We start our chapter on elections and campaigns this way:
Why have elections at all? The obvious answer is that elections translate the public will into government policy. Nevertheless, it is possible to picture an alternative system to do the same thing. tem Some ancient Greek city-states chose public officials by lot. The modern equivalent would use the scientific sampling techniques that pollsters employ. Such a system might randomly select a group of citizens to serve as members of Congress or state legislators. Thus, we could have lawmakers whose views and personal characteristics reflected those of the public as a whole—and without all the expense and turmoil of political campaigns. Serious scholars have proposed variations of selection by lot.
Sortition has considerable advantages over elections. Equality and fairness are baked into its selection process. Unlike elections, public lotteries cannot be readily rigged or bought. The members selected by lottery would owe nothing to special interest donors or party leaders. They would be free to focus on making good policy, instead of fighting each other for power and playing to the media, which now feeds on the permanent election cycle as voraciously as politicians themselves.
Social science supports this idea. A randomly selected legislature would be more likely than an elected one to harness the “wisdom of crowds,” whereby a large number of diverse individuals can arrive at better solutions than a small group of comparatively homogeneous experts.
It’s not just a social science dream. Sortition has precedents. It was part of the earliest recorded history of democracy. In the reformed democracy of ancient Athens, panels of citizens chosen by lot made remarkably good laws for a hundred years. Aristotle’s Politics stated that “the appointment of magistrates by lot is considered democratic, and the election of them oligarchic.”
Sortition is also already at work in the United States. Small bodies of randomly selected citizens, in the form of civil and criminal juries, serve a vital democratic role. Through the jury system, we ask fellow citizens to resolve cases that could result in life imprisonment or a billion dollar judgment. On the whole, they do an excellent job, and a growing number of nations, such as Argentina, Japan, and South Korea, are now establishing jury systems of their own.
Less well known are the hundreds of experiments in citizen deliberation conducted in recent decades. The state of Oregon, for example, established a process in 2009 in which randomly selected panels of citizens listen to pro and con arguments for a week, then write an analysis of each ballot initiative for the state’s voter guide. This Citizens’ Initiative Review has inspired similar experiments in Arizona, Colorado, and Massachusetts. Outside the U.S., sortition has been used to revitalize student government in Bolivia, draw up city budgets in Australia, rebuild infrastructure in China, revise election laws in Canada, and convene a constitutional convention in Ireland, to name but a few.