Could Election by Lottery Work?

I just finished listening to a fascinating episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast, and I wanted to share it and get your thoughts.

The episode is about the democratic electoral process. Gladwell doesn’t directly comment on higher-level politics; instead, he focuses on student body elections (and a little bit about NIH grant proposals) following an experiment in Bolivia and a discussion at a US school.

Basically, the idea Gladwell discusses is instead of having candidates campaign for months then be selected by voting majority (either total votes cast or an electoral college), elections could work like this: Candidates would have a short period of time to get on the ballot (perhaps via online petition) and present their platform, then people would vote. The winner of the election would be randomly selected from all votes cast.

It sounds a little crazy, right? And perhaps it is. But Gladwell makes an intriguing case:

  1. The types of people who are good at campaigning aren’t inherently the same types of people who are good at leading and working well with others. In fact, sometimes those are diametrically opposite skills. I’m sure you’ve encountered some people in your life who are amazing public speakers, but that doesn’t mean they know how to collaborate, cooperate, and delegate. In fact, some of the people who are great in the spotlight are that way because of their ego–they thrive when they get attention–and those aren’t characteristics that typically make a great leader.
  2. If the outcome of an election has an element of randomness, you’re likely to end up with a greater variety of elected officials. I agree that diversity and variety is a good thing in government, especially when the best ideas are supported by a lot of other people (checks and balances).
  3. Despite what we may think, people aren’t actually great at guessing who the best leaders will be. This is where Gladwell looks at the NIH and how they select grant recipients. As it turns out, there’s no correlation between how good the NIH thinks a study will be and how good it actually ends up being. The same is arguably true for leaders; returning to the first point, it’s easy to be swayed by charisma, but charisma is only a small part of being a great leader and representative.

While I’m not entirely sold on the idea, I also don’t think the current system in the US is as good as it could be, so I’m open to trying something else. My biggest concern is that a randomly selection creates the possibility that an objectively bad person could somehow get enough support to get on the ballot and would then have a chance at winning. That said, many would argue that there are some people elected via the current system who fit that description.

What do you think? Could you see this working for some types of elections?

6 thoughts on “Could Election by Lottery Work?”

  1. I don’t think the random idea is the way to solve those three valid points.
    I think, provided you had a strong civil service for back-up and continuity, the idea of a jury-duty like process has merit. It would be a good way to insure the legislative body actually reflects all segments of the population evenly and perhaps it would put an end to party politics, which has become stifling and corrupt (it it was ever a good idea; I can’t speak to that.)

    Should New Zealand ever become a republic, I hope we will be bold enough to think outside the box about how best to form governments, particularly as the countries we seem to look to the most (UK and US) seem to be failed states.

  2. I’m curious about his thoughts, having read several of his books. In England, where I was stationed for four years, I followed British politics, where there candidates can petrition, have commercials and raise money for a total of six weeks. That would dramatically change the environment and lessen the inanity experienced here in their former colony.

  3. I personally think ranked choice voting would be the best way to go to resolve some of the issues with our current voting process. It won’t fix everything, but it will allow people more options and allow for the possibility of third parties to step into races without “stealing” votes from other candidates.

    If you’ve never heard of it, basically it allows you to select multiple candidates in order of your preference. Then, if your first choice gets the minority, then your vote shifts to your second choice, and so on and so forth until it dwindles the race down to two final candidates. It allows everyone to vote for their favorite candidates without anyone wasting their vote and would open the field for multiple people to run in parallel (for example, another Republican could run alongside Trump and people could vote for them in order of their favorite so that the party wouldn’t be stuck with just one candidate; or Bernie and Biden could both run)


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