Terry Bouricius remembers the moment he converted to democracy by lottery. A bookish Vermonter, now 68, he was elected to the State House in 1990 after working for years as a public official in Burlington. At first state government excited him, but he quickly grew disillusioned. “During my time as a legislator,” he told me in an interview last year, “it became obvious to me that the ‘people’s house’ was not very representative of the people who actually lived in Vermont.”
The revelation came while Bouricius was working on a housing committee. “The committee members were an outgoing and garrulous bunch,” he observed. “Shy wallflowers almost never become legislators.” More disturbing, he noted how his fellow politicians—all of whom owned their homes—tended to legislate in favor of landlords and against tenants. “I saw that the experiences and beliefs of legislators shape legislation far more than facts,” he said. “After that, I frequently commented that any 150 Vermonters pulled from the phone book would be more representative than the elected House membership.”
Many Americans agree. In a poll conducted in January 2020, 65 percent of respondents said that everyday people selected by lottery—who meet some basic requirements and are willing and able to serve—would perform better or much better compared to elected politicians. In March last year a Pew survey found that a staggering 79 percent believe it’s very or somewhat important for the government to create assemblies where everyday citizens from all walks of life can debate issues and make recommendations about national laws. “My decade of experience serving in the state legislature convinces me that this popular assessment is correct,” Bouricius said.
The idea—technically known as “sortition”—has been spreading. Perhaps its most prominent academic advocate is Yale political theorist Hélène Landemore. Her 2020 book Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the Twenty-First Century explores the limitations of both direct democracy and electoral-representative democracy, advocating instead for government by large, randomly selected “mini-publics.” As she put it in conversation with Ezra Klein at the New York Times last year, “I think we are realizing the limits of just being able to choose rulers, as opposed to actually being able to choose outcomes.” She is not alone. Rutgers philosopher Alex Guerrero and Belgian public intellectual David Van Reybrouck have made similar arguments in favor of democracy by lottery. In the 2016 translation of his book Against Elections, Van Reybrouck characterizes elections as “the fossil fuel of politics.” “Whereas once they gave democracy a huge boost,” he writes, “much like the boost that oil gave the economy, it now it turns out they cause colossal problems of their own.”
Sortition got a popular, if perhaps unwitting, shout-out in the summer of 2020, when Andrew Yang—then in the thick of a run for president—tweeted, “There are times when I think one could replace our leaders with citizens chosen at random and get a better result.” The message went viral, no doubt in part due to its incongruity: a contender for the highest office in the land calling for his own abolition, indeed that of his entire political class. But the virality of Yang’s message also says something about the unpopularity of politicians. In the United States there is widespread disgust with electoral politics and a hunger for greater responsiveness and accountability—a hunger, in other words, for democracy. Could sortition be the answer?
Whether Yang knew it or not, the practice of choosing everyday citizens to make decisions goes back to the very inventors of democracy: the ancient Athenians. Over a thousand city-states made up the ancient Greek world, with at least half constituting some version of democracy. Of these, Athens developed the most radical. Between 600 and 322 B.C., through a series of significant reforms, a novel structure of politics emerged that seated power in the hands of the many rather than the wealthy few. The Greek word demokratia usually gets translated as “rule by the people,” or, literally, “people power,” but as historian Paul Cartledge argues in his 2016 book Democracy: A Life, the Athenians had a specific kind of people in mind: the laboring citizens of the community, as opposed to leisured aristocrats. Of course, at the time, this category included only free men, not women, immigrants, or the enslaved—a mere 30,000 or so people out of a total population of some 300,000. But the idea of rule by the common man itself marked a dramatic development in political history.
The Athenians achieved this democracy through two avenues. First was direct participation in the ecclesia or assembly, the main political body that decided issues. Any citizen over the age of eighteen could attend its meetings (which occurred forty times a year and lasted just one day) and weigh in on its proceedings. Meetings dealt with matters both foreign and domestic. Listening to orators, debating among themselves, offering a show of hands, assembly-goers engaged in a forum for civic discovery. The system was not perfect: not every citizen could afford to attend or make the trip. The hillside near the agora where the assembly met had space for 6,000 attendees, far fewer than the 30,000 or so eligible citizens. Still, it was a remarkably high number of members given the small size of the body politic. In 390 B.C. payments were introduced in order to increase participation by poorer citizens.
