This is the final in a four-part series about Democracy in Practice’s work replacing student elections with lotteries in schools in Bolivia. It speaks to students learning early about ways in which they can directly impact their own governments by participating in Deliberative Democracy, a key role in Building A New Reality.
By Adam Cronkright
In the first post of this series, I highlighted some of the problems with traditional student government, and explained that our organization, Democracy In Practice, has been helping schools in Bolivia reinvent civic education.
Our approach has centered on replacing competitive elections with voluntary lotteries. This gives every interested student, even those lacking the charisma and popularity to win an election, an equal chance to become a student representative and develop civic and leadership skills.
With the second post, I explained the unexpected ways that using lotteries have challenged our assumptions about leadership and leadership potential. In the third post, I shared how the diversity brought by lotteries leads to unexpected and cherished friendships. Now in this final post, I want to explore the ways in which lotteries can enhance collaboration and cohesion.
Lotteries as Levelers
Lotteries change the perceived meaning among students about election results.
When we help a school use lotteries instead of elections, for example, it means that “losers” simply had bad luck, and don’t have to feel publicly rejected by their peers. Likewise, it means that “winners” simply had good luck, and have no reason to feel better than anyone else. The student government is formed without injuring or inflating anyone’s ego, and without fostering resentment or rivalries.
In this way, student government lotteries serve as levelers.
Once the student government is formed, every member takes turns facilitating meetings, taking notes, and addressing the school. Each of them has the opportunity to learn and practice the related skills, and no one is excluded.
There are, however, a few responsibilities that require a designated person who can be held accountable, such as treasurer and coordinator.
A conventional approach would be to have the group elect these positions, but what information would the new representatives use to pick among themselves? Most don’t know each other, having just been selected at random from different classrooms and different grade levels. Thus, they would almost undoubtedly choose the peer who seems most responsible to be treasurer and the one who is confident and charismatic to be coordinator.
However, as I explained in Part 2 of this series, those biases are often misguided. Moreover, this approach can give chosen students an inflated sense of importance, and those who were passed over feelings of rejection.
So how do you think these responsibilities are distributed? You guessed it! Through lotteries.
Democracy Via Rock, Paper, Scissors
All those in the student government who want to be treasurer raise their hands.
If there is only one, the matter is done. If there are two, they flip a coin or play rocks, paper, scissors. If there are more, they put names in a hat.
It is important to understand that if the selected student does not take their role seriously, the group can vote them out at any time. But the point is that no one who wants to learn a skill set or take on a responsibility is written off and denied an opportunity.
Within student government, the leveling effects of lotteries prevent feelings of superiority, inferiority, and resentment. This leads to a dynamic of equality that permeates student governments and is clearly valued by the students themselves. So much so, in fact, that they have gone beyond our proposed uses of lotteries and employed them in other creative ways to maintain equality and cohesion.
Creative Uses of Student Lotteries
Lotteries are also a great form of participatory decision-making.
One student government, for example, was working to reforest part of their school grounds, and had secured a sizable donation of saplings. But only a couple representatives could ride along to the nursery to select the different varieties of plants.
Everyone wanted to go. So, without hesitation, one of them flipped over their hat while another marked different pieces of paper. The papers were folded up, thrown in the hat, and they all tried their luck.
Conversely, a student government at another school needed two of its members to take on a necessary task that nobody wanted. Instead of applying peer pressure or arguing, they drew green and purple beans from an urn. And as can be seen in the video below, even the unfortunate ‘winners’ (who drew purple) had fun with it.
All of these diverse applications of lotteries reinforce the equality with which students interact and the cohesion of these diverse student governments. It’s never perfect, but it goes a long way as these diverse groups of young people learn how to work together.
Adam Cronkright is the co-founder and director of Democracy in Practice. The nonprofit focuses on reinventing student government and has worked primarily in schools in Bolivia. Democracy in Practice is part of a growing movement of democratic innovation that is challenging traditional approaches to governance all around the world.