Gutting: Should Everyone Vote?

An op-ed piece in The New York Times by Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame:

At election time we inevitably hear earnest pleas for everyone to vote. Voter participation is a data point often cited in political studies, along with an assumption that the higher the percentage, the better: 100 percent participation is the goal. But we rarely question this belief, or objectively consider whether everyone who can vote ought to vote.

The author then outlines the problems of mass democracy, including ‘trumpery’, plutocracy and rational ignorance, and attempts to justify voting as an act of participatory solidarity. But he goes on to consider sortition as an alternative:

At least one political philosopher has put forward the radical idea that we could ensure informed voters by employing an “enfranchisement lottery.” Such a lottery would restrict voting to a randomly chosen group of citizens who are provided unbiased in-depth information relevant to an election. We can think of this approach as a matter of modeling our voting on our jury system. We would never accept deciding important and highly publicized trials by a vote of the general public. We think only people fully informed of the facts and relevant arguments put forward in a trial should make such important judgments. Shouldn’t we be at least as careful in deciding who should be president?

Notice that answering yes does not imply the elitist view that only a small minority of citizens are capable of making informed votes. The idea is not that voters are too stupid or biased to access the needed information; it’s just that they don’t have the time and resources to do so. Ideally, we would provide everyone with the relevant knowledge, but that would be impractical, time-consuming and expensive.


Unfortunately such a system might well be unconstitutional, so he then comes up with a hybrid proposal along similar lines to John Burnheim’s case for demarchy, in that the role of the allotted jury would be to better inform public opinion prior to the general election. Voters would (supposedly) choose to mirror the considered preferences of the allotted microcosm.

Why not, then, randomly choose, from the list of registered voters, a national jury that would meet for a week or two before the election? The jurors would be sequestered and listen to presentations from and debates among the candidates and their policy teams. The jury might also hear from and question experts on major policy issues. The result would be voters informed to a level most us can only hope to achieve. We would need a fairly large jury — perhaps several thousand — to properly represent the nation’s diverse views and interests. Televising the proceedings would help ensure transparency. Since the jury was randomly chosen, its vote would very likely represent the outcome of an election in which we were all well-informed voters.

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21 Responses

  1. What is really needed is a college education at a school with a conservative-libertarian school, like Hillsdale College. It would also help to get the equivalent of the first two years of law school, but with a concentration in the history of the U.S. Constitution, taught by a constitutional conservative (not a member of the American Constitution Society, the puryeyors of “living constitutionalism” Or read everything on http://constitution.org

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  2. Jon,

    Are you suggesting this sort of education for all voters or the allotted jury of several thousand persons? In either case it sounds like a bit of a tall order, and I don’t think everyone shares our mutual taste for conservative-libertarian thought. I’m surprised (and a little disappointed) at the extent to which commentators on this forum seek to privilege their own political preferences — Simon Threlkeld being one of the principal offenders in his uncompromising pursuit of a system that will privilege the “progressive” agenda, and I think conservatives like you and I should resist the temptation to respond in kind. The idea of an allotted jury deciding on the basis of balanced information and advocacy is the nearest we can get to a politically impartial process — although this will not satisfy those who claim that all selection has to be made by allotted persons, notwithstanding their lack of knowledge on the domain under consideration or lack of representativity on the level of individual speech acts (such as proposing a person or organisation as advisor). Yoram’s argument for “representative bodies” fails as soon as one moves from the aggregate level of voting to acts that pertain to single individuals.

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  3. Certainly for the policy jury, at a minimum. The entire society, would of course, be better.

    As a policy analyst I am impressed by the difficulty of making sound policy decisions in the modern world. That is beyond human beings, no matter how well educated. Policy problems are intrinsically difficult.
    See http://constitution.org/ps/cbss.pdf

    Anyone who claims to know what to do is a fool.

    Basically we are all just shooting in the dark in an explosives factory, One wrong shot and the human race is extinct.

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  4. Jon,

    Ouch! I’m not quite as apocalyptic as you — just looking for realistic ways to make modest improvements in our decision-making process.

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  5. A draft constitution for doing this kind of thing is at http://constitution.org/reform/us/constitution-us-model.html Note that it is for the 13th century, not the 21st.

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  6. Wow, makes my 17th Century Harringtonian constitutional proposal look state-of-the-art !

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  7. Jon,
    >I’m surprised (and a little disappointed) at the extent to which commentators on this forum seek to privilege their own political preferences

    Perhaps my sarcasm detector is faulty (I haven’t been getting much sleep lately) but you propose doing exactly this in almost the same breath.

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  8. An interesting article.