Second, the Athenian polis used democratic lotteries. In addition to the assembly, the boule or council of 500 formulated questions or issues to be put to a vote at future assembly meetings and made recommendations for it to approve, reject, or return for revision. Athenians picked representatives for this body with a machine that chose them by lot; every citizen over the age of thirty was eligible. Members served a single term of one year before rotating out. To enhance accountability and preserve popular control, the Athenians employed measures like formal review of selected citizens before they officially took office (dokimasia), scrutiny of their performance (euthynai), impeachment (eisangelia), censure (atimia), and ostracism of corrupt officials. Lotteries were also used to fill hundreds of administrative posts and conduct jury trials. The distribution of posts was open to all, and the need to fill offices each year insured a high rate of participation, spread across social and economic lines. Pay for service on juries and certain offices guaranteed that lower-class Athenians could participate in magistracies and law courts.
In sum, the entire decision-making system of government was structured on lotteries. Only when it came to choosing generals did Athens employ elections.
Why lotteries and not voting? The Athenians weren’t fools; they learned through bitter trials that elections are tools of elites. Having seen the Athenian experiment himself, Aristotle noted as much. “The appointment of magistrates by lot is democratical,” he observes in Politics, “and the election is oligarchical.” Lotteries go straight to everyday people and bring them into power; they circumvent the designs of aristocrats, resist corruption, and don’t favor one group of citizens over another.
Elections, by contrast, reward well-positioned insiders who have the connections and war chest to wage a campaign. They also attract ambitious social climbers. Today even the most virtuous candidates have to solicit truckloads of money—anywhere from $500,000 to $2 million for a credible run. Once in office, winners spend much of their time raising revenue for reelection. The amount of actual legislating—investigations of issues, research into policy, seeking the common good—is small, and legions of lobbyists exercise influence to the tune of $3.5 billion a year. The Athenians knew these risks firsthand. For most of their history, they suffered the scourge of oligarchy as landed elites used elections to wield power. (Before democracy, the Athenaiôn Politeia tells us, the city-state was ruled by a monarch, then by a series of archons, elected from the top two classes of the aristocracy.)
This situation should sound familiar. The election of Donald Trump prompted headline after headline proclaiming the end of democracy in America. Trump did and continues to wage an assault on liberal norms, election integrity, and the rule of law, of course, but this death-of-democracy thesis assumes the United States had a robust democracy to begin with. Most Americans think otherwise, perceiving a deep rot at the heart of the establishment. This skepticism manifests in the profound unpopularity of Congress and the political class. That same 2021 Pew survey revealed that 68 percent of Americans believe the system needs major changes or should undergo complete reform; nearly the same number stated that most politicians are corrupt and don’t care what everyday people want. No wonder Yang’s tweet went viral.
In response to this discontent, reformers have proposed a slew of solutions. Some want to expand the House of Representatives, abolish the Electoral College, or eliminate the Senate. Others demand enhanced voting rights, the end of gerrymandering, stricter campaign finance laws, more political parties, or multi-member districts and ranked-choice voting. The Athenians would take a different view. The problem, they would point out, lies in elections themselves. We can make all the tweaks we want, but as long as we employ voting to choose representatives, we will continue to wind up with a political economy controlled by wealthy elites. Modern liberal governments are not democracies; they are oligarchies in disguise, overwhelmingly following the policy preferences of the rich. (The middle class happens to agree with them on most issues.)
Yet the myth of popular control persists. That is partly due to a political culture that venerates the Framers as unerring geniuses touched by the hand of God. Almost twenty years after historian H. W. Brands warned of “Founders chic,” our worship of these men has only grown. This reverence gets in the way of acknowledging how deeply the Founders of the U.S. republic distrusted democracy and strove to insulate the government from influence by the common man. Hailing from the gentry, jealous of their prerogatives—like the well-born of every age—they doubted the people’s ability to exercise sound judgment. They viewed Athens as a “chronically unstable, often hellish, society controlled by violent and erratic mobs,” as historian Carl Richard relates, denigrating it as an ochlocracy—government by rule of the mob or “tyranny of the majority.” They imagined Athens wracked by volatility, swayed by demagogues and unruly passions, collapsing from want of a powerful executive. When it came to drafting a new Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation, the delegates in 1787 looked to aristocratic Rome rather than democratic Athens.
