Redefining Democracy: Could Lotteries Improve Governance and Public Trust?

Authored By 
Rick Harrison
September 28, 2023

Alexandra Cirone

Ask an American about a lottery, and you are likely to hear about a multi-million-dollar Powerball drawing or — depending on their knowledge of popular culture — a 1948 short story by Shirley Jackson with a notorious surprise ending.

But governments have begun exploring the benefits of a new kind of lottery to bolster public confidence in democracy and improve policymaking. Without the goal of producing state income through ticket sales or the involvement of any (Spoiler Alert) ritual stoning.

Alexandra Cirone is an assistant professor of government at Cornell University. This year, she is visiting Yale as a fellow with the Institution for Social and Policy Studies’ Democratic Innovations program, collaborating to identify and test new ideas for improving the quality of democratic representation and governance. She will be presenting her research at ISPS workshops in the fall and spring semester.

“She’s a wonderful person and scholar to have in our research community,” said Alan Gerber, director of ISPS. “Ali brings a unique set of knowledge and expertise, and I am so excited to exchange ideas with her this year.”

We spoke with Cirone recently about her research on the historical and contemporary use of lottocratic selection in democracy and how political polarization affects people’s willingness to participate in modern day citizens’ assemblies.

ISPS: Your work addresses the adoption of lotteries to improve how we conduct government functions. To people who don’t understand the history of such procedures, that might sound farfetched or even foolish in today’s world. But some people argue it can be an improvement on current democratic practices. Why?

Alexandra Cirone: A lot of political pundits today write and talk about how democracy is in crisis. That there is “democratic fatigue” among voters, who don’t feel as though they are being represented or included in politics. And that government has been captured by elites who have little connection to the average voter. To solve this, a growing number of people propose what is called a lottocracy, in which political representatives are selected by lottery. This would replace elections. The idea is that instead of elected officials beholden to special interests and political parties, maybe randomly selecting our officials would better represent citizens, improve policymaking, and help eliminate corruption.

ISPS: So, pretty farfetched by modern standards, right?

AC: Certainly not likely today, no. This practice is commonly associated with ancient Athens, but medieval Italy and countries like France, Denmark, and Germany in the 18th and 19th centuries implemented lotteries in their national assemblies. For example, the constituent Assembly of Denmark in 1848 used deliberative groups, who wrote the constitution that governs the country to this day. My coauthor, Brenda van Coppenolle (Sciences Po), and I are working on book manuscript highlighting these cases.

ISPS: So why did this practice die out? What happened?

AC: As it turns out, lottery-based selection is not always a stable equilibrium. For example, we study the case of the French Third Republic in the 19th century. Yes, there were improvements in the access to policymaking and a decrease in corruption. But these lottery-driven systems emerged when political parties were weak. As soon as political parties gained strength, they removed institutional rules that involved lotteries. