Let's Toss for It
A Surprising Curb on Political
But anyone who deliberately tries to get himself elected to a public
office [in Utopia] is permanently disqualified from holding one.
Thomas More, Utopia
Nowadays elections are almost universally regarded as the keystone of
political affairs. Besides paying taxes and perhaps serving in the military,
average citizens participate in political life mainly by voting. Although
people disagree about election procedures and often feel disgust with election
outcomes, hardly anyone today doubts that elections provide the only way to
establish, legitimize, and control a government. Historically, however, general
elections have been the exception rather than the rule for selecting and
guiding governments. Alternatives include various autocratic or despotic
systems and processes and, in more democratic systems, methods that supplement
or substitute for elections. Among the latter is lot-drawing, also known as
sortition (from the Latin root sort, meaning "lot"). This procedure has
intriguing characteristics and effects as well as potential for present-day
utility. In this article I discuss its history and nature and consider some
possible applications in the American political system.
Instances of Lot-Drawing
In the fifth century B.C., the Athenians filled their civic offices in
two ways, either by the random operation of the lot (kleros) or by
election. Most officeholders were selected by lot. Aristotle, among others,
viewed lot-drawing as the more democratic procedure and election as the more
aristocratic (Stockton 1991). Scholars are not sure about the exact procedure
used: Was the selection made from all those eligible or, at least in some
instances, from those eligible and willing to serve? Lacking enough willing
citizens, was compulsion used? Did the Athenians sometimes select from a short
list of citizens eligible, willing, and qualified to serve? Although the
evidence is inconclusive, it seems likely that "sortition from among
volunteers" was the rule, at least in a number of cases (Stockton 1991,
115-16). Holders of the most important offices, the archonships, were selected
from a short list, direct election having been abolished in 487-86 B.C. and
replaced by sortition from (probably one hundred) preselected candidates of the
two highest classes of citizens. After about 460 B.C., all four classes of
citizens were eligible for archonship. Later the appointment process became one
of straightforward double sortition — two rounds of lot-drawing (Stockton
1991, 108-9). Before taking office, the selected candidate underwent a scrutiny
(dokimasia) in which citizens could object to his character or record
(Stockton 1991, 110-11). Athens had many civic offices, most with only modest
power and many requiring only part-time service. Except for membership in the
Great Council (the boulê), offices typically could be held only
once in a citizen's lifetime. This system fostered participation,
rotation, and amateurism: Many citizens participated in wielding
power; rotation in office prevailed; and the outlook of the ordinary citizen
pervaded the civil service and the judiciary. Including the boulê,
"about one thousand posts had to be filled year in and year out from among
citizens aged at least thirty" in a citizenry of "between thirty or forty
thousand or so above the age of eighteen." In addition, some six thousand
served as dicasts (jurors) in the courts (Stockton 1991, 112).
In the heyday of their republic, the Venetians selected their lifetime
leader, the Doge, by a complex system involving lot-drawing. The system had
developed through the Middle Ages, becoming ever more complex to avoid
manipulation, before being codified in 1268. The procedure consisted of a
series of ten ballots that alternated between sortition and election. All
participants had to belong to the Great Council, which included several hundred
members of the most prominent families. The steps were as follows (Dahl 1994,
1. The ballottino, a boy chosen at random, draws thirty names
by plucking balls out of an urn, thus setting the process in motion with a
2. Those thirty are reduced to nine by a blind draw.
3. Those nine put forward forty names, each of which needs at least
seven of the nine possible votes.
4. Those forty are reduced to twelve by a blind draw.
5. Those twelve put forward twenty-five names.
6. Those twenty-five are reduced to nine by a blind draw.
7. Those nine choose forty-five new names, each of which needs at
least seven of the nine possible votes.
8. Those forty-five are reduced to eleven by a blind draw.
9. Those eleven choose forty-one, who must not have been included in
any of the reduced groups that named candidates in earlier steps.
10. Those forty-one then choose the Doge.
The Venetian system seems devised to make it impossible for any
individual, family, or coterie to plant candidates or exercise undue influence.
