Rethinking Representation: An ISPS Democracy Series Event

Authored By 
Gwen Prowse
Blog contributor 
Graduate Student
Publication date 
April 15, 2021

On Tuesday, April 13, ISPS hosted the final part of its Democracy Series for this academic year: “Rethinking Representation.” This event convened a panel of experts who are proposing bold innovations to democratic representation around the world: Elisa Celis, Department of Statistics at Yale; Mark Gorton, founder of Tower Research Capital LLC; Hélène Landemore, Department of Political Science at Yale; and Rob Richie, founder of FairVote.

Each of the panelists came from the perspective that contemporary representative structures fall short of representing the diverse interests of citizens. While panelists had consensus on the problem of current representative models, each had their own diagnoses of the problem’s root cause and proposals for reforms to deepen democracy. Dr. Celis presented the rewriting of a Swiss constitution to illustrate the computational challenges (and opportunities) for choosing a representative body to do the rewriting. Mr. Gorton leveraged his own professional expertise and experience as a civically engaged New Yorker to propose a way of choosing candidates for office that invited more deliberation and engagement from a selected body of citizens. Dr. Landemore proposes a radically different representative system—a “lottocracy”—that centers the collective intelligence of ordinary citizens to make decisions about policy and law. Finally, Mr. Richie describes how smaller tweaks to the current system in the U.S., ranked choice voting and proportional representation, may be able to dramatically reduce political polarization and increase representation of women and non-white people in the U.S. We outline their proposals in greater detail below.

Representation in Multi-winner Voting with 21st Century Tools

Where does a country begin when deciding to re-write its constitution? Who gets to re-write it, and how are those representatives even chosen? Switzerland recently had to answer these questions as it endeavored to entirely rewrite its constitution in 2017-2018 with a multi-winner voting process. Dr. Celis speaks of her work in Switzerland to illustrate how a nation might begin to answer these questions in the 21st century, and how those with computational expertise may assist with this process.

Assembling the body for rewriting the Swiss constitution using multi-winner voting required a two-step process. The first step was voting on criteria for selecting committee members to rewrite the constitution. One type of criteria is fairness constraints. These constraints may include a combination of quotas for committee members representing a certain gender, age, city, or race.

The second step is voting on these committee members given these constraints. This approach may be ideal in terms of representation, but it is “computationally difficult”, Dr. Celis explains. Rather than simply calculating who got the most votes, election officials must calculate who achieved the most votes given the chosen constraints.  As a computer scientist, Celis worked with a team to create “approximation algorithms” to address the computational challenges associated with counting votes using fairness constraints.

Moving beyond winner-take all or even proportional representation by imposing new levels of criteria to the electoral process may have once been viewed as a pipe dream due to its computational challenges. Today, however, statisticians and computers scientists can design tools for accounting for these new criteria for representation in electoral processes.

A “Micro-Democracy” Working Group Alternative

Drawing from his personal involvement in New York politics, Mark Gorton suggests that the most crucial intervention to the current system of representation is to ensure that entrenched interests are not winning out over the interests of the general public. One of the most essential interventions for protecting public interest, then, is to create incentives for citizens to deeply engage in the nomination and electoral process.

To do so, Gorton proposes a “micro democracy working group alternative” where citizens convene in smaller working groups to research and deliberate over the best quality candidates in state-wide or congressional election. This three-step process would start with a “micro-election” of 40 to 100 people at the neighborhood level who would choose amongst them a “micro-level representative.” Next, micro-level representatives would be randomly chosen (jury-style) to staff working groups whose task would be to research and deliberate over viable office holders. After doing so, these working groups would choose their officeholder.

In some ways, this process seeks to enhance or deepen the local engagement that Tocqueville celebrated during his visit to the U.S. during its earliest years as a nation. Gorton suggests that this process would build in more voter investment, education, and deliberation. “You have people who have the time, and you know, a reason to focus of reason to invest time and effort in really becoming educated about the people who are involved.”

“Representative democracy means being ruled and almost never ruling”

Hélène Landemore, starts her presentation by stating that she is not here? to advocate for a change in the electoral process, but for “changing the system altogether.”

She explains that electoral representation is “fundamentally exclusionary.” That democratic philosophers including Aristotle and Montesquieu understood electoral representation as an “aristocratic selection mechanism” that relies on attributes such as charisma, wealth, and education—what we often associate with oligarchies—as opposed to the collective intelligence of the people. The elitist form of modern democracy was not even practiced by inventors when staffing political office. Dr. Landemore explains that Greeks of classical Athens used a lottery-based system that distributed power equally among individual who qualified as citizens.

Even as modern democracies have eliminated legal barriers for certain groups to vote, Landemore explains that representative democracies often fail at tending to the preferences and needs of the poor, the young, and people of color. Even if their preferences are accounted for in policy debates, their “first-hand experiences” are not applied to explaining or promoting the policy.

