Let’s reimagine democracy: replace elections with lotteries

Brexit and the Trump presidency are making people ask whether the current form of democracy is the best we can do

What's happening to our democracies? Donald Trump's presidential-election victory in the United States, after a bitter campaign characterised by deceitful and incendiary rhetoric, is not an isolated episode. It's the natural outcome of what David Van Reybrouck calls democratic-fatigue syndrome.

The symptoms are as "manifold as they are vague", the Belgian author writes in Against Elections: The Case for Democracy, but the condition can be identified by "anyone who puts together low voter turnout, high voter turnover, declining party membership, government impotence, political paralysis, electoral fear of failure . . . exhausting media stress, distrust, indifference and other persistent paroxysms".

Ireland has not escaped this malady, and Fianna Fáil’s confidence-and-supply arrangement to facilitate the Fine Gael minority Government is one such outcome. Politicians with power are afraid to use it – and who would blame them when you look at the figures?

“In the 1950s and 1960s parties that joined a coalition government lost 1 to 1.5 per cent of their votes, in the 1970s 2 per cent, in the 1980s 3.5 per cent and in the 1990s 6 per cent,” Van Reybrouck writes. “Since the start of this century the figure has been 8 per cent or more. In recent elections in Finland, the Netherlands, Britain and Ireland, governing parties lost 11, 15, 15 and 27 per cent of their votes respectively. Who still wants to govern proactively in Europe if the price of participation in government is so relentlessly high?”


Van Reybrouck’s short treatise is possibly the most important thing you can read in the wake of the Brexit-Trump double whammy, because it explains just why politics is descending into populism while identifying a means of reversing the decline.

The trick, as the title of his book suggests, is to reimagine democracy as something other than elections. Offering people a say in things once every four or five years through the ballot box is not real democracy; it’s no wonder citizens are giving two fingers to the system.

“Rational ignorance”

One of the most worrying facets of electoral democracy is what political scientists call rational ignorance. Citizens have negligible chances of influencing which candidates get elected and of influencing those candidates once elected. “Citizens thus have no incentive to become well-informed regarding political affairs,” says Dr

Peter Stone

of Trinity College Dublin.

Traditionally, there have been ways of counteracting this effect through engagement in institutions such as trade unions and political parties, but “these are on the decline”. The problem is exacerbated “when you have a media that is not able or willing to provide the information that people need to make an informed decision”.

The answer, says Stone, is to find new ways of invigorating democracy, suggesting a much greater role for “citizen juries” randomly selected to serve public roles.

This notion of governing by lottery rather than election is at the heart of Van Reybrouck's book, which has sought to popularise a concept that stretches back to ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy. In Athens, in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, the most important governmental offices were appointed by sortition, or the drawing of lots. This included the Ekklesia, or citizens' assembly, which oversaw finances, public works and the judiciary, and was even responsible for diplomatic relations with neighbouring states.To Artistotle a democracy was unworthy of the name unless it was participatory. One of the "oligarchical characteristics" of Sparta, he observed, was the fact that all its offices "are filled by election and none by lot".

An argument put forward by some political theorists is that democracy was always designed to have an element of sortition but that it took a wrong turn in the 18th century when elections to parliament came into fashion. Van Reybrouck develops this hypothesis, arguing that elections were easier to manipulate by the elites. Montesquieu was one of those who spotted the ploy, saying: “Voting by lot is in the nature of democracy; voting by choice is in the nature of aristocracy.”

David Farrell, a professor of politics at University College Dublin, is not entirely convinced by this but sees merit in a greater role for sortition: "I would love to see a future Seanad elected by lottery." Reflecting on the Trump victory, Farrell says: "The election result is negative in almost every single aspect you can imagine but one: if we survive for the next four years the outcome might provoke a reaction. We could be going back to an era where people are demanding rights, and that could be a very positive thing."

A starting point for Farrell is what the US social scientist Russell Dalton calls the good citizen. Younger people are finding new ways of engaging with politics – protesting, boycotting and getting involved in news types of political organisation, online campaigning and so on – and "there is a move away from politics as exclusively vote centred to voice centred".

Deliberative, participatory processes, such as the constitutional convention that led to the referendum on same-sex marriage, can be used to harness this activity, Farrell says, but he warns against swapping elections for sortition in entirety. “I would see it as more of a need to experiment with additional ways and bolt them on to our existing system,” he says.

Here Farrell cites the idea of the Harvard professor Jane Mansbridge of coupling deliberative and representative approaches. "The constitutional convention is a good example of what coupling can look like," says Farrell. It was composed of a mixture of politicians and ordinary citizens, which "brought an air of realism which you don't get if it's just citizens on their own".

