Democratic Lotteries in Recent History
Democracy by lottery is an ancient technique used by classical Athens. However in recent history it has been revived by academics and policy makers, particularly in the form of “Citizens’ Assemblies”. Citizens’ Assemblies are a body of citizens chosen by lottery. They are formed to deliberate on certain questions and propose solutions to these questions. The construction of these assemblies was trailblazed by political scientist James Fishkin in 1988, and in the subsequent years have been used across the world. For example,
- In 2004, 160 people participated in a Citizens’ Assembly in British Columbia to deliberate on potential electoral reform of the plurality, first-past-the-post system of Canada. This assembly nearly unanimously recommended the adoption of newer electoral methods. They also overwhelmingly recommended the use of a multi-winner election system called “Single Transferable Vote”, or “STV”. STV is a proportionally-representative ranked choice voting system. The assembly’s recommendation of STV demonstrated their ability to understand complex problems and come to consensus. Unfortunately for the British Columbian people, voters ultimately rejected the proposed reforms in referendums, and short-sighted politicians decided not to pursue the reforms legislatively.
- In 2020, 150 French citizens formed the Citizens’ Assembly for Climate. Members overwhelmingly voted in favor of fighting against climate change, strengthening environmental policy, and criminalizing “ecocide”. President Emmanuel Macron has promised to implement most of these reforms, but only time will tell whether the elected government is courageous enough to deliver on their promises.
- In Ireland, Citizen Assemblies played a pivotal role on the legalization of abortion. Irish Citizen Assemblies overwhelmingly favored the legalization of abortion and holding a referendum to amend the Irish Constitution, leading to the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland in 2017.
Time and time again, modern Citizens’ Assemblies resolve disputes for the most partisan and controversial of topics. Citizens’ Assemblies demonstrate that average people can make complex and nuanced decisions when they are given the opportunity and resources to do so. In general, the effectiveness of Citizen Assemblies are held back by their elected counterparts who typically ignore the recommendations of the people.
The Ancient Tradition of Democratic Lottery
Democratic lotteries are an ancient idea, whose usage is first recorded in ancient Athens in 6th century BC. Athens is most famous for its People’s Assembly in which any citizen could participate (and was paid to participate) in direct democracy. However, the Athenians also invented several additional institutions as checks and balances on the passions of the People’s Assembly.
- First, the Council of 500, or the Boule, were 500 citizens chosen by lottery. This group developed legislative proposals and organized the People’s Assemblies.
- In addition, lottery was used to choose the composition of the People’s Court, which would check the legality of decisions made by the People’s Assembly.
- Most government officials were chosen by lottery from a preselected group to make up the Magistracies of Athens.
- Athens used a mixture of both election and lottery to compose their government. Positions of strategic importance, such as Generals, were elected.
The Character of Democracy
Athenian democracy was regarded by Aristotle as a “radical democracy”, a state which practiced the maxim “To be ruled and rule by turns” [2 pp. 71]. For Aristotle, “It is accepted as democratic when public offices are allocated by lot; and as oligarchic when they are filled by election.”
Renaissance writers thought so too. In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu states, “Voting by lot is the nature of democracy; voting by choice is in the nature of aristocracy.”
How is it that ancient and Renaissance philosophers understood democracy to be selection by lottery, while modern people understand democracy to be a system of elections? Democracy was redefined by Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville while he travelled through the United States in the early 1800’s. Tocqueville was impressed by the equality of the social and economic conditions of Americans in the early years of the republic. Importantly, Tocqueville believed that the institutions of American “township democracy”, law, and the practice of the tyranny of the majority made America a land of democracy. Therefore he wrote and titled a book, Democracy in America, that redefined America as a democracy rather than the aristocratic republic which its founding fathers had desired. Tocqueville’s book would become a best-seller around the world.
With Tocqueville’s redefinition of democracy that excluded the practice of lot, the traditions of democracy were forgotten and replaced with the electoral fundamentalism of today. From Reybrouck,
“Electoral fundamentalism is an unshakeable belief in the idea that democracy is inconceivable without elections and elections are a necessary and fundamental precondition when speaking of democracy. Electoral fundamentalists refuse to regard elections as a means of taking part in democracy, seeing them instead as an end in themselves, as a holy doctrine with an intrinsic, inalienable value.” [1 pp 39].
Late political scientist Robert Dahl suggested that the ideal of democracy is the “logic of equality” . Three techniques of democracy were developed in ancient times to move towards political equality: direct participation, the lottery, and the election. Today, with public distrust of democratic government at all-time highs throughout the entire world, perhaps it’s time we democratise our democracies. Perhaps it’s time to bring back the technique of democracy by lottery.
 Reybrouck, David Van. Against Elections. Seven Stories Press, April 2018.
 Hansen, Mogens Herman. The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes (J.A. Crook trans.). University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.
 Dahl, Robert A. On Democracy, 2nd Ed. Yale University Press, 1998.