The Democratic Lottery FAQ
What is a Democratic Lottery?
A democratic lottery is a method to construct a democratic governing body. This method of democracy has been practiced historically all over the world, including in Ancient Athens and Renaissance era Italy. Today, many world governments now use democratic lotteries to assemble Citizens' Assemblies to help decide on the toughest decisions government must make. Topics debated include Climate Change, abortion, gay marriage, election reform, and others. These Citizens' Assemblies have gained a reputation of being able to cut through partisan divides and come to consensus on future-focused decisions.
The most familiar example of democratic lotteries is found in American jury duty, where everyday Americans are tasked with decision making in our justice system.
Democratic lotteries are otherwise known as sortition or lottocracy.
Imagine a Congress that actually looks like America. It's filled with nurses, farmers, engineers, waitresses, teachers, accountants, pastors, soldiers, stay-at-home-parents, and retirees. They are conservatives, liberals, and moderates from all parts of the country and all walks of life. Democratic lotteries are the only way to achieve such a Congress. Democratic Lotteries guarantee a Congress that is descriptively representative of the American public.
How would a Lottery Selected Congress Work?
Lottery Selected Congresses operate based on the following steps [4, 6]:
- Construct an assembly of citizens using random sampling to become lottocratic legislators. Yes, we randomly choose people to participate, in assemblies from 50 to 1000 citizens in size. These folks will be paid full time wages to participate for weeks, months, or even years.
- Conduct a “learning phase” where experts present the citizens with information about the topic of discussion.
- After the learning phase, the assembly consults with the community by bringing in testimony from interested members of the public.
- The assembly then deliberates and discusses amongst each other in the “deliberation phase”.
- Then, the assembly formulates proposals that can address the political question.
- Finally, the assembly votes on proposals to render a final verdict.
How would a lottery selected Congress fit into the rest of government?
Sortition is oftentimes proposed to compose one chamber of a bicameral legislature. For example, the Senate becomes lottery-selected whereas the House of Representatives remains elected. Either house would have veto power over the other’s decisions.
Alternatively, sortition could be used to supplement an existing legislature. For example, lottery selected citizens could be added to an existing Congress. In more radical proposals, sortition is used to completely replace all elected officials. In multi-body sortition, the task of legislation is divided up into multiple sortition assemblies  that break up the tasks of legislating.
Assemblies members could serve term lengths from a few weeks to several years.
What are the benefits of this kind of Congress?
Advocates claim that:
- Sortition can construct a descriptively representative legislative body that looks and thinks similarly to the larger public [4, 6, 8]. Such a body would be made up of teachers, engineers, policemen, soldiers, janitors, waiters, and the common people. It would include men and women, genders of all sorts, races and ethnicities of all sorts, and religions of all sorts. The participants would be both young, middle aged, and old, rich and poor.
- The practice of deliberation in sortition bodies is capable of healing partisan divides to yield more unified, consensus-based decision making [5, 7].
- The combined usage of deliberation, expert input, and public input into the sortition process constructs better informed decisions compared to elected decision making .
- The abolishment of elections removes the influence of money in politics [1, 6].
Why would sortition result in more competent legislatures than elected politicians?
A group of randomly chosen people produces a representative sample of the public. This representative sample would approximate the preferences of the larger public in a fashion that no election could replicate. Sortition bodies would therefore be more competent in terms of being descriptively representative of the public. With that, sortition legislatures would be more in-tune with the needs of normal people as opposed to elite, special interests.
Elected politicians in contrast are more competent in their abilities in marketing, rhetoric, persuasion, propaganda, and advertising, which might have correlations to “intelligence”. However I have doubts that this skill set is beneficial to representing your interests. This skill set is instead often used to manipulate and lie.
How would advisory experts be chosen?
In bicameral sortition, the experts are chosen by a joint committee of both elected politicians and lottery-selected citizens. Experts are chosen for every bill that is passed from the elected chamber to the lottocratic chamber [8, 9].
In pure sortition, experts, aides, and bureaucrats are all chosen by the sortition legislature.
Wouldn’t democratic lotteries be random and chaotic?
When random selection is used to select for a single position such as a mayor, the result will be chaotic. However, when random selection is used to select a large body of for example 100-1000 people, the result will actually be remarkably stable. Similarly, when a coin is flipped 1000 times, we can predict with high certainty that about 500 tosses will be heads and 500 tosses will be tails. Therefore, I only recommend the use of sortition for legislative bodies. To select a mayor or president, sortition could be used to construct a selection committee that then hires the executive officer.