However convoluted the procedure, it supported a republican government that
lasted a thousand years, until 1797.
Selection of a new Dalai Lama in Tibet involves a baroque procedure. By
traditional esoteric divination, a committee of priests identifies a boy
destined by the gods to become the lifetime head of government and the high
priest of the country's major Buddhist sect. The boy is treated as a prince and
educated for his office, which he eventually assumes. This procedure differs
from lot-drawing because it gives considerable influence to the priests. But it
includes an element of chance because no one can predict what sort of man the
boy will become. It also precludes self-promotion and power-seeking by
candidates: no candidates, no campaigning.
Historically many positions of leadership have been filled by hereditary
succession. This involves randomness because heredity itself is an arbitrary
yet objective criterion, and no one can know what sort of person the new
monarch or prince will be. In this case the randomness does not entail
participation, rotation, or amateurism. The king represents a dynastic interest
and a political class. Still, an old-fashioned monarch is not beholden to any
particular interest, which allows him to take a broad and long view if he cares
to do so. Needless to say, the monarchical principle of legitimacy has long
since fallen out of favor among opinion leaders.
In countries with a jury system, the jury is formed by lot-drawing.
Names typically come from local census or voting rolls and are subject to
elimination on grounds of insanity, criminal record, or other bona fide
reasons. Counsels may also have the right to exclude some jurors, though they
may not put forward any person for inclusion in the jury.
Amateurism and Representativeness
A system of universal lot-drawing for public office would create
proportionality in the sense of giving public officials roughly the same
composition as the general citizenry without giving disproportionate weight to
people with any narrow set of characteristics. Thus, if x percent of the
citizens are one-legged, red-haired, nearsighted, nonsmoking Methodist
cabinetmakers, one would expect to find that about x percent of the
officeholders fit that description. Such proportionality differs from that
usually discussed by electoral reformers. Conventional proportionality aims at
the proportional representation of political parties or, more broadly, groups
defined along occupational or geographic lines. By implication, every economic
interest should have a correctly weighted influence in dividing the benefits
dispensed by the government. Accordingly, determination of the type of
characteristic to be represented tends to be highly selective — race and
sex are currently fashionable. Universal lot-drawing leads to amateurism and
individualism, whereas proportional representation leads to professionalism and
A large political entity, such as a nation-state, cannot fill every
public office by random selection, nor has any national legislature been
composed in this way. On a local or regional level, however, it would be
possible to form a legislative council by drawing the name of, say, one out of
every hundred eligible citizens, thereby creating not an elected assembly but a
"stand-in folkmoot" — a diminished version of the real thing. As a universal system, sortition belongs to the
small-scale participatory democracy of the parish, the municipality, and the
historic city-state, not to the large republic. But the modern world does
present some interesting examples of amateur officeholding and broad
The Amish people in North America furnish one such example (Hostetler
1993, 105-11). They belong to a German-Swiss Protestant religious brotherhood,
conspicuous by its members' old-fashioned dress and manners. The Amish
communities are agrarian, largely autonomous, and self-sufficient. The group's
main offices — bishops, preachers, and ministers of the poor — are
held by unpaid amateurs (men only) selected by the leaders of the congregation
according to traditional rules and by general consent. The humility ideal of
the religious doctrine prohibits putting oneself forward as a candidate or
campaigning for others. Some appointees find their selection to office
troubling, but they cope with it. Many Amish women volunteer to train briefly
as teachers or nurses and then serve without pay in those capacities.
As already mentioned, jury systems exemplify random selection as well as
broad participation and rotation.
Many rural communities, though less now than previously, practice
rotation of communal duties, usually unpaid, among local citizens.
Many associations also expect members to volunteer to serve as officers
or functionaries or to accept such duties when asked to do so.
Even modern governments retain unpaid honorary officials, such as
justices of the peace in Britain and the United States, honorary consuls, and
holders of various local offices of a legal nature. In these cases we find
amateurism though not randomness or broad participation.
In a large polity such as a state or federal union, the use of random
selection more often applies to particular officials or to cases that cannot be
dealt with otherwise.
