Constitutional issues: election or random selection?


It’s time to discuss constitutional issues. Until now we have primarily focused on what policies we would wish to implement in a space colony, but politics has to operate within a constitutional framework. Specific constitutional arrangements have substantial influence on the political culture of a nation.

An important aspect of modern political systems, euphemistically called “democracies”, are elections. In a representative democracy, which is actually an euphemism for elective oligarchy, the citizens are supposed to elect people who are ought to represent their voters. The idea behind this “representative democracy” is that in a modern nation-state, with hundreds of thousands or millions of citizens, direct democracy is impossible. (It’s a little secret, but most, if not all, political scientists know that true representative democracy is in fact mathematically impossible.)

The primary function of election in modern political systems, is to provide a sense of legitimacy to the government. Under social contract theories, a government is legitimate if it has been approved by its subjects, consent of the governed as political theorist will call it.

However, the idea of government by consent has to be distinguished from the concept of representative democracy. A “consensual” government does not need to be a democratic one, since its perfectly possible for a group of people to consent to the rule of an absolute monarch. Therefore non-democratic forms of government can be justified on grounds of consent by its subjects.


Elections has several benefits, and also several drawbacks. One advantage of (regular) elections is that politician have an incentive to take public interests into account. At least this is an argument frequently raised by apologists of electoralism. In practise, however, politicians in an electoral system, tend to base their decisions on whether these are popular among the electorate, instead of these measures are in the general interest.

A common complaint about politicians in democracies, is that they often do not look further than the next election. Consequently short-term interests prevails above the general interest in the long run. Elected politicians are also highly sensitive for hypes, a process which is exaggerated by frequent opinion polls.

However, elections also allow citizens to participate in the political process. Besides the voting itself, they can join the campaign of their favourite candidate, they can discuss politics with their friends and family. The fact that there are elections, will trigger people to think about politics and to form their own opinions. Without elections, there are no incentives for many to contemplate political issues.

On the other hand electoral democracies are vulnerable to become particracies. As result of economy of scales, only political parties are able to succeed in a mass democracy. Most prospective politicians lack both the financial means and fame, necessary to win an election on their own. Well-known political parties, on the other hand, can easily attract funds for their campaigns.

Since politicians has to join a political party in order to be elected, political parties exert much influence on the political process by their selection of candidates. In stead of being servants of the public, many politicians are actually employees of a political party. By threatening not to reselect a politician for the next election, political parties can discipline its politicians.

Further political parties are capable to frame the political debate by emphasizing the issues they like. This marketing of political issues allows political parties to manipulate the public opinion, and it’s obvious that this is in conflict with the ideal of democracy.

There is also the risk of polarization, especially in two-party systems. Polarization can lead to a situation in which the political parties are not willing to cooperate with each other, and place the interest of the party above that of the nation.

Random selection

An alternative for elections is to select politicians by lottery, also known as sortition. Under this system there no elections, but are citizens randomly selected for political positions. According to some people, this system is more democratic than the current system of elections.

The proponents of random selection argue that an assembly of random selected members, is more representative for the general population than an elected assembly. This claim can be substantiated. When social scientists wants to do research to the public opinion, they often do survey research. But instead of surveying the total population, they only survey a random sample of the population. Statisticians have shown that by taking random samples, a reliable picture of the whole population can be obtained.

Random selection is also claimed to be more democratic, because every citizen has an equal chance to be selected for a political position. Consequently the role of political parties will be weakened. Actually one should wonder whether there will be any role for political parties under random selection.

Several arguments against random selection can be raised. One could argue that the average citizen is not capable for a political position, and that random selection will lower the average quality of politicians. They would argue that selection by political parties, will guarantee the quality of politicians. However, we can say that the current quality of the average politician is not that high either.

A more fundamental objection against random selection, is that the selection process might be manipulated by the incumbent government. This is especially the case when computer algorithms are used in the process. This might however be countered by making the sortition algorithm public.

Another possible objection is that a randomly selected assembly might pass laws, which have no support of the general public. In order to prevent to passages of such bills, we could introduce the option of a corrective referendum. If a certain number of citizens sign a petition within, say, ninety days, a referendum will be held. When the majority of voters rejects the bill, it will be cancelled.

Hybrid systems

It is of course possible to have a hybrid system, in which a part of the members of parliament are elected and another part is selected by lottery. Some authors have proposed to have one elected chamber and one chamber whose members are randomly selected. But also in unicameral systems it will be possible to have such a combination.

A hybrid system will have its own advantages and disadvantages. But generally we believe that such system would combine most of the good aspects of both systems.

If a substantial part, large enough to be relevant in votes on specific bills, of the legislature is consists of randomly selected citizens, the enormous influence of political parties will be reduced significantly. It will also weaken the link between parliament and the executive, and so it will enhance the separation of powers.

See also

Space settlements and citizenship for an alternative view of democracy.

4 thoughts on “Constitutional issues: election or random selection?”

  1. Great article, Mordanicus! You describe the different systems very well and random selection sounds intriguing. It reminds me of the democracy in Ancient Athens. I expect that women and people on a low income would be included in your lottery… To be honest, I can hardly imagine that inexperienced politicians would do worse than the career politicians we have now, especially when you look at the interests of ordinary citizens.

    1. Thanks for mentioning the Athenians. I did not include historical example, because I did not think it would fit within the scope of my article. Of course I see no reason to exclude women or the poor from politics.

Comments are closed.