Archive for March, 2011

Parliament/Congress Duty (as in Jury Duty)

I went for what turned out to be a two hour walk earlier today as it was a beautiful day, and that I also wanted to think about some of the projects I am working on. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to come up with any breakthroughs or solutions to my problems as my mind kept wandering in a million and one directions, which I was only happy to indulge.

So out of the blue I started thinking about elections and how incumbents will do everything in their power (legal or otherwise) to stay in power; and the violence associated with elections (before and after) in a lot of countries; campaign financing and the inevitable corruption that comes with it; the time MPs/Congresspeople spend raising money and campaigning instead of doing their jobs; etc…

The obvious question then is: do you need elections in order to have a democratic system or live in a democratic society? Or is there another way to enjoy the good things that democracies bring, and eliminate most, if not all of the problems associated with elections?

The solution I came up with was this (and it would surprise me if I was the first one to propose this idea, but I am too lazy to do a search): instead of having elections for parliament or congress, etc. every 2/4/5 years, why not randomly pull a name out of a district’s eligible/registered residents and require that individual to serve in the coming parliament/congress for 2 years? This is how jury duties work in some (most?) democratic systems, where citizens are required to serve when called, unless they have a reasonable excuse that prevents them from serving. So if it works for the legal system, why wouldn’t it work for selecting MPs/Congresspeople? As an MP/Congressperson the newly chosen people would still draw a decent salary plus expenses, and will have available to them professional staff or civil servants, just like current MPs/Congresspeople, which should address hardship issues and the steep learning curve that comes with the job.

This would eliminate most of the issues I listed above, and I would also add that it brings with it additional benefits that do not exist with election based democratic systems.

First, with the current system most people know that there is no way that they would ever become MPs/Congresspeople since they know that you either need to come from a prominent family, have a ton of money, or have great political connections if you are ever going to have any chance of getting elected, which I would argue makes people to become politically disengaged.

However, If we all knew that we could one day be called to serve our country, and that every two years we have 1 in 1000 or 10000/100,000, etc, chance of becoming a council person/state representative/MP/Congressperson, then I would argue that most of us would become more politically aware and involved, and would be more likely to pay increased attention to issues that affect our community, country, and even the world. As such, we would attempt to form views on the issues that affect our families and communities before hand, and would probably get involved in our school systems or health services, etc., in order to have a better understanding of how they work and problems that need addressing. In short, I would argue that more people would become involved in their communities and politically engaged, and even pay more attention to global issues, which can only be a good thing.

The second benefit I see is that if a district is populated by different ethnic or racial or political groups, where say one group makes up 40% and another 60% of the district, in the current system it is very likely that the majority will win every election, shutting out the minority group and leaving their issues unaddressed. In the new system, however, the minority will have a 40% chance of one of their members being chosen at every election. It is possible that the majority will resent this, but at least they know that they have a higher chance of getting one of their own selected next time around.

Another benefit I see is that since women make up more than 50% of the population of most (if not all) countries, this random parliament/congress duty selection system will ensure that the law making institutions in a country will reflect the true make up of the country’s population, and as a result the laws passed will more likely be designed to address issues that women consider important.

I am still debating whether this should also apply to the office of the president/prime minister though. On the one hand I believe that every citizen should aspire to and have an equal chance of becoming the head of state, but, the job of a head of state demands more, so may be we should still have elections just for the head of state? Then again, could anybody in Zimbabwe/Cameron/Libya/etc., do or be worse than the current office holders?

For this to work you would need to make sure that the random name selection process is truly transparent and the systems used are thoroughly inspected and certified by independent organizations in order to prevent the gaming of the system.

What do you think? Would this work, or do you have a better idea? I haven’t listed any cons, so I would love to hear why you think it wouldn’t work.

Another benefit I see to this system over an election is that the parliamentary or congressional members are almost guaranteed to come from more diverse professions than the current system, where they are dominated by lawyers. I believe that if teachers, doctors, waiters, etc., are equally represented then the laws they pass would be designed to address issues that affect them. Plus, it would help a great deal for other members to hear first hand from another member who is a teacher or a doctor when debating an education or health bill, than to exclusively rely on lobbyists and special interests when crafting and debating bills.


I said when I wrote this article that it was unlikely this was a novel idea, but I was too lazy to do a search if anyone else had a similar idea, or whether it’s ever been used. Then today I learned, while reading comments on Hacker News on an interesting article (The “overlearning the game” problem), that this was indeed a very old idea, and is called Sortition. I encourage every African democrat who is fed up of corrupt and incompetent incumbent politicians to seriously consider sortition as a viable option to elections. I intend to learn more about it now that I learned the Greeks preferred this to elections. As Aristotle said “it is thought to be democratic for the offices to be assigned by lot, for them to be elected is oligarchic” (quote taken from the wikipedia article). I couldn’t agree more.

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