Thus, Dr. Landemore proposes “decoupling” democratic representation with electoral representation altogether by introducing a new concept of democracy for creating political equals called “Open Democracy.” The intervention here draws from the Greeks through what Dr. Landemore calls “lottocratic representation” — representation in agenda setting and policy debates based on stratified random selection, or selection by lot. Here, a stratified random sample of citizens would be chosen to deliberate over a particular policy over a designated period of time. This deliberating body would remain accessible to the public, and the public accessible to them, to protect the legitimacy of the deliberative body.

She notes that lottocratic systems have been used on a small scale in the past twenty years, including in Ireland on the issue of abortion, in France for a citizen’s convention on climate change, as well as in South Korea on the decision to continue the construction of two nuclear reactors. Dr. Landemore concludes with noting that even if we do not do away with the whole system, lottocratic bodies “could augment the current system to make it more representative.”

Representation to End Polarization

Rob Richie, founder and CEO of FairVote, is interested in reforms in the U.S. for which there is consensus and statutory possibility. He suggests that the most essential reason for reconsidering how U.S. citizens elect representatives is to reduce the political polarization that plagues contemporary political life. Recognizing that “election rules drive behavior,” he presents us with evidence for why and how we might change them.

There are several reasons for political polarization in the U.S. and political scientist within and beyond Yale have studied them. One reason for polarization is the role of presidential primaries, in which a small percentage of the electorate has a disproportionate say in the final outcome. Another issue is that districts are less and less competitive, in part because district members are becoming more politically homogenous and in part because voters are engaging less in split-ticket voting.

There are two feasible reforms that are already taking hold to address this. The first is to replace the all-or-nothing single choice ballot with ranked choice voting. In this case, voters would be able to rank candidates whom they would like to see elected. Richie notes that this method was done in five different states’ Democratic primaries last year for the first time, in which 99.9% of people cast a valid ballot and the majority of people ranked more than one candidate. One benefit to this method is that it mitigates “zero-sum binary politics” by giving voters multiple choices. Another is that it encourages candidates to engage with more voters.

The second suggestion is to replace winner-take-all rules with proportional ranked choice voting. This is the essence of the Fair Representation Act proposed in Congress last year. This intervention would result in multi-member districts with ranked choice voting in which districts would be represented by three representatives. Because representatives would only need 25% of the vote to gain representation, Richie suggests that this model can lead to a “vibrant representation of left and right.” In fact, FairVote’s simulations show that every state with at least three states will see an increase in the representation of women and people of color.

Charting a Path Forward

Unsurprisingly, reimagining democratic representation in the 21st century is no easy task. There are institutional, legal, and technological hurdles aplenty for shifting the status quo. Nevertheless, all of the panelists recognized the growing urgency of introducing and testing new systems. Political cohesion is at stake, as are the voices and interests of those who remain socially and economically marginalized in the current system. Fortunately, each of the panelists also illustrated how exciting policy windows are opening for these new democratic innovations.

Elisa Celis is co-founder of the Computation and Society initiative at Yale. She’s an expert on artificial intelligence and ethics. Her research focuses on how algorithms in code and perpetuate social and economic biases. Her work has included designing voting techniques that allow for the election of diverse communities, including the implementations of fail elections in Switzerland project.

Mark Gordon is the founder and chairman of Tower Research Capital LLC one of the leading computerized trading firms in the world. Gordon advocates for livable streets alternative transportation and open government. He is the founder and chairman of Open Plans a nonprofit devoted to the pursuit of smart planning and civic engagement through media and digital tools. He is the chairman of Reinvent Albany, a nonprofit focused on transparency, accountability and good government in New York state.

Hélène Landemore is an associate professor of political science at Yale. Her new book Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the 21st Century came out this fall with Princeton University Press. The book discusses democratic representation and how we could open up our electoral institutions to ordinary citizens, including via what she terms “open mini publics.” Dr. Landemore is a policy expert engaged in several initiatives to promote democracy, working with governments and think tanks around the world

Rob Ritchie is President and CEO of FairVote,  founded in 1992. FairVote is a nonprofit organization that researches and advocates election reforms to increase voter turnout accountable governance and fair representation. He has been involved in introducing ranked choice voting in states and more than 20 cities he’s a graduate of Haverford College, where he serves on its Corporation.

Alan Gerber, Charles C. & Dorathea S. Dilley Professor of Political Science, Director of ISPS, and Dean of the FAS Social Science Division, welcomed everyone and introduced the panelists.

Steven Wilkinson, Nilekani Professor of India and South Asian Studies, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, and Henry R. Luce Director at the Yale MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, moderated the conversation and the audience Q&A.