inefficiency

    To be fair, the constitution was written in the context of the 18th century, and could not forsee what the 21st century would be like. A good reason for getting rid of it.

    “Key government officers”. Do you mean the public service, or the MPs themselves?

    Policy making is the province of MPs, but the real business of government is done by public servants.

    As I understand it, in British Commonwealth governments, top public servants do not -in principle – change with an election. (I believe in America they do). Thus the “competence and experience” of senior public servants is retained and government business continues to run smoothly over the election period. Or so the theory goes. Anyone who has seen the antics of Sir Humphrey in “Yes, Minister” may feel a clean-out would be a good thing from time to time, but changing public servants with a change of government leaves the way open to bribery of prospective public servants by the politicians.

    The “holding to account” Ay, there’s the rub. Public servants don’t get held to account anywhere, as far as I can make out, until there’s a scandal.

    The comparison with University professors is a red herring. They have to be competent in a very small field. MPs have to legislate on a very wide range of issues, and cannot possibly be competent on all of them. Most of the time most of them will know almost nothing of the issues they are called to vote on. That is not cynicism, it’s simple fact. That is why they havesecretaries, research assistants why special committees are formed, and so on.

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  5. Sorry about all the right arrows, it was an attempt to quote. Not used to this sort of forum. Don’t know how to edit a post, to quote with indent or in colour, and a very tiny box for all my verbosity. (I’m used to luxury!) I suppose I’ll learn.
    Oh, and thanks for the comments. Weak points need to be found.

    Added your name to the comment and removed some of those right arrows for clarity. -Yoram

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  6. Campbell,

    Lots I could say, but just two points now…

    1. Why not allow your allotted parliament to recruit the “cabinet” of the Executive branch of government from among the entire population, rather than just the 500? It seems to me, that acting as head-hunters for skilled and competent executives who would faithfully execute the laws of the allotted legislature would get the best of both…Of course, I would argue that anybody who sought appointment to the cabinet would be automatically disqualified.

    2. Why limit the legislative branch to a single group of 500? Why not have several (perhaps smaller) allotted bodies that specialized a bit to limit the amount they need to learn?

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  7. 1. >”Why not allow your allotted parliament to recruit the “cabinet” of the Executive branch of government from among the entire population”
    It’s an interesting idea, but I think your last sentence gives at least part of the answer. People _will_ seek appointment, explicitly or not.
    You have called this an executive branch. In my view it is not, it is the entire Parliament which has the power, unlike in present British-style governments where the Cabinet decides, and the other MPs meekly vote according to the PM’s or the Cabinet’s dictates – or face expulsion from the party and probably Parliament at the next election.
    Bear in mind, too, that the phrasing of laws is done by professional parliamentary draftsmen. MPs are there to vote, to express their point of view, and to try and convert their colleagues to their way of thinking.
    Finally, I am not convinced of the need for intellectual giants in the Cabinet, or in Parliament itself. What is needed is common sense, honesty, and a range of views representing the entire community.
    2. >”Why limit the legislative branch to a single group of 500?”
    This will be covered in my next effusion, but briefly, these smaller groups will form, and be set up by the parliament, as the occasion arises.
    Incidentally 500 is only a suggestion which might suit some countries. And having two houses is possible.

    Thanks for the comments. They help me get my ideas in order, and may strike a spark from others too.

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  8. Campbell,
    one follow up on appointment of an executive branch. Presumably you would still have a professional civil service executing the laws, running agencies, etc. which needs management. Why not use the model of an appointed city manager (or manager team) that is appointed and subject to removal by the frequently refreshed (rotated) allotted parliament. My notion is that the executive should not be the generator of policy, but the performer under the general direction of the parliament.