In a representative system, the most obvious means of achieving
amateurism is not sortition but term limits or part-time officeholding by
people who retain their ordinary jobs. The Swiss, who use the latter even in
their federal parliament, call it the "militia system" of politics (Fenner and
Junker 1989, 75, 78-79).
The Nature of Lot-Drawing
Allowing decisions to hinge on chance has a long and fascinating
background. Historically, especially when information has been scarce or both
sides of an issue have had considerable merit, people have often trusted in
chance — perhaps in combination with a bit of human interpretation or
intuition — employing such means as augury (divination from omens),
haruspicy (inspection of the entrails of sacrificial animals), Delphic oracles,
Chinese fortune bones, the throwing of dice, and the tossing of sticks.
Because random selection by its very nature seems irrational, some may
reject it out of hand, but the unfathomability of sortition also makes it a
tool for creating legitimacy and efficiency. Accepting the principle of random
selection and knowing that chance has given rise to a public decision, one has
little to complain about if one dislikes the outcome. On the other hand,
because of the claim that electoral democracy epitomizes perfect rationality,
an election may engender vociferous complaints by those disappointed in its
outcome. Many people may also find the long debate before an election
exhausting and frustrating. If postelection disappointment were frequent and
acute, the very legitimacy of the electoral system would be endangered. Popular
wisdom understands the utility of the luck of the draw. When a quarrel has
continued for a long time without anyone's changing his mind, someone may
suggest "tossing for it." The result of the toss settles the matter, the loser
swallows his dismay, and life goes on. As Guglielmo Ferrero (1942) remarks, no
principle of legitimacy is entirely rational, but that deficiency does not
prevent a given principle from working well in practice if it is adhered to
consistently and faithfully.
Powerful as they are, reason and analysis generate reliable answers only
where the relevant facts, well defined and accepted, are at hand; where the
objectives are clear and agreed upon; and where the alternatives are few. But
such conditions rarely exist. When reason has done what it can, something else
must complete the job: intuition, faith, or chance. Of these, only chance is
objective and has no bias.
With random selection of officeholders from the citizenry at large,
there are no candidates and no campaigning. This is a quiet procedure. Only
when lot-drawing is combined with election or appointment do self-promotion and
By its objectivity, sortition avoids the engagement of passions and
interests. Discussion can continue forever, but once Fate has spoken, one must
be silent. One may doubt human counsel but not the finger of God. The quietness
of the process gives it dignity; the absence of manipulation confers legitimacy
on it. Thus, sortition is especially apposite for selecting one among equals
for the distinctly unequal position of holding the right to command others. (To
exclude unfit persons before the final draw, other procedures may be
Politicization: The U.S. Presidential Race
The U.S. presidential election system illustrates a maximally
politicized election process. By politicized, I mean simply that considerations
of merit and utility as understood by the typical citizen take second place to
the desires of political insiders and organized special interests. We cannot,
of course, "take the politics out of politics." Politics will be partisan, and
politics will never be snow-white. Still, if a democracy is not to be a sham,
it must strive to serve the general rather than any particular interest.
In the present perspective, the main elements of the American
presidential election process are the following. First, the various subgroups
in each party put forward candidates regarded both as friendly to the subgroup
and as having a reasonable chance of winning; of course, the candidates must be
fairly well known and willing to run. Then, in each party, the various
subgroups compete to get the party to accept their candidates as the party's
candidate; again, the successful candidate must make himself known and
acceptable to all and make a case that he can win. Then, in the final campaign,
each party spends a vast amount of money and effort to make sure that its
candidate is well known, well liked, and a possible winner. Throughout the
process, launchers, candidates, and supporters eagerly search for sponsors
outside the political system — individuals, groups, and organizations
willing to supply voters or funds. The ultimate winner gets monarchic powers
for four years, during which he must work in various ways to repay his
launchers and sponsors, especially if he hopes to secure reelection.
Clearly, the system turns on self-promotion by candidates, eager
maneuvering by initiative groups inside the political system, deal-making with
outside special-interest groups, and calculations of candidates' salability.
