Clueless Electoral Reforms

For a long time, my political pet peeve was people’s claiming that the Democrats were a radical liberal party. Lately it’s changed to some misguided electoral reform proposals. A commenter on David Brin’s post, “Okay, so now what?” managed to hit the new one, responding to a commenter who hit the old one:

A viable third party sounds like a great idea, but we won’t get it to work without reforming the Electoral College. Political types tell us this is impossible, while the psychohistorians warn that the issue breeds subtleties. (I say this as a person whose friends all voted Green in 2000 — but in Alabama, who cared?)

If we overhaul the system — somehow — to allow the Greens, for example, to become a viable force, then the effects can hardly stop there. “Leftists” will split between Greens and Democrats, while those “on the Right” divide into Republicans, Libertarians and the Dominion of Melchizedek. (Or maybe they’ll call themselves the American National Party?)

Reforming the Electoral College will do exactly nothing to break the two-party system. Mexico, where Presidential elections are direct, has de facto two-person Presidential races. So does France in most cases; 2002 was an exception because the candidates who made the runoff were mainstream conservative Chirac and fascist Le Pen, since the leftist vote was split. During Russia’s short democratic stint, so were its Presidential elections, even though they used a version of approval vote.

The standard in most consensus-based democracies is a multiparty system in the legislature, with two large parties that alternate in forming the coalition government. In Germany, no party except the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats can realistically get its leader elected Prime Minister. But voting Green or Free Democrats still makes sense if you want the ruling coalition to weight the ruling coalition in favor of the left or libertarianism respectively.

Presidential democracies are of course different from that standard, which is parliamentary. If the US only changes the method of election of the House to proportional representation, it will probably have a situation like this of Brazil, whose Chamber of Deputies is a madhouse whose effective number of parties is 9.32. But note that even Brazil has an effective two-party system in its Presidential elections.

15 Responses to Clueless Electoral Reforms

  1. SLC says:

    Not to mention Israel, which even Daniel Pipes says has the worst electoral system amongst all the democracies in the world. There is a possibility of a third party in 2008 as apparently Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York is contemplating such a move. As somebody pointed out, he’s both saner and richer then Ross Perot, who garnered 19% of the vote in 2000.

  2. SLC says:

    The liberals are in mourning. Feingold has just announced he will not be a candidate for president in 2008.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    Actually, Israel’s electoral system isn’t that bad. The Netherlands, whose system is identical, doesn’t have the same mad hatter’s party in its politics. The political mayhem in Israel reflects its social divisions into Jews and Arabs, practicing and non-practicing Jews, Ashkenazis and Sephardis/Mizrahis, and Russians and non-Russians. Of Israel’s five left-wing parties, two are entirely Arab and one would probably not exist today without significant Arab support. The main right-wing division, that of the Likud and Lieberman, goes back to Lieberman’s forming a hard right party for Russian immigrants.

    In an American context, blacks and maybe Hispanics will probably take the place of Arabs. But nothing like the four-way split of left-of-Labor Israeli politics could happen, because white liberals support black and Hispanic identity politics in the US more than Jewish liberals support Arab identity politics in Israel (which is what keeps Meretz voters from backing Hadash). On the other hand, it’s possible the left-of-Democrats forces will split into two based on unions versus immigrants. On the right, the lack of anything like the Ashkenazi/Mizrahi split will promote the growth of just one religious right party rather than three, and the close link between religious conservatism and hawkishness will preclude a split like the old Moledet/Mafdal one.

    What could happen is a third-party run, of course. Unlike Israel, whose Kadima is the party of pro-corruption establishment politicians, the USA’s center will probably be very reform-minded, with figures like Giuliani, Bloomberg, McCain, and even Jesse Ventura.

  4. Yoram Gat says:

    The fundamental problem with elections is that (contrary to accepted doctrine) elections are not a democratic institution but an oligarchic institution. The elected are always members of a small group whose membership is quite stable: the oligarchy of the well-known.

