As 2020 continues, it has become increasingly easy to believe that the institutions of American democracy are breaking down. The president of the United States, despite having lost the presidential election, refuses to concede. Congress, which currently boasts a 21% job approval rating, has consistently demonstrated an inability to pass legislation supported by a majority of Americans. A third of the Supreme Court, an institution with tremendous power over American civil rights, consists of appointees by a president who lost the popular vote.
For those concerned for the future of this country, the question becomes whether or not these developments are temporary. Are they products of a particularly divisive political climate, or are they indicative of inherent flaws within our system of government? To put it another way: Is saving American democracy a matter of reforming our current system, or restructuring it entirely?
The political realities of 2020 have laid bare that these flaws are structural to American democracy itself and have existed since its founding. Our system is not broken; it is functioning exactly as was intended. The system was always built around undemocratic institutions. The Electoral College, which allowed President Trump to be elected despite losing the popular vote, was created to protect the interests of slaveholding aristocrats in the South. Members of Congress are able to sustain decades-long careers in Congress despite consistently low approval ratings because of millions of dollars in lawful donations from Wall Street firms — donations which were made legal in the first place by a 5-4 decision from the nine lifetime-appointed justices on the Supreme Court. None of the undemocratic systems governing us today are subversions of the Constitution. On the contrary, they are all perfectly legal.
How, then, do we save American democracy? Sortition.
In simplest terms, sortition means appointment by lottery. In America, sortition would mean replacing Congress with assemblies made up of randomly chosen American citizens; elected representatives are entirely eliminated. Almost every responsibility of the legislative branch is delegated to a randomly subset of the population. Laws are written, discussed, and passed by ordinary people. Federal judges are interviewed and confirmed by ordinary people.
Citizen Assemblies: What They Are and How They Work
At first glance, sortition likely sounds dangerously radical and utterly impractical. But before dismissing sortition, it is important to first understand how it works.
Under sortition, legislative bodies are called “citizen assemblies.” They function like legislatures but are composed of randomly selected citizens. A nonpartisan advisory body picks an issue for the citizen assembly to legislate. The issue can be anything from an annual budget to the nomination of a federal judge to presidential election logistics. The advisory body then sends out assembly invitations to randomly selected citizens, who can choose to either accept or decline the invitation. From the “accept” pool, a subset of individuals that reflect the demographic makeup of the relevant geographic region is randomly selected as the citizen assembly. Instead of our current system, in which legislative decisions are made by primarily white, Protestant, college-educated men over the age of 50, these citizen assemblies will reflect the ethnic, religious, socioeconomic and gender diversity of the population. Members would also be paid a living wage for the assembly’s duration and receive a stipend to cover logistical expenses, including transportation, food and housing.
Once an assembly is convened, its members are introduced to the issue being legislated by a variety of experts, from academics to professionals to activists. The assembly members then have discussions about the issue moderated by a neutral “discussion leader.” Once a degree of consensus is reached, the assembly members begin drafting policy with consultation from the experts. The drafts are then presented, discussed and revised. At the assembly’s conclusion, its members vote on the policies they created, and those that are supported by a majority of the members become law.
Does Sortition Actually Work?
Over the past decade, hundreds of citizen assemblies have been convened in all parts of the world. And these assemblies have had considerable success.
In 2012, the Irish federal government convened a citizen assembly to provide recommendations for amending its constitution. Sixty-six randomly selected citizens, combined with 33 political party representatives, debated potential amendments over an 18-month period. The assembly eventually recommended the legalization of gay marriage,the decriminalization of blasphemy and major electoral reforms. The former two issues were put to national referendum and passed with significant majorities.
Similar examples are available around the world. In 2017, the National Statistical Office of Mongolia convened a citizen assembly to debate six constitutional amendments. The local government of Porto Alegre, Brazil, used sortition in 2009 to provide recommendations for the city budget. And in Oregon, Minnesota, Arizona, and New Mexico, citizen assemblies have debated everything from the legalization of marijuana to transportation infrastructure. In all of these cases, sortition worked. It was not difficult for regular citizens to understand complex political issues after they were explained, and it was not difficult to come to a consensus on what should be done. Problems in the lawmaking process, interestingly enough, came most frequently from the elected legislature that was partnered with the citizen assemblies. The Irish parliament, for instance, has adopted fewer than half of the recommendations made by the citizen assembly in the six years since the Constitutional Convention. Although the first instinct of many may be to dismiss sortition as radical and impractical, the evidence suggests that it can work better than electoral democracy.
An Ideal American Democracy
An ideal American democracy is not beholden to moneyed interests before the people it serves. It dismantles unjust and undemocratic systems. It genuinely addresses the climate crisis, the coronavirus pandemic, and anti-Black police brutality. It builds empathy and fosters civic virtue among its citizens. And above all else, it seeks to allow all people to live with dignity.
Sortition is not perfect, but it is far closer to this ideal than what we have. By eliminating career politicians, sortition simultaneously curtails corruption and increases representation. By placing political power in the hands of regular people, sortition cultivates engagement, responsibility, and empathy among the populace. By putting an end to elections, sortition allows Americans to have political choices beyond the two-party binary. Sortition produces a society of informed and interested citizens, who value civic engagement and trust that their interests will be genuinely represented by the government. And if it can save American democracy, sortition is worth trying.