Threlkeld: Democratizing Public Institutions

This is another one of the five sortition-advocacy pieces that Simon Threlkeld published in 1997-1998.

Democratizing Public Institutions: Juries for the selection of public officials

A rational analysis suggesting the use of juries of citizens instead of government monopoly for the purpose of selecting public decision-makers

Simon Threlkeld

Humanist in Canada, Spring 1997

A wide variety of public officials are chosen by the government. Among such officials are the various regulatory commissions, boards and tribunals, the boards of public broadcasters, judges, coroners and justices of the peace.

This government monopoly on the selection of so many decision-makers leaves a great deal to be desired. In the first place it is undemocratic because the people have no say in who the decision-makers are. In a more democratic society the selection of such decision-makers would be in the hands of the citizens, not the government.

A further problem is patronage. Where the government selects public officials, patronage is common. Patronage discriminates against people who lack the right political connections and turns public offices into the spoils of electoral victories. Distaste for patronage is near universal amongst citizens.

Another concern is that it is often preferable for public officials to have the freedom to disagree with or criticize the government. This freedom can be undermined when officials are beholden to the government for their position and future prospects.

Some (for example York University, Toronto political scientist Leo Panitch) have proposed that democracy can be advanced by having more public officials chosen by popular election. However this possibility has serious shortcomings. These shortcomings will be discussed below.


A better approach is to have “juries” select many of the decision-makers now selected by the government.

By a jury I mean a group of citizens who are chosen by random selection to make a decision. I mean by “random selection” that each citizen has the same chance of being chosen as the next. Jurors would be paid and would serve for a limited period of time, say no more than one year. Juries could have anywhere from, say 5 or 6 jurors, to 1,000 or more. Because juries are chosen from the people by random selection, juries put decisions in the hands of rank and file citizens, who are a representative cross-section of the people.

Juries combine this representative character with a capacity to make informed decisions. A jury is able to make an informed decision because a jury can work full-time for the days, weeks or months needed to make such a decision.

For those who believe in rule by the people (democracy) there is no higher or better authority than one which is both representative of the people and informed. Juries are both representative of the people and suited for making informed decisions.

The larger a random sample the more exact a cross-section it will tend to be. Fairly small juries of say 10 to 20 citizens would be approximate cross­ sections of the people. As hundreds of such juries served, overall those selecting public officials would be a very exact cross-section of the people. If say 350 public officials were each chosen by a jury of 15, then overall these public officials would have been chosen by 5,250 citizens. A random sample of this size is accurate to within 1.5% 19 times out of 20, and to within 2% 99 times out of 100. As hundreds of juries served, overall those serving on them would be extremely representative of the people.

Stratification can be used to make those serving on juries an even more accurate cross-section of the people. Gender, age and income are among the characteristics that can be stratified. In the case of age, if say 10% of the population were known to be 30 to 34, then 10% of those serving on juries could be randomly picked from people aged 30 to 34. Stratifying by age in this way could make juries an exact microcosm with respect to the category of age. Further, because opinions and life experiences tend to differ with age, stratifying by age would tend to produce a more exact cross-section with respect to opinions and life experiences.

In order for the decisions of juries to be as well informed as possible, juries would need excellent decision-making procedures. A special commission could be mandated to design the best procedures possible. This “procedures commission” could be a standing commission which would study and improve the procedures over time. The procedures commission could itself be chosen by juries.

In order for juries to choose good candidates for public office, it is important that the available positions be well advertised, say in newspapers and in listings made available, for ex­ample, at public libraries. Anyone who wished could fill out a written appli­cation. The selection pro­cess could then proceed with the jury reviewing the written applications, hear­ing presentations from the candidates, asking the candidates questions, discussing the candidates with the other jurors, and meeting people that the candidates listed as references. The jury could cast a series of ballots until only one candidate was left.

Using juries to select public officials has compel­ling advantages over such officials being selected by the government. Juries make for a highly democratic method of selection because juries put the choice in the hands of rank and file citizens who are a represen­tative cross-section of the people. By contrast, the go­vernment is composed of an elite group of politicians who are unrepresentative of the people with respect to such things as gender, age, race, wealth, employ­ment background, and life experiences.

A further advantage is that with juries there would be no patronage.

Another advantage is that using juries would reduce the extent to which public officials are beholden to the government. The trouble with being beholden to the government is that the interests and wishes of the government can be at odds with the interests or wishes of citizens.

Juries versus popular election

As said above, some believe that democracy can be advanced by having more public officials chosen by popular election. However, the jury approach just outlined has considerable advantages over popular election.

Those who vote in popular elections often know little about the candidates. This is true even for elections which attract the most public attention, such as elections for MPs, MPPs and City Council. Citizens will tend to pay far less attention to elections for tribunals, boards, commissions, judges, justices of the peace and coroners, especially if citizens are expected to elect dozens of such officials. A vote cast on the basis of little or no information is not a meaningful exercise in democracy. By contrast, a jury works full­ time to become well informed about the candidates for an office.

Candidates in a popular election have to use the media to get their message to the voters. What the media choose to present and how they present it can be important to the out­ come. By contrast, candidates and juries would meet face to face without intermediaries.

Candidates with access to large amounts of money have an advantage in a popular election. A great deal of money is needed to get the message out to the electorate. Further, candidates can become beholden to financial backers with an interest in the decisions the candidate will make in office. The bigger the role of money the more that popular rule is displaced by economic power. By con­trast, with juries the role of economic power is much smaller. Appearing before a jury simply costs far less than running an effective electoral campaign. Candi­dates without wealthy supporters would be on an equal footing with the lavishly funded and there would be little need to rely on special interest money.

Popular elections tend to be monopolized by political parties. Political parties have the money and infrastructure needed to run effective electoral campaigns. Also, party label can be a decisive factor, especially where voters know little else about the candidates. Candidates without party backing can be at a huge disadvantage. To the extent that elections are dominated by political parties the sovereignty of the people is for all practical purposes restricted to choosing between party nominees.

Juries remove the domination of political parties. Candidates need no great sums of money or armies of volunteers to appear before a jury, and juries will get far more to go on than mere party label. Candidates with­out party backing would be on a level playing field with party nominees. Juries would be in a po­sition to choose the best candidate regardless of political party.

In popular elections those who vote are not necessarily representative. Voting can correlate with such things as wealth, age, race and gender. Further, where voter turnout is low a mobilized minority can win out over the preferences of the majority. By contrast, juries put the decisions in the hands of a representative cross-section of the people.

Having juries select regulatory commissions, the boards of public broadcasters and various other public officials has substantial advantages over both popular election and selection by the government. Juries put the selection of public officials in the hands of an informed and representative cross-section of the people.

This would be a major advance for democracy.

Copyright, Simon Threlkeld, 1997, all rights reserved, posted here (at Equality by Lot) with the permission of the author Simon Threlkeld.


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