Moreover, the campaigning to publicize the name and policy positions of
candidates requires much money, partly because the United States is an immense
country. So money is the major consideration. Traits of the American character,
such as brashness and the worship of financial success, compound the insidious
predominance of money in campaigning. A president's great capacity to affect
the material conditions of individuals, groups, and firms by wielding his
statutory and discretionary powers colors the entire process.
Because so much of the selection procedure occurs before the choice is
at last put before the public, the system as such does not ensure that the man
elected is the one regarded as best qualified by the public (Vile 1984, 86).
One recalls Gaetano Mosca's acid dictum that a representative is someone whose
friends have arranged for him to be elected. Further, the system practically
ensures that the two (or more) final contenders will be men reared by the
political establishment, beholden to it, and constituting no threat to it
— in short, men such as Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. The system also ensures
a great deal of sound and fury as the contenders attempt to convince voters
that the choice is one between night and day. The earnest voter might be
pardoned for feeling, during the throes of a presidential campaign, that the
best outcome would be for the two candidates to stop their electioneering,
engage in a manly duel, and shoot each other dead.
The all-importance of money in American presidential campaigning means
that if a party or a party subgroup has confidence in the winning potential of
its candidate, the rest is regarded as a matter of money. Even an independent
candidate may perceive a fighting chance if he has money or celebrity status.
Personal wealth and a gambler's self-confidence can buy the aspirant a place in
the public eye, at least for a (perhaps considerable) time, as illustrated by
the recent campaigns of Ross Perot and Steve Forbes. Whoever seeks the
candidacy must promote and publicize himself; in this endeavor, modesty is not
a virtue but a liability. Nor does anyone view the president as "above
politics." The indignities of the campaign make it hard for the bruised
survivor to establish his authority.
One may view a presidential campaign, not unreasonably, as a gamble with
rather favorable odds and astounding gains — provided one has, or is, a
candidate with good communication skills, an entrenched position in a political
party, and access to ample funds, which in turn implies good connections to
special-interest groups for whom one's victory has high value. From an
insider's perspective, one sees campaign spending, not unrealistically, as
having the power to better one's odds considerably or even decisively. For the
outside interest group, campaign contributions are simply business investments
with a calculated chance of paying off. So, from all sides come cries of Take
me! No, me! No, me! and the suggestive crackling of dollar bills. Surely one
must wonder whether the sort of person likely to engage in this huckstering and
enjoy it — the endlessly flexible, ever smiling, eagerly self-advertising
type — is likely to be the person best suited to lead the country.
Disciplining U.S. Presidential Elections
The Founding Fathers had a plan, though unfortunately not a very good
one, for imposing discipline on the presidential election process (see
paragraphs 1-4 of article 2, section 1, of the U.S. Constitution, partially
superseded in 1804 by the Twelfth Amendment). They prescribed a two-step
procedure, whereby the people in the several states would elect the members of
an Electoral College, who in their greater wisdom would then vote on the
presidential candidates. The president of the U.S. Senate would announce and
confirm the winner or, in the extraordinary case that no candidate achieved an
absolute majority, leave it to the House of Representatives to choose a winner
from among the three top vote-getters. The Founders feared voter immaturity and
mob politics, and paternalistically they trusted in the principle of leaving
the actual selection to elected representatives. Whatever the wisdom of such a
principle, history has rendered it hollow: The pressures of party politics have
ensured that, although the formal mechanism remains the same, today's electors
are bound by their party mandate to vote for the party's candidates; hence, the
outcome of the election turns entirely on the party composition of the
Electoral College. In other words, indirect election works as if it were
direct. The safeguard, such as it was, has collapsed. Only the pointless
complexity of the procedure remains.
Later reforms added further complications but failed to dispel the curse
of oligarchy. The system of presidential primary elections, adopted by many
states early in the twentieth century to ensure direct popular control of the
nomination of party candidates, has not lived up to its promise. Nor are the
party conventions for selecting a presidential candidate all they seem.
"Conventions could be managed by party leaders so that they became a
façade for oligarchic control by professional politicians" (Vile 1984,
87). A good recent example was the Republican national convention in San Diego
in August 1996: the party's presidential candidate, Bob Dole, had already been
selected before the convention began.
