Most practices we think of as democratic, such as assemblies, trial by jury, and the secret ballot were pioneered over 2,500 years ago in the Greek city-state of Athens. Indeed, the word ‘democracy’, which means ‘rule by the people’, comes from Athens.
Even back then, it was clear that elections breed division, dysfunction, and corruption. So, with the exception of a few positions that truly required unique skills and experience, such as military generals, ancient Athenians avoided elections. Instead, for close to 200 years, they filled the majority of public offices and the most important legislative bodies with everyday citizens selected by lottery.
[oligarchy is a system where
power is held by a small number of people]
Now, in response to deep failings of elections in modern times, democratic lotteries are being revived around the world to form Citizens’ Assemblies. This innovation, which was first developed in the US and Germany in the 1970s, brings together representative groups of everyday people to investigate, discuss, and weigh in on important and challenging policy issues.
Variations on this approach include Citizens’ Juries, Citizens’ Panels, Deliberative Polls, Consensus Conferences (sometimes referred to as ‘mini-publics’ in academic speak). They differ in size, length, and process, but all involve lottery selection, a learning phase informed by diverse subject experts, and facilitated discussion among participants.
Citizens’ Assembly commissioned by the British Parliament
These dots represent the dozens of organizations currently working with democratic lotteries. We would need to cover the map with hundreds of dots to represent all the different places democratic lotteries have been used. For more information, visit www.democracyrd.org.
Toronto, Canada now has a permanent Citizens’ Panel selected by lottery. Residents who are selected, and who are willing and able, serve 2-year terms advising the city’s Planning Division. Madrid, Spain replaced the elected officials on its main oversight body, the Observatorio, with 49 residents selected by lottery for 1-year terms. And the semi-autonomous region of East Belgium is forming a permanent Citizens’ Council selected by lottery to operate alongside the Parliament.
Additionally, both liberal and conservative social movements are demanding Citizens’ Assemblies as a powerful way to bypass broken electoral politics. Prominent examples include the global climate movement Extinction Rebellion, and the largely rural, conservative Yellow Vest protest in France.
In 2013, NASA sought citizen input on an issue of profound importance to it’s public mission: planetary defense. They wanted to figure out how to detect potentially hazardous asteroids and protect the Earth from them. Participants were provided with much of the same technical information that NASA’s administrators and program managers use. They dove into the details of civil defense, kinetic impactors, nuclear blast deflection, gravity tractors, and more.
In 2019, America In One Room brought together 526 everyday Americans from all walks of life. Over the course of three full days, this group engaged in civil and nuanced discussion on critical issues facing the US – immigration, foreign policy, taxes, the economy, healthcare, and climate change.
Americans bridging partisan divides at America In One Room
Note: This video is from CNN. Some of us distrust CNN and some of us distrust FOX. CNN happened to be the only news channel that showed up to cover this event, but obviously that doesn’t mean this is a liberal thing (or a conservative thing). It’s a democratic thing. It’s an American thing. Got it?
This gathering demonstrated the benefits of giving people time, space, and information to deepen their understanding of each other and the core issues facing Americans today. Importantly, extreme proposals on the right typically lost support from Republicans and extreme proposals on the left typically lost support from Democrats. After intense dialogue across divisions, 95% of participants agreed with the statement “I learned a lot about people very different from me – about what they and their lives are like”.
Hundreds of similar events with everyday citizens selected by lottery in dozens of countries have shown that unlike politicians, people of all genders, races, political leanings, and socioeconomic classes can come together and build consensus, even on the most polarizing issues.
The Jefferson Center has used democratic lotteries to form groups to investigate issues related to climate and energy in rural areas, as well as local government reform. As soon as participants feel the responsibility that comes with representing their communities on important issues, even previously disengaged citizens come alive. As one participant of a Rural Energy Dialogue admitted, “I walked in thinking ‘Well, OK, this might be long and drawn out.’ But the longer it went, the more fun it became.”
