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The Case for Sortition

Revitalizing democracy by abolishing Congressional elections.

Notwithstanding all our liberty-centric rhetoric, the American legislature is hardly democratic. Voter turnout hovers around 50% during Presidential election years. Gallup polls place the Congressional approval rate at around 20%, yet the reelection rate is 95%. A 2014 Princeton study found that the average American’s preferences have a “statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

At this juncture, incremental reform isn’t going to cut it. Congressional elections should be abolished. Congress should be replaced by a group of 1,000 adults randomly selected from the citizenry through a biennial lottery.

First, sortition would ensure that politicians are representative of their constituents. As of today, 22% of Congresspeople are people of color while 40% of Americans are POC, 23% of Congresspeople are female while 51% of Americans are female and the median age of Senators is 63 while the median American is 38 years old. The average Congressperson has a net worth 500% the average American’s.

Representation has a tangible impact on policy. Empirically, members of racial and gender minority groups are more supportive of legislation that benefits those groups. There is no such thing as the ordinary American, but elderly male millionaires ought not be granted the ability to unilaterally craft public policy.

Beyond enhanced demographic representation, sortition would result in more democratic policy choices and therefore heightened public trust in government.

Sortition would severely restrict the political power of special interest groups that could no longer utilize campaign spending or create puppets of career politicians by holding re-election over their heads. Corporate influence would necessarily be reduced to blatant quid-pro-quos, making corruption more transparent and easily punishable.

Many might be shocked to learn that 96% of Americans actually support universal background checks for gun purchases, according to Gallup polling. This statistic serves not only as a testament to the brokenness of American electoral politics but also as a beacon of hope for a radically reimagined political future via sortition.

Absent elections, we could rid ourselves of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and disenfranchisement. And politicians, feeling no pressure from their party, donors, or thoughts of re-election, could focus simply on policy. Best of all, the billions currently poured into campaign spending every election cycle can be redirected.

As with any radical proposal, there exist objections worth addressing.

Some might suggest that sortition represents excessive government coercion. That said, just 0.00030% of the population would serve each cycle, making the program smaller in size than jury duty and less perilous than the draft.

The largest qualm with sortition may be concern over unqualified legislators.

First, many sortition proposals resolve this problem by proposing four years of service with the first two being devoted to civic training and education.

Second, most laws are currently drafted not by Congressional representatives, but rather by staff, researchers and think tanks, who would continue to provide support to politicians decided by lottery.

Third, recent studies from Yale and the University of Michigan suggests that cognitively diverse groups are better at solving problems than groups comprised of the best individual problem solvers because the best problem solvers have similar perspectives and heuristics. This theorem has held up in political contexts: Citizens’ Assemblies in the UK composed of randomly selected participants have produced promisingly innovative proposals.

Fourth, it is important to critically interrogate the qualifications we feel are required for political service. The ability to extrapolate on jargon-laden political theory texts at an elitist institution does not necessarily make one a more empathetic, thoughtful or rational leader. As cultural anthropologist David Van Reybrouk wonders in The Guardian, “What is the use of a parliament full of highly educated lawyers if few of them know the price of bread?”

The oligarchic rule fated by Aristotle so long ago has manifested in America, and we deserve better. Of sortition, Brianna Rennix and Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs put it best: “We may not like what it would look like, but at least it would look like us.”

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