Using Sortition to Achieve Campaign Finance Reform

April 5, 2012

by Gene Callahan

I was sitting in a session of the British Political Studies Association Conference today, listening to several speakers talk about sortition (using random selection in the political process) when I was struck by a way to employ it to achieve campaign finance reform without any restriction on donations or campaign length. So, I share:

We have a problem with money corrupting the political process, and part of that problem is how long our campaigns run. How can sortition ameliorate the problem?

A year before an election for, perhaps, the House of Representatives, we create a list of office-eligible people in each district. A plausible way to do this is by petition drives: have a week in which any potential candidate may collect signatures of those who wish to see her run. At the end of the week, any candidate with over X signatures will be put in a pool. X must be set so as to achieve a decent-sized pool (of which we will say more below) but also to filter out people with few supporters. Once someone has gone into the pool, they will remain in it for, say, a decade. Oh, and along with the signatures, we can ask each candidate to write up something of moderate length on why they are running. Then, for forty-eight weeks, nothing happens — you’ll see why in a moment.

Four weeks before the election, we randomly draw perhaps five names from the pool. Those are this year’s candidates for congress from that district. And we can use a certain amount of government funds to circulate that nice position statement they wrote up for us.

What does this achieve?

First of all, it shortens the campaign to four weeks without any restrictions on speech or spending, but merely by changing the nature of the election. Potential candidates will be willing to spend very little between the petition drive and the drawing, because they don’t yet know if they’re running. Furthermore, if they don’t get picked this election cycle, they might the next, or the next… So one had better save those funds for when one is actually picked.

Secondly, it breaks the hold of the major parties over whatever office it is implemented for. To have a good shot at being elected, one needs only get some signatures on a petition, and then get lucky in the drawing.

Thirdly, as a corollary of the previous point, it opens elections to a greater diversity of viewpoints: one only needs a core of support to potentially get on the ballot.

Fourthly, having the candidates draft campaign statements when they have no idea who they are running against makes it harder for them to strategically adopt positions they don’t really support to defeat a particular opponent. Of course, they can blatantly contradict their initial statement if they wish, but that will take explaining.

The system could also be refined, since we do not literally have to draw from a hat any more. For instance, once a candidate collects the required number of signatures, they could be put in the pool until death or voluntary withdrawal, but with a declining prospect of selection each cycle. (They could always run another petition campaign to get in the pool afresh.) And we could assure party diversity by having the odds of selecting a candidate from party Z decline based on how many from that party have already been chosen.

The giant fly in the ointment: incumbents! I’m not sure how to handle them yet.

In any case, I don’t really expect the United States to adopt this in my life. But if any of you readers are opening your own democracy soon, you might think of giving me a call…

7 Responses to “Using Sortition to Achieve Campaign Finance Reform”

  1. Dave Pullin Says:

    Unfortunately there is no great difficulty in hypothesizing better solutions for the democratic than that which we have. Indeed, trying to find worse solutions is more challenging.

    The problem is that better solutions will never happen. Power structures preserve themselves.

    Nothing will be implemented that breaks the stranglehold of the 2 party system because it requires at least one of the 2 parties to support it to get it adopted.

    The two party system is best antidote to democracy that has so far evolved.

  2. Jeff Says:

    So then you get parties who have lots of their members fill out petitions. If enough of them participate, then election cycle one of them should end up as the candidate. They can run advertisements just about their party’s goals leading up to the election, and then with more ads about “Vote for the person who is part of this group!” or trust people to recognize the code words (if mentioning parties is somehow banned?) that tell you which person is the favored member of which party that has been busy promoting themselves in the meantime.

    If the parties stay organized they’ll have a ranking system where the person will drop out if someone higher ranked in their party is also randomly drawn.

    The term limits that this seems to create probably improves the process on the margin (especially if incumbents have de facto term limits where they go back into the lottery), but it can be gamed pretty easily and it’s questionable whether or not this improves the situation beyond installing strict term limits.

