Millions of homes in Texas lost power for days in February as a rare winter storm drove temperatures below zero. People struggled to warm up and light their stoves, and many lined up at public spigots and even boiled snow to procure safe drinking water. Dozens may have died. Meanwhile, Senator Ted Cruz left the state for a Ritz-Carlton stay in Cancún. It was yet another sign that elected leaders are often completely out of touch with the people they represent.
For one group, the answer to this leadership failure is clear: Scrap elections and replace them with democratic lotteries. In place of elected officials would be, as the ancient Greeks envisioned, Ho Boulomenous, or “anyone who wishes.”
Of By For is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization whose goal is to change the entire system of how we choose leaders, arguing that the centuries-old democratic ideal of “government of the people, by the people, for the people” has crumbled. Political divisiveness and rancor are at peak levels, and the group believes it’s because democracy is broken. But there’s a solution. Instead of electing rich, polished politicians who are tied to special interests, we should be getting the masses to govern. They want to replace the entire legislature with ordinary people, selected at random in the same way we choose jackpot winners.
“The goal is to free America from politicians, parties, and all the B.S.,” says Adam Cronkright, Of By For’s co-coordinator, “and give us a government that actually works, and that does right by us as a people.”
Of By For has already performed a lottery to give people a glimpse of the process. Thirty Michigan residents were chosen to form a citizens’ panel and make recommendations about COVID-19 policy. The group mailed out 10,000 requests to a representative sample of people based on census data and polling data on COVID-19 attitudes. Respondents were entered into a second lottery. Using an algorithm developed with Harvard and Carnegie Mellon universities, they randomly generated 1,000 unique panels of 30, of which they picked one.
That lottery was a success. Their chosen panelists were demographically representative, gender-balanced, aged 20 to 87, and had wide variations in race, education, and political views. The panel emerged with 12 policy recommendations on handling COVID-19 and the economy, including on mask mandates, unemployment benefits, and home relief grants.
For instance, they decided, with 89% in favor and 11% against, to provide equitable access to healthcare related to COVID-19, including the state subsidizing insurance costs that aren’t covered. The same number supported an increase in mental health resources, adding a clause that social workers should accompany police who respond to mental health calls. Other recommendations were to raise the income threshold to allow more people to qualify for housing aid (93% in favor), offer clear and consistent mask education (74% in favor), and increase funding to childcare centers and provide childcare workers with a living wage (89% in favor).
While things could get politically heated at times, Cronkright says the participants stayed respectful and listened to each other. “This was in Michigan, on COVID, so, this is the most charged issue in the most divided state,” he says, referring to the conflicts over COVID-19 restrictions that led to armed protests at the statehouse and a foiled plot to kidnap the governor. He believes it’s a recipe for quashing divisiveness and even keep extremist views from stirring up. “That’s what you tend to see when you cut out the pundits and the politicians,” he says, “and it’s just people directly engaging with other people.”
It’s no new concept, rather one invented millennia ago, rooted in Athenian democracy. In ancient Greece, “sortition” was used to choose councils, magistrates (high-level government officers), and juries, to guard against corruption and oligarchy. They used the earliest form of lottery machines, called kleroteria. These huge slabs of stone would contain small slots; anyone who wished to serve would place a bronze or wooden token into a slot. Different colored balls were then released through a funnel and tube, designating some of the rows of slots for government appointment. Those selected would represent the people and make crucially important decisions (such as condemning Socrates to death).In Athens, of course, democracy would eventually collapse. Many critics of the time, who had favored a system ruled by aristocrats, viewed Athens’s democracy as too radical in its involvement of the lower classes; the military leader Pericles was blamed for devolving democracy further still, into the realm of populism. Later, a series of wars and takeovers (including by Alexander the Great) would, bit by bit, remove the power from the hands of the “assembly,” that coalition of democratically elected people.But today, around the world, citizens’ panels and assemblies are becoming more common. Cronkright is a member of Democracy R&D, a coalition of 40 organizations around the world advancing democratic lotteries in countries including Belgium, Canada, and Colombia. Under President Macron’s orders, France gathered a citizens’ assembly of 150 people to develop climate goals. But Cronkright says panel recommendations can often simply be dismissed by governments. In the French case, a Macron aide reportedly said some of the assembly outcomes had been deemed unacceptable.
But Of By For’s vision in the U.S. is much bigger. It wants citizens to replace elected lawmakers across local, state, and federal governments. Congress would be entirely made up of sortition-selected citizens. In that ultimate vision, governing would be a service, not a profession. Chosen folks would be paid a salary and given staff and training in governance, and then, after their term (kept short, in the Athenian model, to prevent the accumulation of power), they would return to their usual jobs, to create an incentive for good policymaking. On the executive side, presidents and governors would be chosen as a company would look for a CEO—by a hiring committee, which would also be made up of lottery winners. (Another lottery-selected committee would then evaluate the president’s job performance, to keep him or her accountable.)
From a practical angle, how exactly they’d achieve this goal is not entirely clear—even to them. Political reforms rarely happen (think the Electoral College), because “The foxes are in charge of the henhouse,” Cronkright admits. It’s a tall order, agrees John Gastil, a professor of political science at Penn State University, who wrote a 2019 book on sortition. “It’s hard to imagine electeds changing the rules to write themselves out of a job,” he says. The most robust route would be via state constitutional amendments; starting on the national level would simply be too overwhelming. Alexander Guerrero, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers University, whose book on “lottocracy” will be out next year, says in some states, securing that amendment would be incredibly hard and require a constitutional convention. “This isn’t impossible, but it would be a near-unprecedented thing,” he says.
So, the organization’s focus right now is the “battle for the imagination”: to create awareness and educate, including via an upcoming documentary to be released about the Michigan panel. They’re encouraged by polling they’ve carried out with SurveyUSA: 65% of respondents said a lottery would be better or much better than the current system, and just 21% expressed opposition to a constitutional amendment. Next on the group’s agenda is to conduct a lottery to create a national citizens’ assembly of 100 people, who will together tackle a divisive issue and produce a “bill” for Congress.
In the wrap-up of the Michigan panel, participants got emotional about their experiences. One man cried as he described the positive impressions his fellow citizens had had on him. Cronkright says it’s such a new experience for people to lend their voice and have a seat at the table that politicians have always dominated. Why not cut out that middleman? “We believe this myth that elections mean democracy,” he says. “But, to me, democracy means that the power to govern is in the hands of the people. That we govern ourselves.”