Gavin R. Putland,  BE PhD

Friday, January 16, 2015 (Comment)

Convened-sample suffrage: Reclaiming democracy from vested interests

When we think of democracy, we tend to think of universal suffrage — that is, the right (or, in Australia, the duty) of every enrolled citizen to cast a vote in every election. This arrangement, far from being the essence of democracy, is the fatal weakness of democracy. If you're a candidate, universal suffrage maximizes the number of electors to whom you must present your message. Hence it maximizes the cost of a successful campaign, and therefore maximizes the influence of money on the outcome. In short, it turns democracy into plutocracy.

Public funding of election campaigns is not the solution, because the funding available for the next election is invariably linked to the number of votes obtained in the last one, which in turn was a function of funding, and so on.

Limiting spending on election campaigns is not the solution, because moneyed interests can propagate political messages through their normal advertising and PR campaigns, without mentioning political candidates. (For “moneyed interests”, the reader may substitute corporations or trade unions or other alleged rentseekers, according to taste.)

“Direct democracy” is not the solution, because it merely changes the mechanism by which money exerts its influence: the voters, whose attention costs money, vote for policies rather than for the representatives who will determine policies.

The news media are not the solution, because they are moneyed interests and are beholden to other moneyed interests, namely advertisers, who want not only friendly editorial lines but also big audiences for their ads, especially among people with money to spend. And the media try to attract and retain such audiences by, inter alia, telling them what they want to hear.

The solution is what I call convened-sample suffrage: For each election, in each electorate, invite or summon a random sample of the enrolled voters to gather in one place (or one video conference). Pay them for their time, so that they can afford to accept the invitation or summons. Let them hear and cross-examine the candidates for several days. Then let them vote as an electoral college — choosing the candidate(s) that the entire enrolled electorate would have chosen if it had heard the same arguments.

In other words, don't take the campaigns to the electorate; bring a sample of the electorate to the campaigns.

Convened-sample suffrage is compatible with any voting system — e.g. plurality (first-past-the-post), instant-runoff (preferential), or proportional. Whether the voting system should be changed is a separate issue.

While convened-sample suffrage would reduce your chances of voting in any particular election, it would increase your chances of affecting the outcome. The reduction in your chances of voting would be exactly compensated by the increase in your chances of being the “tipping” voter if you did vote; and your influence, if you did vote, would not be limited to voting but would also include the opportunity to ask awkward questions of the candidates.

Better still, convened-sample suffrage would eliminate or greatly reduce the influence of rational ignorance. Under universal suffrage, your chances of affecting the outcome are so remote that it is not rational to spend time informing yourself about the issues for the purpose of voting (although it may be rational for other purposes). Worse, the less informed the voters are, the more susceptible they are to the propaganda of moneyed interests. In contrast, if you are selected as one of (say) 100 members of the convened sample in your electorate, your chances of affecting the result will suddenly become quite significant. So you'll make the effort to get informed.

Of course, being informed would not prevent members of the college from voting for their individual interests. But it would improve their ability to discern their individual interests, and hence improve the chances that their collective decision would reflect the real interests of the citizens, as opposed to their imagined interests.

Government by the few tends to be corrupt. Government by the many tends to be ignorant. Representative democracy is supposed to be the solution; but under universal suffrage it merely allows the ignorant many to choose the corrupt few. Convened-sample suffrage encourages a sample of the many to purge their ignorance before they choose the few, and thus allows representative democracy to work as advertised.

Would convened-sample suffrage introduce a random sampling error? Of course. But that, I submit, is better than the present systematic bias in favour of moneyed interests.

Convened-sample suffrage may be described as a form of indirect sortition. Under direct sortition, the office-bearers (e.g. legislators) are randomly selected from the citizenry. Under convened-sample suffrage, the electors who will choose the office-bearers are randomly selected, while the candidates for office must compete for the approval of the electors. The hope is that the competition between candidates, combined with the sidelining of money and the minimization of rational ignorance, will lead to higher-calibre appointees than a mere random selection.

Of course the vested interests that benefit from universal suffrage will not want to change it. But there are three reasons for believing that they are not invincible. First, there must be some vested interests whose causes, on balance, would be better served by an informed electorate. Second, as disinformation becomes more pervasive, more and more disinformers believe their own propaganda, and consequently believe that they would be better served by an informed electorate, whether they really would nor not. Third (and partly as a consequence of the first two), while opponents of the status quo are divided into innumerable irreconcilable factions, they all seem to have one thing in common, namely the belief that they would prevail if only they could get a fair hearing. Convened-sample suffrage would give them a fair hearing. It is therefore a cause that should unite opponents of the existing order, even if they agree on nothing else.

So, may an unholy alliance of mercenaries, missionaries and misfits change the rules of the game. And then may the best team win.

[Based on comments posted in August 2010, February 2011, and August 2011. Cf. my “Democracy vs. universal suffrage” (July 2007; WayBack version) and David Chaum's “random-sample elections” (2012). Last modified July 30, 2015.]

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