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New proposals would let lotteries or experts replace voting. Here’s what’s wrong with that.

- August 18, 2016
A ballot box sits on a table before voting begins in the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary in Dixville Notch in February. Since 1960, residents of the town have cast the first ballots of the U.S. presidential primaries. (REUTERS/Mike Segar)

Is it time to rethink representative democracy? After the Brexit vote, some voters in the United Kingdom had a case of “regrexit” and called for a second referendum. In the United States, the recent arguments that the November 2016 election may be “rigged” generated a great deal of public discussion, as did concerns that the Republican Party candidate is not qualified for office.

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Those who study this topic have been looking at ways to “renew” representative democracy.

Recently, two rival proposals that trace back to classical Greece have resurfaced for a modern audience. Both limit who can vote and seek to stimulate apolitical and rational decision-making:

1) Representatives by lottery. Belgian author and cultural historian David Van Reybrouck suggests abolishing elections and appointing representatives by lottery instead. Van Reybrouck’s proposal extends the principle of sortition — how juries are appointed — to the legislature: Randomly selected citizens would reach the optimal decision via deliberation, supposedly without a need to be bothered with politicking. When their term is up, they go home.

2) Experts as representatives. Philosopher Jason Brennan at Georgetown University suggests disenfranchising the ignorant to slant political rule toward experts. His proposal recently received favorable discussion in The Washington Post. Inspired by Plato, the rule by properly trained experts, or epistocracy, would prevent politicians from being easily swayed by moneyed interests and demagogues.

In the wake of Brexit and Trump’s nomination, it is not difficult to see the attractiveness of such proposals. Both approaches address concerns about demagoguery and mob rule — both propose a government run apolitically by people who know what they are doing. The first option limits the enfranchisement by lot, the second one by brains.

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Representative democracy is imperfect, but necessary

Unfortunately, both options also suffer from major flaws despite their lofty ideals. The democratic process is not merely a debate about means, but fundamentally a matter of discovering and settling competing values and goals. And both approaches fail to acknowledge that representatives need to be accountable to citizens as a prerequisite for democratic legitimacy.

Both the election-lottery and the expert-rule plans appear to be democratic solutions to the ills of democracy. They propose better policies and less political intrigue, higher trust, and — in the case of the lotteries — greater equality.

Nails in the coffin of political equality

But neither proposal actually provides political equality. While this is rather self-evident for expert rule, it is also a problem of the political lottery. Despite the one-man-one-lot principle, evidence with small-scale political lotteries at the municipal level suggests this approach yields greater political inequality. A study of Dutch political lotteries shows that only 5 to 10 percent of invited citizens participate, creating a small group of mostly educated, motivated, middle-aged, white, male participants not at all representative to the larger population. Dutch political scientists Harmen Binnema and Ank Michels conclude: “Lottery ultimately turns into self-selection, with lack of diversity and legitimacy.”

What Van Reybrouck describes as “real citizen participation” is really citizen participation by the happy, interested few. This may work well in town halls across New England, but it is no way to govern a nation. A few states, like Belgium, address this problem by requiring citizens to vote. This compulsory involvement could, at least in theory, be extended to participation in political lotteries. But even then, simple statistics reveal this plan’s impracticality: A randomly selected body of representatives would likely require thousands of participants to be more or less representative of the U.S. population.

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‘No escape from the problem of ignorance’

Second, both proposals commend themselves for reducing politicking and stimulating good policies. Lotteries would shift the deliberation to lay people who supposedly are institutionally less susceptible to corruption. Although Van Reybrouck acknowledges that politicians selected by lotteries may have less expertise than politicians elected by voters, he suggests that unelected experts and civil servants would provide them with assistance. Yet that means that legislatures chosen by lottery might be even more influenced by assistants and lobbyists with access to the representatives.

Would lottery-politicians be less susceptible to corruption, as Van Reybrouck claims? That seems unlikely. Precisely because lottery-politicians cannot be held accountable via the ballot box, the institutional safeguards against bribery that curtail our regular politicians would be of little use. Elections, after all, allow voters to throw the rascals out.

Expert rule would be more just, according to Brennan, who claims representatives and governments chosen by ignorant voters produce harmful and often immoral policies. Brennan would, therefore, limit the franchise to properly educated voters. Of course, what counts as “proper” is precisely a matter of politics.

No group has primacy in the moral debates of politics. American political scientist E.E. Schattschneider concluded in his 1960 masterpiece, The Semisovereign People: “There is no escape from the problem of ignorance because nobody knows enough to run the government” [emphasis in original].

And isn’t government already the province of the educated? Within the U.S. Congress, 95 percent of the members have an academic degree. College graduates make up important parts of the government and semi-government bureaucracies. Increasingly, governments answer to the demands of the higher educated, in any case. Social, political and economic inequalities correlate with educational opportunities and outcomes, putting the lower educated in a more vulnerable position.

In a recent editorial, Brennan notes that “all across the West, we’re seeing the rise of rise of angry, resentful, nationalist, xenophobic and racist movements, movements made up mostly of low-information voters.” What he fails to recognize is that these developments take place in a political culture with institutions that are already expert-heavy. As the higher educated already dominate politics, giving additional power to skilled technocrats is not necessarily an effective solution.

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A third hitch is that neither the lottery nor expert rule is likely to reduce political mistrust. Democratic legitimacy results from the procedural quality of government, not the selection process.

Support for expert rule is rather low, despite recent increases. There is no reason to believe that citizens would have greater confidence in politicians who have been selected according to an abstract, statistical principle or who are appointed as experts.

Democracy is a grand experiment, and these resurging ideas have their merits. But it would be a mistake to assume that limiting the franchise by lot or by brains would be an easy solution, if any, to the challenges of representative democracy today.

Eric Schliesser is a professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam. He blogs at Digressionsnimpressions.

Tom Van Der Meer is an associate professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam, co-director of the Dutch Parliamentary Election Survey, and co-editor of the forthcoming “Handbook on Political Trust.” His Twitter handle is @TomWGvdMeer.