Sortition: Government by Jury

Stephen H. Unger
May, 23, 2018

Considering what has been going on in the world, at least since 1945, it seems clear that, while some nations are better off than others, none are really well governed. "Civilization" is degrading our environment, and there is an ongoing threat of a thermonuclear war that could literally terminate humanity. What follows here is a proposal to implement an ancient idea that might conceivably turn things around.

The great majority of people are relatively honest. They seldom lie, cheat, or steal. But, unfortunately, a disproportionately large percentage of those that rise to the top in any organization, particularly government at all levels, tend to be ruthless, often dishonest, people.

For at least a decade, Gallup Polls have been indicating that only about one out of five Americans approve the way Congress is handling its job [1]. It is clear that many people, perhaps most people, vote for congressional candidates they don't like because their dislike for the principal alternative contender is greater.

Money and Politics

Over the years, money has been playing a growing role in our elections [2]. Campaign expenditures by candidates for election to the House of Representatives and the Senate respectively, in 2012, averaged over $1.6 million and $10 million [3][4]. Additional money was spent by political parties and other political organizations, and by wealthy individuals.

The power of the super-rich has increased, to the detriment of everyone else. To a growing degree, they own the mass media. There is a positive feedback effect in that this power imbalance is making the rich richer and the rest of us poorer. Money has become the dominant factor in American politics.

A Different Approach to Government

In New England towns with populations not over 6000 all registered voters can participate, as voting members, in town meetings. This seems to work out very well. But a town meeting with hundreds of thousands of participants is not feasible.

The usual alternative is citizens voting for people to represent them in a legislative body (e.g., the House of Representatives, and the Senate). These representatives debate issues and vote on legislation. As indicated above, many, probably most, people are not happy with the way this system is working. And with good cause. For example, the idea of extending medicare to cover, not just senior citizens, but the entire population, has not been seriously considered by congress, despite polls indicating that large numbers, probably a majority, of Americans favor it.

A fundamental problem is that when citizens are limited to casting votes for candidates, the likelihood that the vote of any individual will affect the outcome of the election is negligible. So most people do not spend a lot of time studying the candidates' positions on issues. They generally vote along party lines.

A Different Way to Choose the Legislators

An alternative system that was first used in ancient Greece, over 2 thousand years ago, is to select people randomly to serve as legislators for some fixed term. This process, known as sortition [5], is used today to select both grand and petit juries. While prospective members of petit juries (for both civil and criminal cases) are subjected to serious questioning by attorneys on both sides, and by the judge, and may be peremptorily excused, this is not the case for grand juries, whose function is to decide whether accused people should be tried.

In 2005 I was on a Rockland County, NY grand jury, (11 sessions over a period of 3 and a half weeks). A panel of prospective jurors was randomly selected, and then screened to eliminate obviously ineligible people, such as those with a criminal record, or an inadequate command of English [6]. There was no process in which attorneys questioned us.

The jury I was on (23 members) consisted of a wide variety of people. It was obvious that they took their responsibility seriously. I believe we did a good job. These were, I believe, typical of the people who would be in a congress chosen by sortition.

Great care should be taken to ensure that the selection process is truly random. The method used should be very simple and transparent. No fancy technology. Note that every stage magician is expert at faking random choices.

How Might it Work?

Assume that, in the new system, the legislative body consists of 200 randomly chosen citizens. Assume that only American citizens at least 21 years old are eligible. Including a modest number of young people is desirable as they are likely to be more energetic, and it is worthwhile to have their views considered. Setting an upper age limit would be difficult. We might allow people over the age of 70 to decide for themselves whether they should be eligible for selection. There should be some minimal education requirement, such as limiting the selection to high school graduates.

The selection of honest, public spirited, people is certainly not assured by our current system of elections. Quite the contrary. A substantial percentage--possibly a large majority--of politicians striving to be elected to office are motivated mainly by greed and a lust for power. The percentage of such people amongst those selected under sortition would be a much smaller number, corresponding to their prevalence in the general population.

What should be the term of office for the legislators? Too short a term would not give them enough time to learn the job. Too long a term would disrupt their lives, and/or make them feel too special, perhaps to the point that they were corrupted. One year seems like a good compromise--enough time to learn the job--but not likely to upset their lives too much.

If we assume the salary of a member of congress would be about what it is today (of the order of $174,000 annually [7]), then this would be, for most people, very generous (median annual income of individual Americans is roughly $31K [8].) Wealthy people would probably not suffer too much--in most cases their incomes are largely from capital. Poor people would benefit substantially.

Probably the most important problem that most people would face would be the disruption of the education and social lives of their children. High level professional athletes might suffer from a substantial layoff. Physicians might have problems--possibly interrupting the treatment of some patients. If the term of office did not exceed a year, this would not be all that bad, assuming special treatment for special cases. For example, we might have some minimal interval, say 3 months between selection and the start of service. Delaying start of service too much might open the door to people being corrupted. Let us assume a one-year term, which seems plausible.

The Executive Branch of Government

What about the executive branch of government? Choosing the chief executive (president) randomly does not seem to be a good idea as this position is too critical and the range of variation of individuals is too great. We need to come up with a better scheme consistent with the spirit of this type of government.

The parliament might, as in most European countries, choose one of its members to be the chief executive (prime minister). But a one-year term might not be feasible, as it really isn't enough time to master the job. It might be a good idea to have those completing their 1-year terms to elect one of their members, i.e., an outgoing member, to serve an additional year--or perhaps 2 years--as chief executive. Or maybe they should choose more freely from among the general population. This is a point that calls for more thinking.

Implementing Sortition

Sortition could be tested on a small scale by implementing it for some small municipalities. Then for governments of larger cities, then states, etc. Given the prevalence of scandals and failed governments, more and more people might be open to such experiments. We really don't have much to lose!

For two earlier discussions of this topic (one by me) see [9][10]


[1] Andrew Dugan, "New Congress Has Slightly Higher Ratings, Still Unpopular", Gallup, February 16, 2015

[2] Adam Liptak, "Justices, 5-4, Reject Corporate Spending Limit", NY Times, Jan. 21, 2010

[3] Chris Matthews, "How much does it cost to win a seat in Congress? If you have to ask...", MSNBC, 9/13/13

[4] Gabrielle Levy, "How Citizens United Has Changed Politics in 5 Years: The controversial Supreme Court ruling has remade how campaigns are run in the U.S.", U.S. News, Jan. 21, 2015

[5] Wikipedia, "Sortition", Wikipedia

[6] Mike Andrews, "How Are Grand Juries Chosen?", Legal Beagle, June 15, 2017

[7] Ida A. Brudnick , "Salaries of Members of Congress", Congressional Research Service, 2016

[8] Wikipedia, "Personal income in the United States", Wikipedia, 2016

[9] Theodore C. Bergstrom, Hal R. Varian, "Government by Jury", Department of Economics, University of Michigan, November 6, 1984

[10] Stephen H. Unger, "Government by Jury", Ends and Means, July 8, 2013

Comments are welcomed and can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu

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