If voting is only half the story, what’s the other half?

First for the bad news. Representative democracy is not in good shape and the signs for improvement are not bright. After 200 years it is on the ropes due to a laundry sized list of ailments:

  • falling rates of voter turn-out, especially amongst the young;
  • shrinking party membership;
  • the low esteem and suspicion politicians are held in by voters;
  • the pervasive impact of ‘big money’;
  • the elevation of politics as just another form of entertainment;
  • the media’s interest in promoting and reporting on conflict and sensationalism;
  • increasingly the role of social media, post-truth and alt facts and;
  • short-term thinking.

Despite the obvious signs that the health of democracy is not great, most of our political leaders seem relatively unconcerned about doing anything practical and progressive to address these issues. Yes, we’ve recently been sprinkled with fairy dust and the current government has made some noises about being more transparent, transformative and accessible; but really that’s about it.

It’s probably not too much of an exaggeration to suggest that, without significant change to our democratic system and a much greater role for citizens in the decision-making process, we will fail to address the major issues of our time: poverty, climate change, housing, inequality, employment etc. Figuring out how can we address our failing democracies, instil a sense of political commitment, utilise the knowledge and skills of citizens, redress the balance of power between the governors and the governed, and expand the domain of freedom are some of our most pressing issues.

Sometimes when you start to write something, an event or incident happens which serendipitously coincides with the very thing you are about to embark on. So, it was when I was finishing making some notes for this blog piece: through the mail came notification for jury service. It wasn’t for me but that’s not relevant. What is relevant is the connection between jury service and our thin idea of democracy. The justice system relies for its legitimacy on the drawing of lots or the process of sortition amongst its citizens. Think about this for a moment – ordinary people, citizens, with no special training or expertise, are randomly selected and entrusted with making decisions that can have momentous consequences.

As a society we place our faith in ordinary people to assess complex, detailed and contested evidence and to come to just and fair decisions in our legal system. Why is it then, when it comes to making political and policy decisions, ordinary citizens are largely left out of the loop, their roles reduced to spectators and bystanders? Why is it that we are treated as adults when it comes to sending a person away for life but as children when it comes to deciding whether to make cannabis or euthanasia legal or to decide what kind of tax system is fairest? Why is our political system – based on representative democracy – seemly incapable and/or unwilling to trust ordinary citizens to make good decisions when our justice system can? What, if any, are the consequences of this division of labour for the health and well-being of society and the planet?

To begin answering these questions, we need to start with some idea of how we have arrived at the current belief that representative democracy begins and ends at the ballot box. This quote from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 clearly shows how pervasive this idea is:

‘The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections and equal suffrage and shall be held be secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures’.

For almost 3,000 years, people have been experimenting with democracy, and only in the last 200 years have they practised it exclusively by holding elections. For us to say democracy is to say elections. Popular sovereignty rests with the ballot box. We have reduced democracy to representative democracy and representative democracy to elections. We may loath and despise the results of the ballot box and have a dim view of our political representatives, but we have a deeply ingrained belief in the sanctity of voting; what David Van Reybrouch calls ‘electoral fundamentalism’. Somehow a system which emerged in the eighteenth century is still considered fit for purpose in the 21st century.

This is not to suggest that voting hasn’t help make democracy possible and with a few exceptions – one recent one springs to mind – has worked pretty well. What I’d like to contest is the belief that the ballot box is sufficient for ensuring efficient and legitimate government. The dogma that voting and democracy are synonymous hides the important historical lesson that elections originated in a completely different context from that in which they function today. When it comes to why democracy is equated with voting, most of us suffer from historical amnesia.

The irony in our belief that democracy and voting are twinned masks the fact that, according to the French Political scientist Bernard Manning:

‘Contemporary democratic governments have evolved from a political system that was conceived by its founders as opposed to democracy’

Bizarre as it may seem to us, voting was an aristocratic compromise chosen to ensure only those deemed suitable (i.e. wealthy, educated white males) could hold the reins of power. Elections were never intended as a democratic instrument in the first place. Far from being the Holy Grail, the ballot box was set-up as an anti-democratic institution. Even those Ur moments in the history of democracy, the French and American revolutions, closed over the possibility for alternatives to anything other than democracy through the ballot box. From then on, the focus was on expanding the franchise – a wonderful thing – at the expense of exploring more participatory and deliberative forms of democracy.

What other democratic possibilities did such moves back in the eighteenth century and continuing to the present-day mask? I mentioned at the beginning the way in which ordinary citizens are selected for jury service by drawing lots, or sortition. Sortition, as Wikipedia defines it, is: the selection of political officials as a random sample from a larger pool of candidates. Classical Athens is probably the best-known example but sortition was common in other states such as Florence, Venice, Bologna and Aragon in Spain.

Terrill Bouricius explains the Athenian system: ‘Three key Athenian practices were: 1) choosing law-makers and other deliberative bodies by lot rather than election, 2) dividing legislative tasks between multiple bodies, each with particular characteristics, and 3) utilizing both temporary bodies and ongoing fixed term bodies in the decision-making process. This structure allows for optimal performance by matching legislative tasks to the inherent characteristics of each type of body, while also minimizing the opportunity for power-hoarding and corruption. The key Athenian democratic principles that underlie the system are the principle of political equality, the right to speak and contribute and a belief in the ability of a cross-section of people to deliberate, weigh arguments, and make reasonable decisions’.

Yes, all well and good is the standard response but this system is inapplicable to modern nation-states (or even cities) due to the issue of scale. However, this criticism misunderstands or mispresents the Athenian situation. The Athenian system wasn’t a form of direct democracy, but a uniquely representative democracy, a non-electoral representative democracy, and voting was an important part of the Athenian model.

I believe there is a way out of our current democratic malaise by turning our attention to the possibilities that representation by random selection (by lot/sortition) present. In the last 30 years there has been a resurgence in thinking and numerous successful practical examples as to how sortition could be applied to modern nation-states. These new models combine both voting and random selection. To date, more than 20 proposals have been put forward. Each one concluded that a randomly composed parliament could make democracy more legitimate because it would revive the ideal of equitable distribution of political opportunities and be more efficient because the new representatives would not lose themselves in party-political games, electoral charades, media battles or legislative haggling. They would be able to concentrate on the common interest.

One model of what a democracy based on sortition, voting and deliberation could look like is shown in this post’s graphic. Called the Multi-body Sortition model, it is presented in David Van Reybrouck’s book Against Elections: The Case for Democracy. It is based on the work of Terrill Bouricius.

The old Churchillian saw about democracy being the worst form of government except all the rest still holds. Yet it is bizarre that such a critical institution suffers from relative neglect. We bang on about innovation in every other field as necessary for our survival and well-being yet the system which best serves to maintain our freedom and rights is hardly given a second thought. The good news is that more and more people are developing models, systems and theories which could lift representative democracy to a whole new level of efficiency and legitimacy. Our challenge is to grapple with them and develop the new forms of democracy which will be necessary to meet the challenges of the 21st century.



David Van Reybrouck: Against elections: The Case for Democracy.

Terrill G. Bouricius: Democracy Through Multi-Body Sortition: Athenian Lessons for the Modern Day.

Bernard Manin: The Principles of Representative Government.

Muli-body sortation graphic from Yoram Gat’s ‘Terry Bouricius’s sortition-based government system’ posted on Equality by Lot: The blogs of the Keroterians.

Voting image from http://www.newshub.co.nz/home/election/2017/08/new-zealand-election-2017-how-do-i-vote.html.


John Pennington, Partners, Public Engagement Projects. John and his PEP Partner, Simon Wright, are leading NZ experts in deliberative democracy processes.