Participants in a Community Assembly sharing how transformative the experience was
The same thing has been seen again and again in the US and in similar processes around the world. People do care and engage when they have a real reason to.
We are the country that famously fought to cast off kings and queens. Where people always shook hands instead of bowing to nobles and lords. The country that has championed liberty and equality.
Our Founders had visionary ideals that neither they nor this great country has ever quite lived up to. And if we continue to let a corrupt class of career politicians call all the shots, we never will.
A nationally-representative poll conducted by one of the most respected polling companies, SurveyUSA, showed that when asked, most Americans support the use of democratic lotteries to select our representatives.
It received 62% support from conservatives and 62% support from liberals – meaning it’s something everyone can get behind. Check it out for yourself.
Yes. Congress and state legislatures deal mostly with questions of morals, values, and priorities. How do we want to live together? How should we spend our hard-earned tax dollars? What kind of future do we want for our children?
Answering these questions requires a deep understanding of America and firsthand knowledge of the challenges that our communities face. And when it requires expert knowledge about a specific issue, these citizens can call on expert testimony just like elected politicians do. Experts can advise, but they shouldn’t decide. The people who live like us and share the same aspirations, fears, and challenges as us are the ONLY people we can trust to represent us in these decisions.
Oh, and don’t be fooled. The career politicians in Congress maybe be good at giving empty speeches and playing politics, but most don’t have a law degree. They rely on staff and lobbyists to write the laws and their party and donors to tell them how to vote.
Lotteries should not be used to select the President or any other executive positions that require specific skills.
Democratic lotteries should be used to fill legislatures because representing America requires the different perspectives and lived experience of all Americans.
But there are also ways to use lotteries to ensure the good selection of executives too…
A minimum age and a restriction against folks who have been convicted of corruption or violent crimes probably makes sense. So might some other basic requirements. We are against qualifications that discriminate and exclude, but ultimately America will have to decide what requirements to put in place.
First, this really doesn’t happen. We’ve seen time and time again that when given respect and responsibility, people selected by democratic lottery are civil with one another and tend to think passionately about what’s best for everyone.
Second, the large size of legislative bodies and the need to collaborate means that extreme views and bad apples wont make much progress.
Third, for extremely rare cases, there are already rules and procedures on the books that will be maintained and improved to allow the rest of the group to discipline and remove disruptive members.
The democratic lottery would use the census and the most accurate projections to guide the selection of those picked. This will ensure accurate representation across age, gender, geography, income, and ethnicity.
The beauty of this is that we can verify its accuracy just by looking at who gets selected, rather than having to just blindly trust faulty and hackable voting booths.
Yes. Paid and supported with staff just like current elected politicians. They will also be provided childcare and other necessary support.
And similar to jury service and parental leave, people’s jobs would be protected for their term of service. But unlike jury service, those who run businesses or cannot set aside their work for some other reason can pass, as service will not be obligatory.
No. Some may choose to opt-out for whatever reason. For example, they may be running a small business that depends on them. But given our country’s massive population, we can count on there being hundreds of thousands if not millions of Americans hoping to get selected and ready to serve.
Importantly, even if certain types of people pass more than others, there are already methods for conducting democratic lotteries that still ensure accurate representation of different ages, genders, ethnicities incomes, regions, and political leanings.
Corrupting influences must always be guarded against. One crucial difference that would set this apart is that since these people would represent America simply by being representative of America, they can make their decisions using a secret ballot, just like we do on election day.
This would powerfully defend against corruption by preventing the trading of votes for favors or bribes, the way politicians currently do. It would free our decision makers to truly do what’s right.
The real goal when selecting representatives is to find people who represent us and our values. A democratic lottery achieves this far better than elections ever can, because it’s real people who look like us and live like us with no ulterior motives. It’s not out of touch politicians saying whatever, and taking money from wherever, just to win our vote.
And people would still vote for President, although there are much better ways to do that too!