Let’s Choose Legislators Randomly from the Phone Book

I didn’t realize how dissatisfied voters were until 2012, when I read about a poll in which 1000 likely U.S. voters were asked: “Would a group of people selected at random from the phone book do a better job addressing the nation’s problems than the current Congress?” 43 percent answered “yes.”[1]

At that time, the positive ratings of the U.S. Congress had reached an all-time low that persists to this day. It’s interesting, because in current polls, Republicans are just as critical of Congress as Democrats—even though the Republican party has since gained control of both houses of Congress. In truth, nobody’s happy.

“Only 9% of all voters think the average member of Congress listens to the voters he or she represents the most.”[2]

Europeans also are realizing the limits of our current democratic institutions. David van Reybrouck, the Belgian author of Against Elections, said, “There is a huge dislike of political parties and politicians…Small countries, like Belgium and the Netherlands and Denmark are starting to think about innovation.”[3]

The most frequently mentioned innovation is to select public officials randomly by lottery from among the citizens—called lottocracy[4] or sortition. Athens, the original democracy, selected 90 percent of its public officials by sortition, not election,[5] thereby assuring a true representation of its citizens in legislative roles and on juries. American and British courts have carried on the Athenian tradition for hundreds of years, selecting jury members randomly from the tax rolls.

No less important than legislation, we trust juries with our most momentous decisions: whether to take freedom or even life itself from our fellow human beings. Ironically, by deliberately excluding rational choice, the mathematical probability of a lottery guarantees true representation. Elections do not. Large donations from the wealthy distort the election process.

For example, in the current U.S. presidential election, merely 158 families and the companies they control have contributed almost half the donations in all the presidential campaigns—$176 million dollars.[6] Their money dominates legislative campaigns as well. So, what would it look like if we did something different?

With 50 states in the U.S., perhaps one state legislature might try an experiment with sortition, rather than election. Or perhaps we might create a one-time lottocratic legislature of 435 representatives, one from each Congressional district, as a demonstration project, with funding and staff all dedicated to creating legislation on a single controversial issue — like gun control.

The commission process used in 2005 to deal with a controversial list of U.S. military base closings only allowed Congress the option of a “yes” or “no” vote on the commission’s proposed list.[7] So, an experimental one-time single-issue single-house lottocratic body could be created with a similar mandate. Congress would have to accept or reject the proposed legislation without amendment.

Most significantly, the single-issue legislature could do what never happens now. Instead of attacking the opposition in the usual adversarial brawl, legislators would:

  • hear presentations from lobbyists and other interested parties
  • confer with knowledgeable experts and staff
  • have a real conversation with one another
  • and make thoughtful decisions

What a radical idea: a deliberative body that actually deliberates. And legislators whose main concern is legislation, not fund-raising for the next election.

Let’s give it a try.


[1] Rasmussen Reports. (February 8, 2012) 43% Say Random Choices From Phone Book Better Than Current Congress. Retrieved from: http://bit.ly/23LOciR

[2] Rassmussen Reports. (December 3, 2015) Congressional Performance. Retrieved from: http://bit.ly/1X5u62T

[3] Synthetron. (2015) An interview with David van Reybrouck. Retrieved from: http://bit.ly/1TdNLLA

[4] Guerrero, A. (2014) Against Elections: The Lottocratic Alternative. Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Philosphy & Public Affairs, 42, no. 2. pp. 135-178.

[5] Dowlen, O. (2009) The Political Potential of Sortition: A study of the random selection of citizens for public office. Imprint Academic: Exeter, U.K.

[6] Cohen, S., Confessore, N. & Yourish, K. (October 10, 2015) The Families Funding the 2016 Presidential Election. New York Times. Retrieved from: http://nyti.ms/1XnX8LI

[7] Wikipedia. Defense Base Realignment and Closure Act of 1990. Retrieved from: http://bit.ly/1Nsp9PW