Like the new Citizens’ Assembly examining the Republic’s abortion laws, the body was advisory – its recommendations had to go to the Oireachtas for approval – but it nonetheless had an effect, and many initial critics became converts as time went on. “I think we still have an aversion to coupling. My hope is that the convention experience might give it a certain degree of fair wind.”

But aren’t these assemblies just talking shops or stalling devices for the Government? “I have been involved in a number of these processes internationally, and the same sniping, the same criticism applies at the beginning,” Farrell says. “What I always say to those criticising is, ‘Go along to the meeting and spend a little time there and observe it.’ ”

Property tax

One area ripe for participatory democracy is in local councils, says Farrell. “What is to stop us voting on how to use property tax, for example, or which projects should be prioritised?” The Government’s published policy on local-government reform,

Putting People First

, includes proposals for “participatory budgeting”, but “it has never been implemented”.

That’s not to say one method of decisionmaking should apply everywhere. “The danger is you use an approach like this too much, and then ruin the brand,” says Farrell. “As one person said, ‘You would not want to fly an aeroplane that has been designed by a citizens’ assembly.’ ”

Support for deliberative democracy has been growing in the US thanks to the work of James Fishkin, who has shown, for example, how people in the oil-rich state of Texas are more willing to accept green policies if they're consulted directly about the facts in a nonpartisan way.

In one experiment he carried out the percentage of people who said they would be willing to pay more for wind-generated and solar power rose from 52 to 84 per cent following a deliberative exercise. This research has helped to bring the concept out of academia, says Farrell. Now the challenge is “scaling up and being relevant”.

As well as leading to more informed decisions, deliberative processes can give citizens greater ownership over decisions. Van Reybrouck quotes an African proverb: "Whatever you do for me but without me, you do to me." These words, he says, "succinctly sum up the tragedy of today's electoral representative democracy. Even with the best of intentions, those who govern the people without involving them govern them in only a limited sense."

Peter Stone, who has researched the use of lotteries as a democratic tool, says they are particularly suited to roles that involve “government oversight”. For example, rather than having the US senate probe Hillary Clinton’s emails in a partisan way, the files could have been subjected to “randomised checks by a citizen jury”.

A randomly selected panel of citizens could similarly be charged with overseeing the redrawing of electoral boundaries, policing voter fraud and auditing politicians’ compliance with rules of office. Building “nonpartisan” decisionmaking processes into the political system would help to guard against politicians such as Trump overreaching their powers, Stone says.

What about selecting the next president by lottery? “That is one level where it’s a very bad idea,” says Stone, who is originally from Pennsylvania. “I don’t know of any political system in history which has had a single head of state selected purely at random. In ancient Greece there was a ‘president for a day’, but that was quite a ceremonial role. It’s not the sort of method you’d want to use to choose the guy who is deciding whether nukes would be launched.”

Balance of power

Others have warmed to the idea since Trump’s win. The Australian political scientist Prof

John Dryzek

, a world-renowned expert on participatory democracy, says he wouldn’t normally say we should use lotteries to select a president or prime minister, “but in Trump’s case it is pretty obvious that selecting an ordinary American at random would probably give you a better president. Sortition gives you people who can listen, reflect and exercise judgment; think of a jury in a criminal trial.

“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. We might, for example, start by selecting 10 per cent of the members of an upper house at random; think how beneficial this would be to the US senate. This 10 per cent would hold the balance of power and need to be persuaded.”

But Dryzek says that one innovation is not enough. “Trump has exposed the fact that the American system is sick in deliberative terms. There is a battle to be fought on many fronts, not just the peak electoral level. The fronts include education, social media and social movements, as well as the established institutions of government,” he says. “This is not just left against right; there are conservative American commentators who are appalled by Trump from a deliberative perspective.”

Similarly, Stone says: “Random selection is one of the tools that has been overlooked for too long, but I don’t think it’s a cure-all. I get worried about the kind of talk that says lotteries will mean ‘the voice of the people’ is going to be heard. Actually, there are a lot of voices, and we have to figure out what to do with all those voices. If anything we are learning from Brexit, the US election and elections here that we have a lot of disagreement; we don’t think the same, and politics is about navigating that and figuring out what will work.”

Farrell says that the way forward is unclear “because we are in the eye of the storm. It’s very hard for any of us to predict where all of this will end.” But as a glass-half-full person he sees hope in innovations such as the Citizens’ Assembly, which has also been charged with examining issues such as referendums, ageing and climate change.

“I think there is a huge part of the piece that requires political leadership; this is where credit has to go to our current leaders. They bought into the constitutional convention and abided by it. Let’s hope that the same happens with the Citizens’ Assembly, and let’s hope they extend this approach further.”