Including an element of lot-drawing in the selection of a given official
would make the investment of money and effort by an individual or his campaign
backers unnervingly risky. If, for example, the final selection were by blind
draw and the final pool contained nine or twelve names instead of the usual
two, the odds of any particular candidate's winning would be far different from
the fifty-fifty of a conventional, closely contested election. The salient
point is that no additional spending of money or effort or compromises could
ensure victory or appreciably improve one's chance of winning. Inscrutable,
immovable, unbuyable chance would be decisive, and the vicious cycle of
individual self-promotion, cynical compromise, and blatant investment of money
by pressure groups would be stopped. The dynamics of selection for office would
be altogether different. Insurers talk about "uninsurable risks," which are
incalculable and therefore beyond the bounds of actuarial science. Something
similar (an "unfinanceable bet") would obtain in a presidential race in which
chance removed crucial choices from human influence. By including elements of
random selection in the choosing of a president, such a system would
drastically reduce the importance of money.
A reformed system of presidential election could employ sortition in
several ways: (1) to compose an electoral college from a larger body; (2) to
eliminate names from an elected body of candidates; (3) to pick the final
winner from a pool of candidates. It is not necessary that a blind draw make
the final selection; alternatively, one could require a strong majority in an
election, with random selection as a disciplining fallback option. The
objective to bear in mind is that the procedure somehow blight the natural
inclination of political insiders or special-interest outsiders to further
their own interests by manipulating the workings of the selection process.
Fundamentally that objective can be achieved only by reducing their expectation
of a profit from manipulation. Including an element of chance at one or more
suitable points in the procedure is the only expedient sure to have that
effect. Recall the system devised by the Venetians; they knew what they were up
Curbing Particularism, Centralization, and
Selecting a president in a federation such as the United States combines
two kinds of problem. First is the general problem of ensuring competence or
impartiality in an elected leader, which we have just considered. Second is a
federalist requirement: maintaining the legitimacy of the union despite its
size and diversity. This raises the perennial issue of centralization versus
states' rights. The federalist problem pertains to every sort of higher federal
institution. Concerns about federalism often become entangled with concerns
A process involving lot-drawing could diminish conflicts grounded in
particularism or regionalism in a federal system. To select a federal official,
one might proceed by drawing from a pool of names put forward by the
constituent states. Thus, the states would propose, but luck would dispose; no
state could impose its candidate, and no state could complain that the result
was unfair. By removing bones of contention, random selection would cement the
union, bolster its legitimacy, and conserve political energy. By offering an
alternative to appointment by the central government, such a process would
Processes involving lot-drawing can also help to ensure both the
competence and the impartiality of officeholders. For an office requiring
specific professional skill or political experience, a two-step procedure could
be adopted: first, a conventional selection of a pool of qualified candidates,
to ensure competence; then a final selection at random, to thwart politicking.
Selection of judges, for example, might proceed according to this procedure. It
might also be used to select police officers, election officials, and members
of various local boards.
Appointing Supreme Court Justices
Concerns about competence and federalism surely arise with regard to the
selection of justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. One would hope that the
professional soundness and political impartiality of the justices would not be
twisted by political partisanship or expediency. To stand above politics is
part of the Supreme Court's very raison d'être. Alas, the present system
of presidential appointment of justices subject to the approval of the Senate
fails badly, producing a maximum of politicization in both the selection
process and the composition of the Court. Federalism suffers, too. The union is
not supposed to be a unitary state. According to the Tenth Amendment, "The
powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited
by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the
people." Federalism touches the Supreme Court directly because one of its
functions is to adjudicate disputes arising between the federal government and
the states. Appointment by the federal government predisposes the justices to
side with the federal government. This bias generates a dangerous drift toward
a unitary system because a subservient Supreme Court is unlikely to check
centralizing actions by the federal government. To counteract such drift as
well as the politicking that endangers political impartiality and professional
soundness, reform of the judicial appointment process deserves
I suggest a two-step system. First,
create a pool of qualified candidates by having each state nominate candidates
from among its own judges. Second, fill the actual Supreme Court vacancy by a
blind draw from that pool.