    This basic fact makes any electoral reform a cosmetic change which cannot significantly improve the quality of the government. Any real solution must involve moving away (completely or at least partially) from reliance on elections as the only tool for selecting representatives.

  5. SLC says:

    Re Gat.

    As Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others which have been tried. What would Mr. Gat suggest in place of the current system.

    Re Levy

    The main reason Israels’ system is the worst is because only 2% is required to elect Knesset members and the slate system which means that voters have to vote for a party, not an individual. Pipes says that it is absolutely incredible that Israel has not gone over to at least a partial constituancy system (even the Palestinians have a partial constitutancy system).

  6. Yoram Gat says:


    Calling the type of government generated by elections “a democracy” is really a misnomer. Polyarchy is a better description. What I suggest as an alternative to elections is sortition.

  7. SLC says:

    Re Gat

    There are certain features of the proposed sortition approach which are appealing.

    1. It would certainly remove the influence of money in elections as there would be no need to purchase television advertising time.

    4. It would presumably make the legislators more responsve to average citizens, as those would be the people making up the legislatures.

    3. This approach harkens back to the draft lottery used in the Second World War, which was relatively fair and impartial.

    4. To some extent, the current jury system im many jurisdictions works on this basis so even today it is not without current precedent.

    However (there is always a however), there are many difficulties in implementing such a system.

    1. Given the complexity of modern life and the required response of governments to address that complexity, the terms of office would have to be long enough for the drafted legislators to figure out what the hell is going on. Since, presumably therre will be a 100% turnover at the end of the serving period, there would not be any institutional memory and each new set of legislators would have to start from zero. The comparison with ancient Greece appears rather naive, as the issues faced by modern legislators are of a far greater complexity then the issues faced by the people of ancient Greece.

    2. The military draft lottery in WW 2 applied (at least at first) to young men in their late teens and early twenties, before they had started on a career. The legislative draft which Mr. Gat proposes would apply to everybody, regardless of age; thus it would include people in mid-career. Thats quite an imposition to ask somebody who is middle aged and in the middle of a career to take a leave of absense for a fixed period of time (which, I am afraid would have to be a lot longer then 1 year). We’re not talking about 2 weeks of jury duty, we’re talking several years (currently, a first term Congressperson or Senator spends his/her first term for the former and first two years for the latter learning how to be a legislator, usually from others who have been there for a while and know the ropes. With no institutional memory, I am afraid that it would take longer.

    3. This proposal also raises the issue of comflict of interest. Suppose, for instance, the Bill Gates name came out of the legislator draft lottery. He would be forced to sell his interest in Microsoft in order to avoid the appearence of conflict of interest (his stake is so large, running into multibillions, the placing it in a blind trust would probably not suffice). What happens when his term is over and he is no longer associated with Microsoft? This problem would be repeated on a smaller scale with anybody working for a corporation doing business with the Government or subject to Government regulation.

    4. Would this proposal also apply to the Office of President? Do we really want to appoint a president by lottery (yes I know, the current incumbent is terrible, as was Richard Nixon and James Earl Carter). Would we really want somebody picked off the street at random with his/her finger on the nuclear button?

    These are the objections I have been able to come up with in the last half hour. I am sure that there are other problems which perhaps other commentors will bring up.

  8. Yoram Gat says:


    Thank you for your comments. Let me first make it clear that I do not consider sortition to be a panacea. I do consider it to be the natural democratic system for selecting representatives and a significant improvement over elections.

    My responses to your points of criticism, in reverse order:

    4. No – I do not suggest selecting the president using sortition. A single person cannot be representative of the people no matter how he or she is selected. I suggest either keeping the use of elections for that office or eliminating it entirely.

    3. The chance of Bill Gates, or anyone in a similar position, being selected at random to Congress is miniscule, and the chance of this group of people being large enough in any single Congress to have a significant influence is infinitesimal. Note, however, that under the current system industry barons are quite common in our Congress, so any problem of the sort you refer to should be considered an argument in favor of sortition.