    And if there are term limits then there is the question of whether term limits are better than making sure people who work in government with enough power are given a sinecure and banned from working in the private sector again (an idea related to reducing improper influence that I think could have more potential). The two can’t easily be combined, because short term limits means more people taking sinecures which raises the cost to levels that are probably less sustainable.


  3. [...] Gene Callahan has attended a panel about sortition and, seemingly like most people with any interest in sortition, came up with his own variant – a 3-stage process: [...]


  4. Aristophanes would have had much fun with this proposal, so reminiscent as it is of the follies of Athens’ short-lived democracy.

    Why, alas, do i think this proposal is from Cloud Cuckoo Land?

    1) In G.C.’s sortition proposal, money will still pay an important role in determining who gets to enroll as a candidate: paying for an army of petition gatherers will be essential unless the signature requirement is quite low.

    2) The government shouldn’t be involved in circulating candidates’ messages — there’s real potential for abuse in that.

    3) Most importantly, preventing individuals and their backers from running for specific positions at times of their own choosing and effectively limiting their campaigns to four weeks strikes deeply, perhaps mortally, at republican liberty and freedom of speech.

  5. Yoram Gat Says:

    > Athens’ short-lived democracy

    Athens’ democracy was longer lived than that of any in the European continent.

    > In G.C.’s sortition proposal, money will still pay an important role in determining who gets to enroll as a candidate: paying for an army of petition gatherers will be essential unless the signature requirement is quite low.

    Good point – that is a good reason to have the requirement low enough so that anyone could pass it by gathering signatures of family and acquaintances.

    Eliminating the signature gathering requirement altogether may also make sense. This way every citizen would be in the lottery pool and the lottery would produce a representative sample of the population.

    > The government shouldn’t be involved in circulating candidates’ messages — there’s real potential for abuse in that.

    The form by which the information is disseminated could easily be regulated so that it is fair.

    > preventing individuals and their backers from running for specific positions at times of their own choosing and effectively limiting their campaigns to four weeks strikes deeply, perhaps mortally, at republican liberty and freedom of speech.

    I can’t see what you are referring to: according to this proposal, no one is being prevented from doing anything. Anyone could express whatever opinions they want at any time they want and run a campaign for as long as they want.

    For more on sortition, see the Equality-by-Lot blog.


  6. @Yoram Gat
    1. The duration of continental European democracies is hardly a gold-standard against which to compare that of classical Athens.What do you have against comparing Athens with the United States?

    2. The United States was founded as a republic, not a democracy. If the distinction is unclear, I recommend the close reading of John Adams _Defense of the Constitutions_ and the concurrently written _Federalist Papers_.

    3. Very few politicians occupying high positions in the national government understand the basics of either economics or international relations and security. Replacing present occupants with citizens selected at random from a lottery would raise the level of incompetence a hundred fold, although I concede you that an improvement might come about in some constituencies presently occupied by Democrats.

    4. Individual candidates and their supporters are the best judges of the proper means of distributing their campaign platforms, not the government. Read the public choice literature for a more realistic appraisal of the non-neutrality of government.

    5. In your last paragraph, you seem to have construed G.C.’s sortition proposal to read that anyone can run at anytime and be elected if they win. That’s not what G.C. proposes — which is that only lottery winners are allowed to be legitimate candidates.


  7. (Note again to moderator: why require WordPress if comments are going to be moderated anyway? The problem I’m having seems to be related to the interface between Thinkmarkets and WordPress. I write my comment for Thinkmarkets, then am told to sign in to WordPress, at which point there’s no predicting what gets posted. In the attempt immediately preceding, I just wanted to post the one-sentence correction, not a full repeat. Also, I’m puzzled by the WordPress “change” option presented on Thinkmarket’s site. It doesn’t seem to allow simple editing of one’s past posts, which is usually what “change” means on a blog.)


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