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  9. >”Presumably you would still have a professional civil service executing the laws, running agencies, etc”
    Certainly.
    >”My notion is that the executive should not be the generator of policy, but the performer under the general direction of the parliament”
    Yes, I agree.
    I’m not too sure how the appointed manager scheme would work.
    I more or less assumed public servants would work their way up the ladder, applying for positions as vacancies appear, and being selected not by the MPs, but by an ad hoc committee of other public servants, on the basis of qualifications and experience, not political sympathies. As I understand it, that’s the way it’s supposed to work in British-style governments. I _think_ Ministers can get rid of top public servants for misconduct etc, but they may come off worst in the squabble that follows: public servants can challenge their dismissal and win.
    In any event, you won’t have a new administration coming in handing out a lot of plum jobs to their cronies.

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  10. I sense a measure of agreement on the notion of an appointed executive, held to account by an allotted parliament. Leaving aside the specific mechanisms, the constitutive principle of the former is competence and the latter representative equality. As for the overlap between the city manager and the general civil service, the manager would be directly held to account by the representative body, whereas the civil service relies only on internal disciplinary procedures. An existing parallel would be the chairman of the UK Monetary Policy Committee who is charged by parliament with keeping inflation within a specified target range. If this model were working properly then Mervyn King would have long since been sacked by parliament.

    One can imagine similar mandates for education, environment, energy etc. Once parliament had set the general targets then the appointed executive would be responsible for introducing most of the specific legislative programme, but each bill would have to be passed (or rejected) by the randomly-selected assembly. If this is felt to be an unduly conservative model, then legislative bills could also be introduced for the manifesto commitments of the winning party in a general election, or some direct-democratic initiative. Such a process would have the benefit of a democratic mandate, as opposed to leaving it to the whim of (a vocal and opinionated subset of) 500 names drawn out of a hat.

    Such a mixed constitution would appear much more sensible than relying on sortition as the sole principle for appointment of political officers. Sortition is a wonderful tool but it is not a magic bullet and on its own is a variant of oligarchy, not democracy.

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  11. I hope I shall be forgiven for flogging this particular dead horse again after 6 months.

    I’m reviving this thread because I want to make a public recantation of part of my proposal, to wit, the suggestion that the public might remove (sortition-chosen) Members of Parliament by vote (“de-selection”):

    >”A citizen outraged by a particular MP would cut off a slip with that MP’s name and put it in a ballot box. If a sufficient number of slips were received, the MP would be replaced by another, chosen at random. Again, this would be a form of tuning. (How many votes is a sufficient number? Perhaps about a quarter of the population: more would be too difficult to get together, fewer might leave MPs open to malicious campaigns by small pressure groups.)”

    This mechanism is horribly open to abuse. I hereby vehemently condemn and disavow it by all means short of burning the hand that wrote it. (I’m also a bit disappointed that nobody jumped on me about it.)

    The obvious fault with this idea is that any zealous group with more than a quarter of the population could abuse it. Imagine a country where half the males are misogynists. Amongst the 250 or so women MPs there will certainly be a number of feminists, or perceived feminists. It would be easy to mount a campaign to get rid rid of the most outspoken or effective of these. There is a 50% chance of getting a male to replace her, and if that doesn’t happen, our misogynists can simply try again; in fact they could systematically put in a de-selection slip for every woman chosen by lot. Bingo: instant 75% majority of males.

    Of course, the women could, and no doubt should, fight back by systematically voting to de-select all the male members. There might be a certain fairness in this, but it would mean no member would hold his/her seat for longer than it took to get voted out. Hardly a recipe for stable, effective government! Moreover, the battle need not be a male/female conflict: it could equally well happen on religious, ethnic, class, or political lines.

    All this is bad enough, but there is also the possibility of a very small group, or even an individual causing mischief by, for instance, posting compromising material on Twitter or Facebook: say a Photoshopped image purporting to show an MP with his hand in a young boy’s fly, or a female MP making love to a Labrador, or faked evidence of financial shenanigans. By the time the “evidence” is shown to be false, the public uproar would have ejected the MP from parliament without possibility of re-instatement, since some of the votes might well be based on other concerns, unconnected with the scandal.

    In short, I am now convinced that de-selection of MPs by the public is a Very Bad Idea, and, I now believe, unnecessary.