What examples of democratic lotteries have been conducted in the world?
Hundreds of lottocratic assemblies such as Citizens' Assemblies have already been conducted in Canada , Ireland, France, the UK, Scotland, Mongolia, America, and elsewhere. Again and again, participants of such assemblies have reiterated the claimed benefits of sortition.
Aren't normal people too stupid to be trusted?
Democratic Lotteries fortunately construct deliberative bodies that are competent. According to top academic journal Science Magazine (2019) ,
“Deliberative experimentation has generated empirical research that refutes many of the more pessimistic claims about the citizenry’s ability to make sound judgments…. Ordinary people are capable of high-quality deliberation, especially when deliberative processes are well-arranged: when they include the provision of balanced information, expert testimony, and oversight by a facilitator."
Deliberation can overcome polarization, echo chambers, and extremism. Democratic deliberation promotes “considered judgment” and “counteracts populism”:
The communicative echo chambers that intensify cultural cognition, identity reaffirmation, and polarization do not operate in deliberative conditions, even in groups of like-minded partisans. In deliberative conditions, the group becomes less extreme; absent deliberative conditions, the members become more extreme.
Why would random people be better than rule by meritocracy or rule by experts?
In a monarchy, government serves the interests of a king. In a democracy, government serves interests of the people. In a technocracy (rule by expert), government serves the interests of technocrats.
Many times, the interests of the king aren't your interests. Many times, the interests of a technocrat also aren't your interests. Competent, smart people working against your interests are even worse than having average or mediocre people in charge.
In any case, expertise is not lost in Democratic Lotteries. Experts would instead be hired in an advisory capacity, "on tap but not on top".
How would sortition be accountable?
In the case of bicameral sortition, an elected house would act as a check against potential corruption of a lottocratic assembly. Alternatively, two sortition assemblies could check-and-balance one-another in multi-body sortition.
How does sortition remove the influence of money in politics?
Since 2400 years ago in ancient Athens, philosophers such as Aristotle claimed that elections were oligarchic in nature . Elections throughout history typically select the richest, most powerful, and most affluent of society. Elections have always been popularity contests whether it be for your high school class president or in a national election. All elected processes therefore have a bias in favor of the interests of the elected wealthy and affluent as opposed to the interests of everyone else.
In modern politics, money is used to buy signatures to get on the ballot, buy advertisements, and buy strategists and marketers. Dark money is used to help campaigns. Sortition is capable of completely sidestepping this process as, whether you spend a dime or a fortune in sortition, everyone has an equal shot at being selected.
Why not other democratic reforms?
There are many proposed democratic reforms such as proportional representation, “democracy dollars”, liquid democracy, approval voting, ranked choice voting, and campaign finance reform. All of these reforms lack a solution to the problem of voter ignorance - including our own ignorance. We must contend with the fact that voters are generally ignorant and incapable of adequately monitoring a politicians’ performance. The vast majority of our monitoring capabilities come from unreliable proxies such as recommendations and endorsements from other politicians, celebrities, or news media . With these unreliable proxies - fake news, conspiracy theories, astroturfing, and media sensationalism dominate the news cycle rather than actionable political information.
In contrast to these other reforms, democratic lottery can solve the problem of voter ignorance by giving citizens the time, resources, and compensation to do the difficult job of evaluating policy and evaluating bureaucrats. Democratic lotteries therefore create a more deliberative, more future focused, and smarter democracy fit for the 21st century.
- Reybrouck, David Van. Against Elections. Seven Stories Press, April 2018.
- Hansen, Mogens Herman. The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes (J.A. Crook trans.). University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.
- Dahl, Robert A. On Democracy, 2nd Ed. Yale University Press, 1998.
- Fishkin, J. When the People Speak. Oxford University Press, 2011.
- J Dryzek et al. The Crisis of Democracy and the Science of Deliberation. Science, 2019.
- A Guerrero. Against Elections: The Lottocratic Alternative. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 2014.
- America in One Room. Stanford Center for Deliberative Democracy.
- A Abizadeh. Representation, Bicameralism, Political Equality, and Sortition: Reconstituting the Second Chamber as a Randomly Selected Assembly, Perspective On Politics, 2020.
- Gastil, Wright - Legislature by lot: envisioning Sortition within a bicameral system
- TG Bouricious - Democracy through multi-body sortition: Athenian lessons for the modern day
- A Lang. But is it for real? The British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly as a model of state-sponsored citizen empowerment. 2007.
- A Shah - What if we selected our leaders by lottery? Democracy by sortition, liberal elections and communist revolutionaries, 2021.