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 favor the rich, breed corruption, and sow division. 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.
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.
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.
For example, 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.
As NASA’s report documented, “By learning a great deal about the Initiative, including the complex tradeoffs regarding the costs, risks, and benefits of various policy options, participants expressed nuanced and informed preferences about the options facing NASA… [They] incorporated complex technical concepts into their discussions and achieved a reasonable understanding of the topics and issues at hand.”
This ability of citizens selected by lottery to handle complex issues has been demonstrated again and again around the world. In Australia, they investigated and shaped nuclear fuel cycle policy. In South Korea, they weighed in on the future of nuclear power reactors. And in Ireland, Iceland, and Mongolia, citizens selected by lottery successfully navigated complex constitutional questions. And there is a growing body of social science evidence suggesting that diverse groups like these are better problem solvers than less diverse groups of ‘experts’.
For example, 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.
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.
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?
For example, 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.”
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.
As explained above, democratic lotteries provide the most viable way to leave behind the dysfunction and division that permeates electoral politics, and finally achieve government of, by, and for the people.
Throughout history, power-hungry rulers have always tried to persuade us that their political arrangement was necessary and natural, and that all hell would break loose if we changed it. You can bet that they’ll try to do the same here. But we know better.
Lincoln famously referred to ‘democracy’ as ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people.’ There are many different ways democratic lotteries can be used to make our government finally live up to this beautiful ideal. Here are two of our main proposals:
Imagine we replace congressional elections with democratic lotteries. Instead of politicians, Congress is filled with everyday Americans from all parts of the country and all walks of life. These citizens come together and, with the support of experts and staff, investigate the unique challenges facing the country. And once their term is up, they go back to their regular lives and other citizens are chosen in another democratic lottery.
These citizen-representatives don’t owe anything to any party or donor, and they aren’t obsessed with re-election. So they are free to have honest conversations, learn from one another, and find common ground on what is really best for the country.
Imagine we replace partisan presidential primaries with a Citizen’s Nomination Commission selected in a democratic lottery. Once selected for the Commission, these citizens meet at the White House to learn about the unique challenges the next President will face at that moment in history. Then, similar to the way in which well-run organizations search for a new chief executive, this Commission identifies the most inspiring leaders from America’s public and private sectors.
After carefully examining each potential President’s character and qualifications, the Commission nominates a handful of individuals who are best suited for the job and who deserve to be considered by the whole country. And once Americans have a chance to learn about each nominee, we all vote to choose our next President. To read more about this proposal, visit our People's Presidency page.
First things first, we all know that although some of the politicians we elect are intelligent, many aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed. And many are good at only one thing: playing the political game. As in, they use their smarts to gain power and benefit themselves and their powerful backers. Moreover, most politicians have no background or experience in the different issues they deal with, as they so confidently decide on education one day, healthcare the next, and immigration the next. So most of the time they simply do what their party and persuasive lobbyists tell them to do.
And while making laws does require a basic understanding of legal language, many of the politicians we elect have no legal background, and rely on the support of staff and legal experts (just like everyday people would). Moreover, if the laws we have to live by are too complex for us everyday Americans to possibly understand, how are we suppose to live by them? And it’s often bullshit loopholes and political favors that make our laws so complicated in the first place – just imagine how refreshing it would be to have a tax code written by Americans who have to file their own taxes like the rest of us!
So now that we’ve reeled in this illusion that politicians are experts who do something no one else could possibly do, let’s dive into the main reason you should trust everyday people with important decisions…
The executive branch (the Presidency) executes and administers. This requires highly-skilled leaders and administrators who can develop strategy, hire the right people, and manage teams. Which is why we propose changing the way we nominate candidates for President. The legislative branch (Congress), however, deals mostly with questions of morals and values. How do we want to live together? How should we spend our hard-earned tax dollars? Should we invest more in healthcare or in education or in the military?
Properly answering these questions requires the ability to weigh different forms of evidence, generate solutions, and think about different trade-offs and consequences. But it’s not rocket science, and time and time again, diverse groups selected by lottery have successfully navigated even the most complex issues, including nuclear fuel cycles, asteroid defense systems, the national economy, and constitutional reform.
But more importantly, properly answering these big questions requires a deep understanding of America, the capacity to figure out what’s right, and the courage to actually do what’s right. So who do you trust to answer these questions on behalf of you and your loved ones? Career politicians who are out of touch with America, and who are so compromised and corrupted by the political game that even if they can figure out the right thing to do they can’t do it? Or a group of everyday Americans who bring an intimate understanding of America and who are free to discuss their differences honestly and find common ground on what they actually believe is best for the country?
At the end of the day, 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. Sure there will be some wobbles in the beginning, but just like learning to ride a bike, that’s no reason to cower out and accept the rampant bullshit and corruption we have today.