    I believe that many public sector decision makers, such as judges and the members of regulatory boards, should be chosen by jury rather than by popular election or by being chosen by politicians, as some of you know. I first set out my case for this in published form in “Democratizing Public Institutions: Juries for the selection of public officials.” Humanist in Canada, Spring 1997, No. 120, pp. 24-25, 33.­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

    I think the case is very clear and persuasive for judges, regulatory boards, and the boards of public broadcasters, and for other public sector decision makers other than the politicians that make up the first and second branches of government (president and congress in the U.S. at the federal level). I think the case is trickier with regard to choosing the president (as is considered in this article) and congress, but that it is still worth making and seeing how well the counter-arguments to such a case really stand up. That said, choosing the president by jury or juries would in important and clearly demonstrable regards be far more democratic and far more in accord with the equality of citizens than using the current method of the electoral college (or using popular election, to which the electoral college is only an approximation).

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  9. Whoops, that quote was Keith’s. Never mind. I mentioned not sleeping much.

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  10. Naomi, Glad I’m not the only one to make such a mistake of late.

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  11. Gutting says: “We could have an unofficial jury — chosen, perhaps, by a consortium of major universities or of television news divisions — that would meet, discuss in depth and vote several weeks before the actual election.”

    “Chosen … by a consortium …” does not exactly sound like a randomly sampled jury to me. Gutting does not specify whether it would be randomly sampled or not, although he makes it clear the “official jury” he first considers would be.

    Also, under no circumstances should arrangements, rules and procedures for a selection jury, in this case a presidential selection jury, be decided in an undemocratic manner, such as being decided by the presidents or boards of “major universities” and/or by corporate media.

    Gutting’s “unofficial jury” suggestion is ill-considered and undemocratic, and needs to be rejected. At any rate, it needs to go back to the drawing board to be replaced with a democratic idea.

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  12. If the president is chosen by jury, here are my thoughts.

    1. The rules, arrangements and procedures for selecting the president by jury should be decided by juries advised by a directorate chosen by jury, with the aim being to have a selection process that is very democratic, fair and informed, and to constantly improve on it over time. Under no circumstances should the rules, arrangements and procedures for choosing the president be decided by politicians or political parties, because that is undemocratic, and because of the conflicts of interest they have.

    2. There could be jury primaries. For example, there could be five jury primaries, each decided by a presidential selection jury randomly sampled from ten states (5 x 10 = 50), with perhaps 1,000 jurors in each jury. The order of the jury primaries could be decided by lottery each presidential election year. Each jury primary would be for all presidential candidates, both party members and independents.

    The process could begin with those wishing to be candidates filing a written application, and fulfilling some filing requirements designed to be easily achievable by any serious candidate with any chance, but to, in the interests of efficiency, screen out many of the clearly unqualified candidates (perhaps a requirement to have affidavits of support from say 500 voters, and a modest filing fee of a few hundred dollars). Candidates could just file once for all of the jury primaries.

    Gutting makes some reasonable comments on possible procedures for the jury election process with a view to the jurors reaching an informed choice.

    Candidates can make presentations to the jurors, have q & a sessions with them, and there can be candidate debates. Jurors can break into small groups to deliberate and to formulate questions for the candidates. Voting can proceed in rounds, with the candidate getting the fewest votes in each round being eliminated until one candidate, through this process of elimination, has a majority of the vote. Early rounds of voting can reduce the candidates to a small-ish number for further consideration. There can be some final rounds of q & a, presentations, and debate, between the last two candidates.

    Debates, presentations and q & a sessions could be recorded and made available live for free, and then posted on a website so that everyone could easily find them. One reason for this is that a part of any good presidential selection process is public education.

    Moderators and facilitators for this process, including any debate moderators, should be chosen either by the directorate or by jury. Under no circumstances should any of them be chosen by corporate media as that is undemocratic and may involve conflicts of interest.

    3. Those who did best in the jury primaries could go to a federal presidential selection jury, comprised of say 1,000 to several thousand jurors randomly sampled from the entire country (with the exact number of jurors being decided by a jury). Perhaps the winner of each primary jury election, and the five candidates who did the best overall in the jury primaries, would go to the federal presidential selection jury (in which case the number of candidates before that jury would be between five and ten).

    Procedures can be similar to those in the jury primaries, with rounds of voting over time, and with the candidate who gets the majority of the vote becoming president.

    Alternatively, the two candidates who get the most support can go to a general election (a popular election for all US citizens to participate in) between the two of them. The two campaigns would be publicly funded and given free air time and such in equal amounts, so that they would each be able to run an effective general election campaign, and be as much as reasonably possible on a level footing with each other. (In addition to this, as an added possible option, all of those who ran in the primaries could be free to put their names on the ballot in the general election, but with no public funding and no free air time, and with ranked ballots to eliminate the possibility of splitting the vote. The purpose of this is to allow the general public to express their first choice in the general, as well as to put somewhere on the ranked ballot at least one of the two candidates who won the jury election process. Using ranked ballots is basic democracy, and a basic courtesy to voters, in a presidential election.)

