Comments on the Electoral Jury – as advocated by D. R. Hagen.

Wouldn’t it be good if in an election all the voters were extremely well-informed about all the topics, and had ample time to study the issues and research the candidates? David Hagen, advocates for – as he sees it – the next best thing:  a modified system of voting to improve the outcomes of some electoral forms of democracy. I find the proposal interesting and will try to summarize it here, offering a few thoughts about pros and cons.

Hagen has the example of a Jury as an analogy:

Imagine that you were falsely accused of murder and there are two possible juries. The first possibility is twelve people forced to listen to all the evidence given every day by opposing sides. The second possibility is a million people otherwise going about their day who can choose to watch the case or just catch the news about it (with ads from the prosecutor).

Which would you chose to make the right decision about your case? The sequestered dozen, or the generally aloof million? The answer is obvious. The contention is that in modern state democracies there are similar issues when electing representatives. Why would an aloof million come up with a better candidate than an informed subset?

The idea of including a randomizing element in democracy is not new: in classic Athenian society several office holders were selected at random from the citizens (a subset excluding women and slaves). The idea there is to prevent vested interests to congeal and give rise to a sclerotic elite of politicians (I’m looking at a Bush vs Clinton election with great anticipation in the US, and the UK private school class is all lined up already).

The idea that Hagen is advocating for is different: the voters, not the office holders, are selected at random. And they would be given the time and means to make a well-informed decision. What this should enable is a better result to emerge. This “Electoral Jury” would be selected at random from the population for each new election, with a sample size (the number of people in the jury) large enough to be representative of the population – about ten thousand Hagen estimates. Therefore we don’t need tens of millions of voters to be extremely informed, we need only a statistically representative subset of them to be – and those would do the voting.

The trial jury analogy is compelling. We are currently trapped in a system where it is perfectly rational to not pay attention to the election because our vote matters so little. Plus taking the time to be well-informed is (even if enjoyable for some of us) costly. A jury (a subset of the population tasked with making the decision) gets around both these problems: each votes matters much more, and the State would create the conditions (time, funding, information) for the Electoral Jury to make an informed and consequential decision. (Go to the original post for more information on practical aspects)

There are, of course as with any system, some problems. First, it’s less clear to me that this would be reliable in multi candidate systems where it is not winner takes all. The number of people required to properly capture minority opinions might be problematic. However the statistical error here is inversely correlated with the social relevance: big (relative) errors would only occur in very marginal parties – which would be very low errors in absolute terms anyway. We could probably tolerate that, yet it’s something to keep in mind.  Second, there would be social consequences in going from a one-person-one-vote system to a one-person-one-potential-unlikely-vote. As a result of the near certainty of not voting, people would be rational to disengage. Universal suffrage encourages a kind of continuous ongoing conversation about the polis. True, each vote doesn’t count much to the system, but it matters to us – because it’s our vote – and so we try to do it well. Indeed, the universal suffrage is part of the larger social process of keeping the democratic conversation and scrutiny active. That conversation would likely be affected by this enforced disempowering the majority of the voters. Third, fighting voter absenteeism is a key part of making the political system responsive to the whole of the population. An Electoral Jury would almost completely do away with such dimension. There would be no incentive to mobilize and engage disenfranchised groups. One of the ways that candidates legitimately win is by bringing in new voters to the poles (not just by swaying the opinion of a fixed pool of voters). Yet an Electoral Jury would be biased towards voting in any case – mediocre candidates or not. This would lower the bar for absolute quality and put an emphasis on relative quality only.

I found the idea well exposed and argued, the jury analogy a compelling (albeit limited) one, and the ideas thought-provoking. I can see some advantages. However, the wider social consequences of effectively turning voting citizens into almost certain non-voters are very important and much more complex.

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