by Zoe Forest
I, like many Roman senators, am someone that would make Cierco roll his eyes, shake his head, and ask what will become of humanity because I’m ready to agree with just about any well-presented idea. I’m especially prone to unquestionably jump on any idea presented by writer and podcaster Malcolm Gladwell, with whom I just can’t bring myself to disagree.
In one of his episodes of Revisionist History, Gladwell explores and defends an alternative form of elections that I couldn’t stop thinking about. At first, I had hundreds of doubts as it goes against everything we’re taught about merit and hard work and success. But the more I pondered it, the more I thought it had the power to revolutionize society for, hopefully, the better. It is… lottery voting (or sortition if you want to sound smart).
It’s essentially what it sounds like. All candidates who wish to participate in an election toss their name into the ring and a randomly selected ballot determines the winner. It’s an ancient practice that goes back to Athenian democracy, where this was the primary method of selecting political officials. Though it has been practiced occasionally in other locations and time periods, sortition has yet to take serious hold in any other part of the world.
Gladwell was inspired to consider the implications of sorition after reading about a political activist who tested the system in a few schools in Bolivia with incredible results. These schools eliminated the great battle of student council elections and instead invited all students who wanted to join the student council to submit a ballot. The members of the council were then randomly selected and put to work. The councils that emerged from these lottery elections formed some of the best teams the schools had ever witnessed and highlighted some of the advantages to this system.
Collectively, the councils comprised much more diverse students than those elected in a traditional voting system and as a result, the student council was made aware of a myriad of previously unseen issues facing the various students. It also encouraged students too afraid to run the opportunity to participate and one of the best council members in a certain school turned out to be a very shy, quiet student who would have been slaughtered in a normal election against far more charismatic and popular students. There was no bias in the selection because there was no selection. No student, no matter how wealthy or popular or charismatic, had an advantage, which gave opportunity to traditionally overlooked students. With various skill sets and backgrounds, these students proved to perform just as well, if not better, than the students traditionally elected and the schools involved benefited immensely.
Now, this might appear to go against everything democracy teaches us. These students are being rewarded with no hard work at all! What about their qualifications? What about having a voice in who governs your school? The speeches! The list goes on and on. It’s so fundamentally contradictory to our system. But think about elections and those who tend to get elected. Elections are all about charisma and marketing. Sure, there are platforms and promises but even then the presentation of these ideas often influences voters more than the ideas themselves, especially in school elections. The students with the most charisma or the most friends or the most time to promote themselves are the ones that win, for the most part. Yes, they might be incredible people and they may do a fine job, but the actual responsibilities of a student council member, or a government representative, are not about charisma or having friends. Electioneering and actually governing require different skill sets, and yet we only test the one before making our decision. This prevents highly qualified and skilled students who may be more soft-spoken or less connected or just not interested in the campaigning process from participating in student government.
Gladwell adds another point to his support of sortition. People are very poor at predicting success. In a different episode where Gladwell attacks the LSAT, which overwhelmly determines who goes to which law school, he interviews a hiring consultant at a major law firm whose job includes accessing lawyers’ success after they are hired. In his time the hiring consultant has found that the things employers think matter, such as where the applicant attended school, do not actually reflect the employee’s competency or success and yet employers continue to base hiring decisions on unimportant factors. In this episode about sortition, Gladwell interviews the director of the National Institute of Health, a government agency that awards generous and prestigious grants to a limited number of scientific research project each year, and discovers that the ranking system used to rate various grant proposals does not reflect the impact of the research projects once they are completed. The same phenomena occurs within college admissions. High SAT/ACT scores and other factors important in college admissions do not always predict who will be the most successful college student.
It may be difficult to hear that us voters fail at predicting who will actually be a good representative or senator or even president, but it’s true.
Gladwell proposes how sortition may be effective in various sectors of life, such as grant awards, college admissions, and student councils but stops short of fully exploring the possibility of applying sortition in local and national politics .
However, there are several benefits to sortition even when it comes to electing people to congress or the senate. The first is the elimination of party politics. A major reason politicians belong to parties is to aid in elections. But with no elections, politicians no longer need party support. This frees more politicians to voting by their own conscience and judgment, rather than based on what the party supports. Politicians could also avoid falling into the pockets of lobbyists, since they don’t need help in elections.
A major concern when it comes to sortition is placing someone incompetent in office. But a few alterations to sortition can reduce this. There could be a preliminary selection process prior to the actual election where candidates would have to meet a set of requirements or voters could select a handful of candidates they would be content to have in the lottery. Or it could be a partial sortition, where some people are selected by lottery and others by traditional voting. The possibility of average citizens aspiring to a political position may also encourage greater study of politics and economics, leading to a greater number of qualified candidates. It may seem far-fetched but many political scientists have written books and research papers exploring the possibility of implementing sortition on a larger scale, showing that it could be possible.
People are disillusioned with the current political system. They’re disillusioned with party politics, the influence of big corporations in government, career politicians, electioneering, a lack of diversity. Sortition has the potential to solve those problems. I don’t personally see this ever being implemented on such a big scale as congressional or senate elections, but it’s interesting to think about the positive changes it could bring.
And don’t worry, it won’t cure democracy of all its flaws. This system of government still killed Socrates.