    The procedures, rules and arrangements for such a general election would be decided by the said jury and directorate system, with juries having the final say on them. They must not be decided by politicians, for the said reason.

    This would be far more democratic, and far more in accord with the equality of citizens, than what is now in place.

    4. Obviously state governors could be chosen in a similar way. If the Senate or the House are chosen by jury, a proportional representation method using multi-member electoral districts could be used.

    I have thought that having the most important political officials chosen by jury, such as the president, is a harder sell than for example having judges and regulatory commissions chosen by jury.

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  13. Simon,

    We would all agree the idea of the jury being selected by universities and media is undemocratic, but bear in mind that Gutting’s main concerns are pragmatic — a working system that would not be struck down as unconstitutional (as it would be if it sacrificed the right to vote). This would require that the role of the jury be purely advisory/educational and I imagine he thinks a jury selected along these lines would be more influential, although not statistically representative of the target population. In this respect his proposal is more akin to Burnheim’s demarchic councils. Gutting appears to be fully aware of the argument against rational ignorance and plutocracy, but is suggesting a proposal that might work in the real world, rather than a utopian vision.

    I imagine that presidential primaries would be more open to innovation, given that the process has changed so radically since the founding and the current procedure generates unfavourable candidates from the establishment perspective. However public funding might prove a bridge too far, especially if the corollary is to ban private funding, as the first amendment seems to be pretty much set in stone. I’m a lot more confident about sortition-based innovation in the UK, as we’re not constrained by a written constitution (a decidedly mixed blessing).

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  14. Yes, my comment proposing college-educated voters (or policy jurors) was gently sarcastic, because I don’t find college-educated people, even those from conservative-libertarian schools or departments, to be much better at making political choices than the people Jesse Watters likes to interview, or that we would get if policy choices were made by throwing darts at a dartboard. I count only a few hundred people in the country whose policy judgments I respect, and they aren’t necessarily the best educated.
    As for the Gutting proposal, I would expect the jury to vote for a lot of policies that would be disastrous, such as those we get from most to the current crop of presidential contenders. From my viewpoint, they are all fools or saying things to fool a gullible public. None of the things they are proposing will work. None of them. Their understanding of sound policy analysis is worse than ignorant, because they think they know what to do.
    The best policy is to try something and then be prepared to do something else quickly when it doesn’t work (as it won’t). With a little bit of luck we won’t trigger global thermonuclear war or some other global disaster, many of which are all too close to happening, which most people don’t realize or know what to do about.
    Edmund Burke had it basically right when he advocated slow, careful change. Sweeping solutions aren’t, and in today’s world sweeping is about all we have available.

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  15. “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble. It’s what we know that ain’t so.” — Will Rogers

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  16. Keith: I would like to see this Harringtonian proposal. Might get some ideas from it. Send a link.

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  17. Jon,

    It’s in my book A People’s Parliament, but summary at https://brock.scholarsportal.info/journals/SSJ/article/view/987/957 p.201

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  18. Keith,

    >However public funding might prove a bridge too far, especially if the corollary is to ban private funding, as the first amendment seems to be pretty much set in stone.

    Briefly, the first amendment is not at all set in stone. It is what the judiciary, and especially SCOTUS, say it is.

    It is a common notion that the law is some objective thing waiting to be discovered or expounded, but that is not the case. That’s why there are split decisions, and why there is all of the wrangling about who gets on SCOTUS (and the other courts) – it is because the law is what the judges say it is, and liberal and left wing judges will say it is something quite different from what conservative, and extreme conservative Republican, judges will say it is.

    The 5 Republicans/conservatives on SCOTUS used their 5-4 majority to overturn long established 1st amendment law in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission in 2010 (law that SCOTUS had upheld as recently as 2003, seven years before Citizens United, in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission).

    In Arizona Free Enterprise … v. Bennett the conservative Republican majority on SCOTUS banned public funding of elections in which public funds would be increased to match the amount of private funds being put into a competing privately funded election campaign. (Such a public funding law of course aims to ensure that a publicly funded candidate will not be outspent by a privately funded candidate, and to do so without banning private funding.)

    With Scalia’s death 1st amendment law in the US has changed, even though we’ve not had an actual SCOTUS decision yet. And if Bernie wins, and likely even if Hillary wins, it will change even more because of who they will appoint (a chance they are highly likely to get if elected).

    Trust me on this Keith, and expunge “the first amendment seems to be pretty much set in stone” from your discourse. Or read the literature if you are in doubt.

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  19. Don’t see how your “Harringtonian proposal” is “state of the art”, or did you mean mine was?

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  20. Simon,

    I bow to your knowledge on US jurisprudence, but would only add that there is considerable unease regarding public funding of political campaigns on this side of the pond, and not just in conservative circles.

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  21. Jon,

    I meant 17th century as opposed to 13th!

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