    As for the issue of someone doing business with the government being selected into Congress – this is another problem that exists with the current system in a much more acute form than it would be with sortition. Now people keep moving from business to government and back in a way that makes it inevitable that their personal interests guide policy. Under sortition, anyone would only be in power once, creating a much clearer line between business and government.

    Corruption will always be an issue, and should be considered a crime under any system of selection of representatives.

    2. I guess that the salary of a US Congressperson (about $ $165,200 per year, or somewhere in the 99th percentile of personal incomes in the US) alone would be a very good motivation for most people to make a temporary career change. There is also the enviable opportunity of influencing public policy and acting as a force for good in your society. Not to mention the stories one could tell one’s grandchildren. I believe very few people would turn down a congress seat, but if someone does turn it down, someone else would be randomly selected in their place.

    1. Regarding institutional memory: I would suggest setting the term to be 4 years, as is customary in parliaments around the world. A scheme in which the congress does not change all at once, but gradually (as with the Senate today) can be used to create continuity and eliminate the phenomenon of an all-novice congress. To tackle the need to learn the issues, substantive and procedural, associated with the work of Congress, a ramp up period (maybe 2 years) before the term can be introduced. During the ramp-up period the randomly selected representatives-to-be get acquainted with the staff and the heads of the professional civil service, consult with experts (of their own choosing), and follow the work of the Congresspeople in office, but do not yet vote on the floor or in committees.

    On the other hand, institutional memory has its bad side as well – inertia. The flow of fresh ideas can be expected to be much higher with sortition than with elections.

    Regarding the supposed simplicity of life in Athens: Your argument is a version of the appeal to professionalism which is a classical argument against sortition, that, interestingly goes back at least to Socrates (he supposedly said that no one would select a pilot or a builder or a flutist by lot, so why select a statesman by lot). The Athenians didn’t buy his argument and I don’t believe it to be any more compelling now than it was then.

    True, technology was rudimentary 24 centuries ago compared to that of today, but representatives are not elected based on technological know-how. Specialized expertise resides in a professional corps that advises the representatives. The types of expertise that are common among elected representatives – expertise in backroom dealing, electioneering, public relations and dressing one’s hair – are hardly an asset for the public being represented.

  9. Alon Levy says:

    Actually, there is one expertise that is an asset: familiarity with the law and its workings. The law is complicated partly because of the influence of special interests, but mainly because of the way criminals hide behind legalisms. The only body that can impose a simple tax system is the UN; smaller units have to deal with international tax evasion, and with legal experts who get paid millions to make sure their big business clients don’t have to pay taxes.

    On the big issues, there’s little need for Congress. Switzerland and California use referenda extensively and with reasonable success. Congress is better equipped to handle the minutiae: the exact drafts of laws, distributing funding by the millions rather than tens of billions, oversight of government, and so on. For most of these, familiarity with the law isn’t required, but helps a lot.

    Also, one key difference between modern countries and Athens is the extent of the vote. Athens was not a democracy; it was an aristocracy, in which free, property-owning men were the ruling class. The best post-classical equivalent of that system is pre-industrial Britain, whose Parliament was formed to represent not the people but the local barons. The 90% of the population that was female, foreign, or enslaved freed the top 10% to serve as a large ruling class. The equivalent of that in the US would be holding sortition among Democratic and Republican activists, and disenfranchising the rest of the population.

    The modern equivalent of sortition, the jury system, doesn’t work that well. Juries are more susceptible to subtle emotional tricks used by lawyers than judges. And even then, at least in the US, lawyers have to do jury selection, so juries aren’t composed of 12 random people but of 12 people the lawyers choose out of a pool of 48. The legal system in the US, Canada, and Britain is no juster than in France and Germany, where there are no juries.

  10. Yoram Gat says:


    I disagree with almost all your points:

    1. Expertise in legalisms could easily be vested with a professional legal staff (which probably already exists).

    In any case, clearly the existing system is failing to plug those legal loopholes you talk about, and mostly for lack of trying. Despite all the supposed expertise of lawmakers, tax evasion among the rich, to pick up your example, is rampant, with audits going after poor people with more intensity than after the rich. I would expect a significant improvement if a group of regular people, without any special training, but also without any vested interests, would be put in charge.

