by Brett Hennig
Recently, inspired by my interview on NPR—“Should we replace politicians with randomly selected citizens?”—that aired on October 13, a listener, Zach Roberts, contacted me and sent me the great graphic below, comparing the demographics of the U.S. senate with what it would look like if the U.S. senate was populated by randomly selected citizens.
There are very obvious differences: gender balance, for example; the significant increase in ethnic diversity; and the large spread of ages (there would be many more young people in a randomly selected U.S. Senate).
Two key questions that people ask when they see a graph like this are
(1) Why would you want to do that? and
(2) How would you implement it in practice?
Why a randomly selected U.S. Senate?
The principal reasons to randomly select the U.S. Senate would be to bring the informed, deliberating voice of the people into political debates, and to create a Senate where representatives are free from electoral imperatives such as fundraising and media baiting. It would eliminate many of the considerable constraints and points of leverage for vested interests in today’s politics.
But—more than this—it would significantly change the content of the laws that navigate their way through our legislatures. A randomly selected U.S. Senate would mean that at least one law-making body would no longer be a millionaires’ club dominated largely by old, white, rich men.
Recent research by Associate Professor Nicholas Carnes in The Cash Ceiling: Why Only the Rich Run for Office and What We Can Do About It, and his previous book (from 2013), show that “Legislators’ socioeconomic backgrounds… have a profound impact on both how they view the issues and the choices they make in office.” Put simply: rich legislators favour the rich and a diverse group of everyday people wouldn’t.
How would you randomly select a U.S. Senate?
Even if you agree that we should randomly select the U.S. Senate, most people have multiple questions about how it would work in practice. Many ask questions such as:
- How long would these representatives serve?
- Would they get paid?
- Would they have a guaranteed job afterwards?
- Would it be compulsory or voluntary?
- How, exactly, would people be selected?
These are all important questions, the answers to which can be found in this paper published in March 2017 by the Sortition Foundation, in collaboration with Common Weal (Scotland) and the newDemocracy Foundation (Australia). Although it details how such a citizens’ chamber could augment the unicameral Scottish Parliament, the basic practicalities of selecting a U.S. Senate by sortition would be more or less the same (with small changes such as the number of representatives).
You can find all the answers (and more) in that briefing, but for those of you who want the answers to the above questions now, here they are:
- Term: 1-2 years
- Pay: yes, twice the median full-time wage
- Job guarantee: yes, like maternity leave job return guarantees in some countries
- It would be voluntary (probably).
- Selection: in a three-stage stratified process.
Not enough detail for you? Then read the full details in the document itself. There are, of course, other very important questions, not least of which are:
- How would we get from elections to sortition?
- What strategy could we use to implement sortition?
- What kind of political movement would be required and how would it campaign?”
These questions are touched on in my previous article, The Irish Citizens’ Assembly chooses representatives by lottery, not election, but extensive strategic planning and substantial resources would be needed.
Why not join us, or spread the word by sharing this article, to build the movement to get from here to there?