Fun Ideas for Federal Election Reform: Let’s Draw Lots Instead
Rather than holding elections, did America’s Founders consider drawing lots for positions of political authority? Probably not, but the Founders did study history and the strengths and weaknesses of political systems in early republics. The framers of the Constitution were deeply skeptical of democracy and wrote into the Constitution various ways to limit the scope and influence of the popular vote.
This article from The Independent Review: “Let’s Toss for It: A Surprising Curb on Political Greed” looks at this unexpected alternative to elections for political office. After a quote Thomas More’s Utopia (above), Sigmund Knag’s article begins:
Nowadays elections are almost universally regarded as the keystone of political affairs. Besides paying taxes and perhaps serving in the military, average citizens participate in political life mainly by voting. Although people disagree about election procedures and often feel disgust with election outcomes, hardly anyone today doubts that elections provide the only way to establish, legitimize, and control a government. Historically, however, general elections have been the exception rather than the rule for selecting and guiding governments
William F. Buckley Jr. famously offered his own alternative to elections: “I’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard.” (cited in this Forbes article, along with quotes from Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan).
Knag discusses the history of lot-drawing (as ancient and medieval republics lacked phone books). Drawing lots has definite advantages for choosing who is to try to manage the apparatus of the state. In ancient Athens office-holders were chose by lot more than by election, and: “Aristotle, among others, viewed lot-drawing as the more democratic procedure and election as the more aristocratic.”
Venetians in the 13th Century relied on a complex process combining lots and election. If you think U.S. election law and the Electoral College are complex, consider the Venetian process. Knag explains: “The system had developed through the Middle Ages, becoming ever more complex to avoid manipulation, before being codified in 1268.”
Here is how the Venetian Doge (lifetime leader) was chosen:
1. The ballottino, a boy chosen at random, draws thirty names by plucking balls out of an urn, thus setting the process in motion with a blind draw.
2. Those thirty are reduced to nine by a blind draw.
3. Those nine put forward forty names, each of which needs at least seven of the nine possible votes.
4. Those forty are reduced to twelve by a blind draw.
5. Those twelve put forward twenty-five names.
6. Those twenty-five are reduced to nine by a blind draw.
7. Those nine choose forty-five new names, each of which needs at least seven of the nine possible votes.
8. Those forty-five are reduced to eleven by a blind draw.
9. Those eleven choose forty-one, who must not have been included in any of the reduced groups that named candidates in earlier steps.
10. Those forty-one then choose the Doge.
After a brief survey of lot-drawing through history, Knag looks at the original election system of the U.S. Constitution:
The Founding Fathers had a plan, though unfortunately not a very good one, for imposing discipline on the presidential election process (see paragraphs 1–4 of article 2, section 1, of the U.S. Constitution, partially superseded in 1804 by the Twelfth Amendment). They prescribed a two-step procedure, whereby the people in the several states would elect the members of an Electoral College, who in their greater wisdom would then vote on the presidential candidates. The president of the U.S. Senate ￼would announce and confirm the winner or, in the extraordinary case that no candidate achieved an absolute majority, leave it to the House of Representatives to choose a winner from among the three top vote-getters. The Founders feared voter immaturity and mob politics, and paternalistically they trusted in the principle of leaving the actual selection to elected representatives. Whatever the wisdom of such a principle, history has rendered it hollow: The pressures of party politics have ensured that, although the formal mechanism remains the same, today’s electors are bound by their party mandate to vote for the party’s candidates; hence, the outcome of the election turns entirely on the party composition of the Electoral College. In other words, indirect election works as if it were direct. The safeguard, such as it was, has collapsed. Only the pointless complexity of the procedure remains.
Then the article suggests ideas for federal election reform:
A reformed system of presidential election could employ sortition in several ways: (1) to compose an electoral college from a larger body; (2) to eliminate names from an elected body of candidates; (3) to pick the final winner from a pool of candidates. … The objective to bear in mind is that the procedure somehow blight the natural inclination of political insiders or special-interest outsiders to further their own interests by manipulating the workings of the selection process. Fundamentally that objective can be achieved only by reducing their expectation of a profit from manipulation.
The article includes further discussion of reforms and how the lot-drawing process might be applied to choosing Supreme Court members.
Searching the Independent Institute website for “federal elections” brings up interesting articles, posts, and book reviews on various election law issues.
This review of “The Road to Mass Democracy: Original Intent and the Seventeenth Amendment”, by Todd Zywicki is an example.