    In general, your assertion that the complexities of law are unavoidable because of the necessity of dealing with leglisms is highly questionable. It is much more likely in my mind that the entire phenomenon of legalisms is a by-product of the oligarchical nature of our system. Laypeople would just reject any such maneuvering as spin.

    2. Your idea that referenda can be used to decide the big things, with Congress just handling the details is unrealistic. In fact, referenda are mostly a side show with Congress and the rest of government handling the real business. To the extent that there is any political power to be wielded through the referenda system it belongs to those who have the ability (financial or organizational) to put propositions on the ballot. Expecting the public, in their spare time and with very limited access to expert advice, to sift through dozens of pages of propositions, to gather all the necessary background information, and to weigh rationally the pros and cons of each, for the sole purpose of having their vote counted among millions of other votes is absurd.

    3. It is true that a large majority of the residents of Athens were not citizens and therefore did not have political rights, but the rest of your description of the social and political situation in Athens is incorrect. Most of the citizens were not idle rich – they were subsistence farmers or small scale artisans, and they were definitely not self-selected for interest in politics (in the way activists are). In fact, people had to be threatened or compensated for their time in order to get a reasonable showing in the assemblies.

    4. Regarding juries: first, I know of no factual basis for your statement that the jury system doesn’t work well – do you have any evidence? Second, even if we did accept that statement, the way the system is set up, it is a very poor example of sortition: Juries are completely managed by the judicial oligarchy – the judge and the lawyers: they are told to sit there, saying nothing, listening to the lawyers, following the judge’s instructions and explanations, and are forbidden to do any research of their own. The fact that lawyers can reject jurists reduces the effectiveness and credibility of the system rather than enhances it. Lawyers don’t pick the smartest members of the pool, they pick those that they think they can influence the most. On top of it all, the judge can always declare the jury’s verdict invalid and overturn it. Under such circumstances, it would be a miracle if the jury actually managed to become effective.

  11. SLC says:

    Re Mr. Levy

    I can testify to the problems with referenda from personal experience with the bedsheet ballots in California. There are often several dozen referenda on the California ballot because of lax rules of voter initiative (i.e. questions can be placed on the ballot through the gathering of petitions signed by a minimum number of registered voters). The booklets which are mailed out to voters with pro and anti referenda contributions can run to 50 pages or more. To expect the average voter to wade through this mass of paperwork and arrive at a rational decision is pie in the sky. What happens instead is that large sums of money are raised by proponents and opponents which go into misleading TV adds. Would anybody want questions of war and peace decided by such a system? I think not.

  12. Yoram Gat says:

    I am a resident of California as well and I agree with SLC’s assessment. Actually, I don’t think I have ever seen a ballot with more than one dozen propositions, but even with this modest number figuring out what is going on is a serious challenge.

  13. Alon Levy says:

    If we can’t expect the average voter to educate herself about referenda, why should we expect her to educate herself enough to join a legislature? Obviously it’s different when legislating is a full-time job, but even so, most people have enough free time to educate themselves. It’s like with the now defunct EU Constitution: it’s lengthy and bureaucratic, but any reasonably educated person should be able to go through it in a day or two; still, its length and acrolectic language would detract from its power as a basic law.

    I think I’ve seen studies about how certain emotional cues influence the jury, but I can’t cite any of them right now. But for what it’s worth, to my knowledge Canada has no US-style jury selection, and still has a justice system no better than France’s, which has no juries.

  14. Yoram Gat says:

    Being a legislator and being a voter are two very different things. Beyond the differences in the amount of available time, resources and authority (which are very significant by themselves), there are (at least) two additional major differences.

    The first is that in a referendum your vote or any other action you can take to influence the outcome of the referendum usually amounts to very little. Even if by exerting yourself greatly you manage to educate a hundred people on the fine points of a certain proposition, the chance that this would make any difference in the outcome of the vote is tiny. On the other hand, in a legislative body of a couple of hundred people, the work of a single legislator, and even the vote of a single legislator, frequently makes a very big difference.