Such a procedure would bring about many changes. (1) It would eliminate
the rewards of justice-selection politicking at the federal level; (2) the
justices, no longer the creatures of the federal government, would have less
inclination to expand the power of the central government; (3) political
vetting of judicial candidates would occur only in the states, where genuine
support for federalism would carry more weight than it does in national
politics; (4) the rewards of justice-selection politicking in the states would
have small expected value, because no state's candidate in the federal pool
would be assured of actual appointment; (5) reaching the Supreme Court via
state selection, the justices would give greater support to states' rights, but
their possible particularisms would tend to balance each other out and, in any
event, to matter less than they do now. The likelihood that the Court would
consistently favor a particular state would be small, whereas under the present
system the likelihood that the Court will favor the federal government over the
states is great.
Cutting Gordian Knots
Sortition could serve in some cases as a fallback measure: If a
political body were unable to agree on a decision by deliberation and voting,
it could resolve the matter by casting lots. Agree or else. Such a threat would
have a disciplinary effect, helping to end unreasonable or dishonest holdouts.
Thus the mere threat of decision making by sortition could become the sword
that cuts Gordian knots.
Consider a case in which a parliamentary body agrees in principle but
disagrees on details, and as a result the relatively trivial disagreement
produces "gridlock," preventing the implementation of the principle. For
example, in a budget debate a majority of the legislature favors reducing the
budget, but each party has pet projects it will not give up, thereby blocking
overall reduction of spending. Such a deadlock could be resolved by dividing
the problem into two parts and applying lot-drawing as a goad to agreement.
First, the legislature decides on the budget total; then it considers which
elements to cut, under the threat that if agreement is not reached, the overall
excess of spending will be eliminated by random deletion of individual
projects. Under this constraint, the members must choose between chosen cuts
and randomly selected cuts, and the relative undesirability of the latter may
spur them to reach agreement quicker.
Another possibility is to use random selection in the appointment of an
official from a limited list of candidates by an electoral college subject to
two constraints: first, the winner must gain unanimous approval or, perhaps, a
strong majority such as three-fourths; second, if the college does not make a
selection in step one, the winner will be selected by blind draw from the list
of candidates. The potential for proceeding to step two would greatly diminish
the expected profit of any elector from holding out against a good candidate
for manipulative motives, such as extracting concessions from other electors.
In this system of selection, either the winner would have a strong majority of
votes, which would make him more than the representative of one party, or he
would be simply the lucky candidate, which would attest that he does not owe
his office to manipulation by any particular interest. Either way the winner
would have secured legitimacy lacking under present methods of selection.
However difficult it might be to adopt the use of sortition in political
decision making, the device deserves serious consideration by constitutional
reformers. Our present methods of decision making are not so fine that they
cannot be improved, and including an element of sortition is not nearly so daft
as it may sound when first proposed.
* Sigmund Knag is an independent scholar and author
living in Bergen, Norway.
1. James Fishkin, a professor of government at the
University of Texas, has carried out experiments with "deliberative polling,"
using a representative group of citizens similar to what I call a "stand-in
folkmoot." His tentative conclusion, reported in the Economist of May
16, 1998, is that such a group of laymen is capable of dealing rationally with
complex political issues, given some counselling by outside experts and debate
within the group.
2. John F. Knutsen of Oslo suggested this
constitutional idea to me.
Dahl, Birger. 1994. Venezia, et kulturhistorisk eventyr. Oslo:
Fenner, Martin, and Beat Junker. 1989. Bürger, Stat und Politik
in der Schweiz. 5th ed., reprint. Basel: Lehrmittelverlag des Kantons
Ferrero, Guglielmo. 1942. Principles of Power. New York:
Hosteller, John A. 1993. Amish Society. 4th ed. Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press.
Stockton, David. 1991. The Classical Athenian Democracy. 2d
corrected impression. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Vile, M. J. C. 1984. Politics in the USA. 3d ed., reprint.
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