Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Column: Replacing elections with lotteries

By D.G. Martin
UNC-TV host

There has to be a better way.
Some of us reached that conclusion after discussing the mess our congressional and legislative governing systems have come to.
Winston Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government “except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
I wonder if he would agree today, after taking a look at the U.S. Congress deadlocked by political divisiveness and mean-spirited partisan competition that stifle almost every effort to deal with challenges crying out for practical responses.
Instead of being free to work fulltime with their colleagues on the nitty-gritty work of crafting legislation, our representatives are slaves to a system that requires them to spend most of their time on electoral politics and fundraising.
Taxpayers pay them to be legislators. But keeping those jobs requires them to do something else altogether.
The time spent raising money and the obligations that come with begging money from people and organizations that want something takes more than just time away from the job. It drains away the independent judgment of the legislator.
So does the extreme loyalty to political parties, to the caucus and to the legislative leadership. The demands to stick together handicap the prospects for working on solutions that do not fit into the agenda of one of the political groups.
Efforts to maintain control lead to ugly games of gerrymandering and pandering to voting groups.
How could we find a system that frees our elective representatives from the servitude of full-time fundraising, from the draining of energy and spirit that go with permanent campaigns and from the tribal commitments to political caucuses and parties? How could we free them from these things so they could spend full time working on legislation to make our state and nation better?
Somebody asked, what about a lottery? Why not just select our representatives by lottery?
That suggestion sounded like a joke.
At first.
What could be more antithetical to democracy than putting aside citizen participation and simply choosing representatives by lot?
But, after I thought about it a minute, some advantages were apparent. No need to raise money. No permanent campaigns. No automatic partisan divides on every question. And, with modern computer techniques, a legislature that could be composed of people that would closely reflect the population, geographically, ethnically, gender, age and otherwise.
Of course, somebody said, you would have a whole bunch of people who would have no idea what they were doing. Then, somebody else said, neither do most newly elected legislators!
Still, making important selections by chance is just not the way we do things in America, is it?
One person quietly mentioned that we get our jury pools by random selection. The jury system is not perfect. But Americans have a pretty strong commitment to it. It works without the problems of partisan bickering and gamesmanship, fundraising or time-consuming political campaigns.
All this may be true, but selecting representatives by lottery would be an unprecedented violation of the democratic tradition that began in ancient Greece.
Or would it?
Actually, the selection of many major officers in Athens was by allotment or a random process. According to the “New World Encyclopedia,” “Election was seen as less democratic and open to corruption because it would favor the rich (who could buy votes) and the eloquent, whereas a lottery gave everyone an equal chance to participate and experience, in Aristotle’s words, ‘ruling and being ruled in turn.’ ”
So, am I ready to lead an effort to replace elections with a lottery selection process?
Not today.
But check with me after Nov. 6.

D.G. Martin hosts UNC-TV’s "North Carolina Bookwatch," which airs Fridays at 9:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. For more information or to view prior programs, visit the webpage at

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