Contributor, The Volokh Conspiracy
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Widespread political ignorance is a serious problem for modern democracy. In recent years, many scholars have argued that we can overcome it by relying on “sortition”: delegating various political decisions to jury-like bodies selected at random from the general population. In this post, I explain why such proposals are unlikely to succeed.

This is the third in a series of posts based on the new edition of my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter. Previous entries in the series outlined why I wrote the book and why “the Big Sort” is not a good argument against expanding opportunities for people to vote with their feet.

I. How Sortition Might Overcome Rational Ignorance.

The major cause of widespread political ignorance is that it is rational for most voters to devote very little time and effort to acquiring information about government and public policy. If your only reason for following politics is to be a better voter, that turns out to not be much of an incentive at all, because there is so little chance that your vote will actually make a difference to the outcome of an election. Quite understandably, most people prefer to spend their time on activities that will actually make a difference. For similar reasons, they also often do a poor job of evaluating the political information they do learn.

Sortition can potentially overcome these problem, by creating a decision-making bodies with a smaller number of voters. Each individual vote matters more, and thus voters have more incentive to learn about the issues and assess opposing arguments in an unbiased way. In addition, the participants could spend far more time on the issues than voters typically do in current elections. Because the participants are randomly selected, the resulting group can be representative of the people as a whole. Potentially, sortition might combine representative popular participation in government with a higher level of political knowledge than is likely under conventional democracy.

Some sortition proposals would use randomly selected groups to make decisions on specific issues, such as education funding, or energy policy. More ambitious versions would replace the entire electorate with an “enfranchisement lottery,” under which only a small randomly selected group would get to vote in national elections, but that group would have the opportunity and incentive to deliberate about the issues in depth (I criticized this idea here).

II. Why Sortition is Unlikely to Sort Out the Shortcomings of Democracy.

Unfortunately, sortition is not nearly as good a solution to the problem of political ignorance as it might initially seem. Unless the participants study for an extremely long time, they are unlikely to become knowledgeable about more than a small fraction of the many issues addressed by the modern state. Currently, government spending accounts for almost 40% GDP, and the government also regulates a bewildering array of activities.

This problem might be alleviated by by having each body selected by sortition address only a narrow range of issues. But then there would be serious problems of coordination between them. Moreover, groups addressing one area of policy might neglect important trade-offs between that issue and others. For example, a group highly knowledgeable about education policy might still not know enough to assess the tradeoff between devoting X amount of additional resources to public schools as opposed to devoting the same funds to law enforcement or environmental protection.

Another possible way to make the participants better-informed would be to have them serve for long periods of time, perhaps even years on end. But in that scenario, the participants would gradually become a kind of professional governing class and would no longer be just randomly selected ordinary people.

Juries in the civil and criminal justice systems often have difficulty understanding the points at issue in cases with broad policy implications or complex scientific evidence. These problems are likely to be even more severe if we use jury-like mechanisms to address a much wider range of policy issues.

Sortition systems are also vulnerable to manipulation in a variety of ways. The government could potentially skew the selection procedure in order to ensure that more of its supporters get selected. If, as in most proposals, the participants are expected to hear presentations about policy issues and engage in deliberation about them, there are many ways to bias the choice of presenters and the selection and framing of issues. A biased sortition process might well exacerbate the dangers of voter ignorance and irrationality rather than diminish them.

Even in the absence of such biases, sortition systems will face difficult trade-offs between representativeness and minimizing incentives for rational ignorance. If the group selected is small, rational ignorance is unlikely to be a problem, since each vote will have a high chance of decisiveness. But a small, randomly selected group can easily be unrepresentative. For example, a group of twenty people randomly selected from a population equally divided between Republicans and Democrats will have a 60 percent or greater majority for one party more than 50 percent of the time. The likelihood that some parts of the population will be underrepresented greatly increases if more than two groups have to be accounted for — for example, if there are more than two political parties, or if we seek representativeness on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and other characteristics, in addition to political partisanship.

Some advocates of sortition point to the experience of ancient Athens, which used similar systems with a good deal of success. But the Athenian experience is unlikely to be a good model for us, because there are many crucial differences between ancient Athenian government and the modern state. Most notably, the former was a lot less complex than the latter, and handled a much narrower set of issues.

In Chapter 7 of the new edition of my book, I offer a more detailed discussion of the limitations of sortition, including some additional reservations that are not covered in this post. The bottom line is that the sortition is unlikely to be a good way to sort out the problem of political ignorance. In some situations, it might even make things worse.

UPDATE: I have made a few minor additions to this post.