    The motivation to learn the issue before voting on it is therefore tremendously higher for legislators than for voters.

    The second difference is that, unlike a legislator, a voter in a referendum has the agenda set for him by others. He is unable to introduce his own propositions, or even to suggest changes in an existing proposition. This puts the voter in a take-it-or-leave-it position that is likely to create apathy or resentment and unlikely to motivate him to put energy in getting informed.

    Regarding juries, I don’t doubt that people, including members of juries, are subject to irrational influence. What I do doubt is that judges are paragons of rational impartiality – they may be responding to different cues, but I have no reason to believe that the outcome is any better. I would sincerely be interested in any data regarding the justness of judicial systems.

  15. Ross King says:

    The following is a response to comments by Yoram Gat and SLC posted 2006 November 12.

    I agree with many of these observations related to democracy by lottery. But in today’s society, many are concerned about the chance of criminals and the mentally ill becoming government officials through random selection.

    Would you screen candidates? How? Would they need to be at least a certain age? Lack a criminal record? What type of crimes (misdemeanor, felony?) How would you test for mental illness? The MMPI personality disorder test? You get the idea. Eventually you’d need some form of screening combined with the random selection. But what screening is most protected from being corrupted?

    Screening and random selection are combined in the process of selecting jurors for jury trials for a reason.

    For trial by public jury, the jurors are randomly selected from candidates who’ve been screened for age and residence. Then they’re screened for lack of felony crime history, ability to understand language, and mental fitness. Then they’re screened again by potentially biased questions and interpretations of answers by government officials and private attorneys. This screening process certainly needs some improvement. But, we can learn some lessons from this and apply it to ideas on how to select oru government officials.

    Some new ideas on how to select officials by integrating public voting (as the way to screen) with random selection (as the way to improve justice) are presented at This process begins with city councils. In most cities the selection process could be like this. Any person who receives at least 1,000 votes enters a pool/group of candidates. A lottery is used to select nine city council members from this pool. People running for office can spend as much as they want on campaigns. It really wouldn’t matter anymore. This would mark the end of political parties and undue influence over government by mass media.

    For county to higher levels the selection of candidates could be by council members voting for a few of their peers after they’ve all served a term together. This would be followed by public referendum votes to accept/reject candidates). For example, after serving a full term together, members of a city council would elect candidates from among themselves who are most fit to be the city’s representative(s) on the board of county commissioners and to be the city’s mayor (for the next term). Then residents of the city vote to approve or reject these candidates. If rejected, the city council selects other members. If rejected again by the public. They could pick from council members who’ve served in previous terms. This combination could be used to advance the best officials all the way to a national congress and office of president (or council of presidents). This process combines voting by a group of people (council members) who REALLY know the candidates AND voting by the public as a final approval, a safety check — just in case there’s been council corruption the public knows about.

    Often there are many ways to do something. And there’s not just one right way or perfect way. But, these ideas make common sense — as we’ve been told by many people over the past few years.

    These are all new ideas. They are an alternative to the “all or nothing”/“black and white” thinking of selection EITHER by public voting OR by lottery. That type of thinking limits the potential for reaching a practical solution. A compromise similar to that used in jury selection is needed. But what is most fair and what is most protected from corruption? The corruption of jury selection is another story. Jury screening by potentially biased government officials and private attorney using varying questions and personal judgment of answers is wide open to corruption. Perhaps jurors could be selected like city council members — through the 1,000 vote minimum and random selection idea — and then serve as jurors for a year (maximum), earning a healthy salary.

    Fair screening AND random selection would reduce problems in both the process for giving us individual justice AND social justice. This combination would significantly reduce the corrupting influence of extreme wealth and power — along with the growing power of mass media — over justice and democracy.

    After you’ve read a bit at, let me know what you think. And, please, keep sharing your ideas on solutions.

    Ross King

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