The premise of democracy is rule by the people. Not “an unrepresentative few” people. Only by having its members represent all parts of America and all walks of life can Congress truly serve the country.
That said, the US Constitution has three basic qualifications for those serving in office that would by default apply here:
The real question is will these criteria from over 230 years ago actually allow us to represent all of America? How should they be updated to reflect our modern times and needs? This is a moral question filled with other difficult moral questions that can only be answered by the American people. So we plan to conduct a nationally representative Citizens’ Assembly to help answer these questions going forward.
Corrupting influences will always exist and must always be guarded against. But the worst and most common forms of corruption right now are fully legal and come from needing to please parties and donors in order to win elections. They come from the political game. Money talks because it can buy elections outright. By transitioning to democratic lotteries and getting rid of the game altogether, we immediately rid ourselves of the most entrenched and despicable corruption.
Even so, the current state of lobbying that is allowed would still be unacceptable. Powerful anti-corruption proposals that would slam shut the revolving door have long existed, but we’ve just never been able to turn it into law because the foxes are in charge of the hen house. With a democratic lottery in place, we’d finally be able to do so. Who would you trust to pass real anti-corruption legislation? Career politicians who serve their donors, parties, and themselves? Or everyday Americans who are fresh into office, know they won’t stay in government very long, and are free of the game?
One crucial difference that would accompany this change is that all of the members of Congress would now vote by secret ballot. This would create a significant defense against corruption by preventing the trading of votes for favors or bribes, the way its currently done. It would free people to truly do what’s right.
The beauty of democratic lotteries is that we can continue to keep innovating in how we use them to build more ever more robust means of oversight and checks and balances. For example, it would be very possible to have an independent oversight commission selected by lottery whose only role is ensuring the integrity of Congress.
The democratic lotteries that are currently conducted to form Citizens’ Assemblies are typically done on computers using randomization software. Democratic lotteries that are more high-stakes, like for filling Congress will need a selection process that is visually verifiable, analog, and can work at the massive scale of American society. It will likely require all Americans to have a form of identification – a common practice in many other countries – as not everyone is registered to vote or has a valid drivers license. An independent federal agency would be set up to oversee and conduct the process.
Promising ideas and precedents for conducting the lottery already exist – for example, the use of mixed ball machines in money and sports team lotteries – and we plan to fund research to develop robust answers to this technical, but solvable challenge.
The lottery will be adjusted to ensure it represents American society at large. This will be done using stratified sampling techniques that have long been central to public polling and scientific surveys, and have been used for most Citizens’ Assemblies. The most common criteria used to ensure proper representation are gender, age, wealth, and geography. Due to the large sample size, many other demographic criteria become well represented naturally.
The Congressional Lottery will become a celebrated and exciting national event. It will be voluntary, either allowing people to opt-in to be selected or opt-out if they are selected. Those who step up to the call will have their jobs legally protected during their service – a practice that is already common in many countries with extended parental leave.
Some may choose to opt-out for whatever reason. They may be running a small business that depends on them, or need to support a family member. 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.
We’re building off of the massive infrastructure that already exists to support Congress, and basically just changing the selection process. There will likely be some changes to some of the roles and rules in Congress as we move away from partisan control to support people working together to find common ground. But much of Congress will stay the same.
The House will continue to serve two-year terms and the Senate six-year terms, and their terms will be limited and staggered. All of this will ensure enough time to develop skill at the job, prevent stagnation and complacency, and not overly disrupt anyone’s life. It will also ensure that institutional knowledge is preserved, while also allowing fresh people and perspectives to enter and prevent corruption. And just like the current elected members of Congress, Americans selected by lottery would receive orientation and training, salaries, support staff, and other existing resources.
We’ve seen time and time again that when given respect and responsibility, people rise to the occasion. Very few people would take years out of their life to join their peers and publicly mess with our most important institutions just for kicks. The large size of bodies like Congress and the need to collaborate means that extreme views and bad apples wont make much progress. And for extremely rare cases, there are already rules and procedures on the books that can be maintained or improved to allow the rest of the group to discipline and remove disruptive members.
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 you and live like you with no ulterior motives. It’s not out of touch politicians saying whatever, and taking money from wherever, just to win your vote.
This is about you having an equal chance to actually decide important things, not you casting a statistically-insignificant vote for someone else to become a decider. This is about who gets to actually serve in office and make the rules that we live by. We think it should be Americans from all walks of life. They want it to remain an elite few.
Checking a box every couple years and watching political drama on the news isn’t rule by the people. And how’s it been working for us? Career politicians playing the game want us to keep thinking that we have a choice and a voice, while they do as they please. We’d much rather have a seat at the table.
This movement is for you if:
We are a movement to end the game of electoral politics and build real democracy.
This means replacing politicians with everyday people from all walks of life. And it means putting them in position to have honest and informed conversations, find common ground, and make wise decisions.