Esteemed authors of antiquity supplied plenty of anti-democratic ammunition. Plato’s disparaging portrait of the Athenian assembly confirmed every prejudice the Founders nursed against self-government. “Behind the closed doors of the Philadelphia convention,” Michael Klarman explains in The Framers’ Coup (2016), “the delegates outdid one another in the contempt they expressed for democracy.” George Mason compared direct election of the president to entrusting “a trial of colors to a blind man,” as the people could not be trusted to “have the requisite capacity” to assess the candidates. Elbridge Gerry derided democracy as “the worst . . . of all political evils.” Alexander Hamilton wanted the president and senators to serve for life, and James Madison lamented what he saw as an excess of democracy in state legislatures (which passed debtor relief laws and issued paper currency), not to mention in Shays’s Rebellion. Thomas Paine proposed a role for lotteries in Common Sense, but his egalitarian radicalism on behalf of democracy made him an outlier among the Founders; by the end of his life he was widely despised and ostracized from circles of influence. As in France, the ascendant American bourgeoisie instituted voting, not lotteries, upon overthrowing the monarchy. Historians today point out the many anti-democratic mechanisms the Framers built into the Constitution—long terms of office, tiny numbers of representatives, a minoritarian Senate. Yet few note that, in practice, elections themselves make for the chief oligarchic feature.
Despite its limitations, Athenian democracy managed to mitigate elite capture through lotteries and the assembly. For Athenians, democracy meant the equal chance to rule and be ruled in turn. Their scheme of government didn’t produce utopia, by any means; in 415 B.C., for example, the assembly voted to invade Sicily, an expedition that met with disaster. But by and large, the goal—keeping elite corruption at bay and empowering ordinary citizens—was achieved.
Even if democracy by lottery worked for Athens, could it work today in the massive states of the modern world? A growing body of empirical work on citizens’ assemblies suggests it could. (As Trinidadian Marxist historian C. L. R. James put it in his 1956 essay “Every Cook Can Govern,” whose title he took from Lenin, “We must get rid of the idea that there was anything primitive in the organization of the government of Athens.” “On the contrary,” he wrote, “it was a miracle of democratic procedure.”)
In the United States this evidence has mostly come from academics. In the 1970s the late political scientist Ned Crosby began to study how randomly selected groups of everyday people deliberated on public policy. With the Jefferson Center in Minneapolis (recently renamed the Center for New Democratic Processes), he and his wife, Pat Benn, started convening small meetings of deliberators chosen by lot—what they called Citizens Juries—to spend several days studying an issue. Eventually they helped create Oregon’s Citizens’ Initiative Review, which has since spread to Colorado and Massachusetts. Through these experiments, Crosby and Benn found that participants could achieve collective wisdom beyond that of any one person on his or her own. In the 1980s, James Fishkin of Stanford started exploring similar terrain, calling together samples of people by lottery to research policies and discuss them together. The New York Times profiled his work in 2019, when he gathered together what was dubbed “America in One Room.” This convocation of over 500 citizens spent several days reading briefing materials, hearing from presenters, and dialoguing about the major questions of the 2020 presidential election. As a result of the process, participants expressed greater respect and regard for those with whom they disagreed politically. On 22 of the 47 proposals considered, partisan polarization decreased significantly.
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Meanwhile, democracy by lottery has exploded onto the practical political stage elsewhere in the West. The turning point came in 2004 in British Columbia, where the government convened a full-blown citizens’ assembly. Through lotteries, over 150 people representative of the general population came together to study the province’s electoral system. They heard from experts, consulted with the public, and deliberated as a group before voting on recommendations. They put their proposals to a referendum, gaining about 57 percent support—just shy of the 60 percent supermajority imposed on them by the legislature. Despite coming up short, the undertaking marked a watershed in democratic practice.