    So how do we deal with MPs who turn out to be raving nutters? In my present thinking, if they don’t break the law, we live with them. There will always be vastly more sane, “normal” people in Parliament to out-vote them. If they get selected for the Cabinet/Policy Committee, or to any other committee where they can cause disruption, the MPs can still vote them out of that office (though NOT out of the Parliament). And if they disrupt proceedings in Parliament the Speaker should have the power, after a warning, to eject them for that day.

    This post is long overdue, as it is a glaring fault and some time since I realised the danger. I held off posting as I had intended this retraction to be part of a comprehensive revision of my suggestions for a system of government. In the event, I am not ready; among other things I want to think a great deal more about the interface between the Public or Civil Service and the Parliament.

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    There is one other point that I shall bring up now, and that is the role of the Speaker. (I am unrepentantly sticking with a Parliament which parleys, where “speech-acts”, “illocutions”, “perlocutions”, and any other forms of (reasonably) polite elocution are permitted and indeed encouraged). In such a Parliament a Speaker seems to me necessary; but he or she has considerable power which could easily be abused. The best way of dealing with this, in my view, is for the Speaker to change very frequently, by rotation, NOT lot or election, and starting with the senior cohort taken in reverse alphabetical order. (Why reverse? Because my name starts with a W, that’s why. Silly question.) For instance, if there are 50 new members and 100 sitting days per six months, and we change Speaker every two days, the Speaker will always have four and a half years’ experience of parliamentary practice, and every member will serve once.

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  12. Campbell,

    I completely agree with your rejection of the recall. As you write, at best it would be a mechanism for weakening minority views (your first scenario), and even worse, it would be a tool by elites to target their enemies (akin to your second scenario).

    > (I’m also a bit disappointed that nobody jumped on me about it.)

    It is impossible (and possibly undesirable) to follow up on every point of disagreement on every occasion. I have expressed my opinion on this matter many times in comments (e.g., 1, 2, 3). Quite recently I posted against exclusions in general, recall being a particular mechanism of exclusion.

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  13. I’m with Keynes on the need to change one’s mind to fit the facts (“what do you do sir?”). I change my views every day, prompted largely by argumentation on this forum and elsewhere. If only everyone was as prepared as Campbell to ‘fess up and do the same.

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  14. This is starting to look like an outbreak of agreement. We’d better find a subject to disagree on.

    Yoram, I confess to not having read the first three of those links. As for the fourth, I didn’t read it carefully enough, and in my comment considered only pre- and post-selection exclusions.

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  15. Me too. I have dealt with similar recall issues in elections using proportional representation. One large national organization i run elections for has a bylaws provision that allows a board member (elected using single transferable vote) to be recalled by a petition prompting a majority threshold recall. this is nonsensical, since the whole purpose of proportional representation is to allow minority candidate who could never win a majority of votes to serve as a minority section of a deliberative body. Whether it is sortition or PR, you let the members who are serving judge the value of a member’s contribution.

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  16. Terry, I guess that you are talking here about a private company.
    >”Whether it is sortition or PR, you let the members who are serving judge the value of a member’s contribution.”

    Does this mean that you would agree with exclusion of a member (elected or chosen by lot) of a company board or of a parliament by vote of the other members?

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  17. I don’t think exclusion would be necessary, other members would just ignore everything she said — as is the case with some members of this forum!

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  18. Campbell,

    If you are looking for someone to disagree with over the utility of the recall, your best bet here is Jacob Richter. Following what I understand is Marxist tradition, Jacob considers the recall to be an important democratic device.

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  19. >”I don’t think exclusion would be necessary, other members would just ignore everything she said — as is the case with some members of this forum!”
    I agree, but I asked because I think exclusion of MPs or board members by their peers is even more dangerous than the exclusion by the public which I have just disavowed, since it would be easier to organise in a small group.

    >”If you are looking for someone to disagree with over the utility of the recall, your best bet here is Jacob Richter.”
    I’ll let him have the first punch.

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  20. Yes, I meant decide how much consideration to give a member’s input, not whether the member should be removed.

    Terry

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