Since then, citizens’ assemblies have convened in many countries, including France, Belgium, Australia, and Spain. In 2009 grassroots groups in Iceland organized a 1,500-person national assembly to plan a vision for the country in the wake of the financial crisis, 1,200 of whom were randomly selected. In 2012 Ireland’s national legislature convened an assembly of 66 randomly selected citizens, 33 legislators, and a government-appointed chair to study eight issues, from marriage equality to the minimum voting age and the presidential term length. Four years later another assembly convened to examine abortion, climate change, and parliamentary reforms, this time without any politicians. Instead, 99 everyday people selected by lot met on weekends for several months, consulting an array of scholars and advocacy groups. They held question-and-answer sessions, engaged in roundtable discussions, and took votes in plenary meetings. The report and recommendations they produced went to the legislature, prompting a successful referendum in 2018 overturning an abortion ban. The process was so successful that it’s been retained in an ongoing fashion.
Citizens’ assemblies comprised of everyday people boast many virtues. Take two traits Americans say they revere: equality and representation. Lotteries realize the ideal of equality in ways that elections can’t even begin to approach. The latter favor the already powerful; lotteries, by contrast, give every citizen the exact same chance at selection. Moreover, by employing democratic lotteries to select members, assemblies channel the public’s beliefs much more accurately than elected legislatures. Americans offer a range of views on issues when asked by pollsters. Political parties not only fail to honor these complexities but also promote ideological adhesion.
At the same time, the assembled reflect the actual makeup of the population. Despite being the most diverse in history, our current Congress remains very disproportionately white, male, and old. When it comes to wealth, the numbers are even more dispiriting: half the members of Congress are millionaires; 97 percent of Americans aren’t. And while over 37 million people in the U.S. live in poverty, you won’t find one of them in Congress, much less one of the millions of Americans without health insurance. By using lotteries, citizens’ assemblies produce far more representative groups—including nurses and nannies, farmers and factory workers, truckers and teachers. And they strike a better balance between men and women, and across ethnic, wealth, and generational lines.
Now, consider effectiveness. The key to the success of citizens’ assemblies lies in their impartiality and balance, along with their integration with expert testimony and counsel. Rather than going by gut or brute opinion, assembly members develop a comprehensive understanding of issues. They engage in meaningful conversations, challenging each other’s assumptions and working together to find common ground. Because of their diversity, citizens’ assemblies bring people of very different backgrounds together to search for answers. Facilitators work to ensure that every voice gets heard, and participants discover—often to their surprise—a new understanding for people on the other side. Partisan electoral politics looks very different today, of course. And surprisingly, as Landemore has found, everyday people even arrive at smarter decisions than panels of specialists. The process is at once more democratic—respectful discussions where everyone’s ideas matter—and more effective, resulting in better policy.
But it’s one thing to have a group of citizens submit recommendations about one or two issues. Could citizens’ assemblies actually legislate and govern whole societies? Some advocates seek just that.
Brett Hennig, an Australian in his forties with a PhD in astrophysics, grew up in the suburbs of Melbourne in a working-class but apolitical household. Though once a member of Australia’s Green Party, inspired by its commitment to grassroots democracy, he grew disenchanted with party politics. “I realized that a party is just a machine for getting votes,” he told me. “I left completely disillusioned.” His 2017 book, The End of Politicians: Time for a Real Democracy, landed him a speaking slot at a TEDx conference in 2017; his talk has been viewed almost 2 million times. In 2015 he and a group of fellow activists launched the Sortition Foundation, a grassroots organization dedicated to evangelizing the gospel of democracy. Run by its members, it seeks to make democracy by lottery a permanent fixture in government. (A sister organization, Democracy Without Elections, has since sprung up in the United States.) The foundation is currently conducting a campaign in Scotland to create a second house in the regional parliament populated by everyday Scots; this chamber would work alongside elected MPs, the way it now does in the German-speaking province of Belgium. Down the road, the group envisions a campaign to reform the British House of Lords into a similar allotted body.
Adam Cronkright’s story mirrors Hennig’s. Hailing from upstate New York, he made his way into the activist circles of Occupy Wall Street after college but likewise became disillusioned. After a sojourn in Bolivia where he experimented with democratic lotteries in schools, Cronkright, now 36, returned to the United States to found a grassroots organization, OF BY FOR, advocating for democratic lotteries. “When I was in Occupy,” Cronkright told me, “I saw a movement with no vision. With democratic lotteries, I saw a vision with no movement.” He aims to bring the two together. In 2020 the organization held a successful citizens’ assembly in Michigan on the COVID-19 pandemic, the subject of a forthcoming documentary.
The final goal for Hennig, Cronkright, and other advocates is ambitious: the end of politicians. They disagree about what would replace them. A unicameral legislature presents its own set of problems; committees would have to form to handle the workload, breaking down the representativeness of the body.
In a 2013 article for the Journal of Deliberative Democracy, Bouricius offers a bold alternative: using multiple groups of citizens to pass legislation, each one filled by lottery. The first, an assembly of up to 400 representatives, would act as an agenda council. With the aid of professional staff, they would investigate social problems and set topics for legislation. Members would serve one three-year term before rotating out. The second chamber would consist of 150 different members, chosen by lot and randomly assigned to panels of three to five citizens. Each panel would be responsible for a particular policy area. They would take expert testimony, solicit proposals from the public, and work together to produce a bill. Again, representatives would serve one term of three years. Final passage of the law, however, would fall to a third body, dubbed the policy jury. Numbering some 400 people, this group would meet for just a few days to consider the proposed bill. After hearing from advocates and opponents of the legislation, they would vote by secret ballot on whether to adopt it as law. Not stopping with the legislature, Bouricius also imagines using citizens’ assemblies to select qualified chief executives. Others have argued for extending the proposal to include vetting and selecting members of the judiciary.
Bouricius’s vision is just one among many; still others are explored in the recent Verso collection Legislature by Lot (2019), edited by political scientist John Gastil and late Marxist sociologist Erik Olin Wright. How exactly to implement any of these proposals remains an open question. Some think such a transformation could come about gradually, with citizens’ assemblies stripping power from politicians bit by bit over time until the latter become figureheads. Others propose swifter action. Either way, democracy by lottery would amount to a revolution, and like all revolutions, it begins in the mind. Proponents must dispel at least three myths that dominate popular perception.
First, the myth of heroic leadership: the assumption that the talent, training, and technique for politics resides in a select few. This simply isn’t true. The real-world examples of citizens’ assemblies prove that everyday people—when given time, information, and assistance—cooperate effectively and render prudent decisions. Nor do elections necessarily produce good government. “We have to get beyond this revering of our leaders,” former Senator Heidi Heitkamp pleaded to the Bulwark last year. “They’re not so special. None of these people is so special that you couldn’t take a hundred people at random in this country and do a better job.”
Second, the myth of the idiot: the belief that the masses are too ignorant, vulgar, or unhinged to reason well, much less to govern the rest of us. Proposals for democracy by lottery don’t deny that we all harbor biases and are often poorly informed (incidentally, that’s just one reason that referenda are a bad idea). On the contrary, it overcomes these obstacles through expert testimony and group conversation. Far from denigrating expertise, sortition maintains a role for wonks and technocrats to share their knowledge. It demonstrates that, when set up for success, everyday people can process complex material and reach sound solutions as a group. It bridges the gulf between the credentialed and the layman, smart America and real America. And in any case, we already entrust grave decisions to groups of citizens all the time, on juries.
Third, the myth of the vote: the conceit that democracy is inextricably tied to elections. Many Americans cherish the franchise as a sacred right, not least due to the long, bloody, and all too recent struggle to secure it for all. (In fact, given the manifold forms of enduring voter suppression, this struggle in many ways remains incomplete.) Our political culture conditions us to believe that democracy is predicated on suffrage, but the legacy of the Athenian assembly reminds us that another system is possible: one where everyday people actually make the decisions determining their lives. We outsource that power when we vote. While in theory elections give us the chance to throw the bums out, usually we don’t. Some 93 percent of incumbents across the nation won reelection in 2020. This gap between the policies the public desires and the performance of politicians gives rise to anger, resentment, and withdrawal; around 80 million eligible voters didn’t vote in 2020’s presidential contest. When asked why in a poll, two-thirds of respondents stated that elections have little to do with the way decisions get made in government.
In the ancient world, lot meant “destiny.” The Athenians believed that it was the fate of selected citizens to serve. Views on providence have changed, but whether we channel the will of the gods or merely our own earthly dreams, democracy by lottery would empower us to combat oligarchy, give voice to the multitude, and put ordinary citizens in the room where decisions are made. The question is not whether American democracy will die, but whether it will be instituted for the first time.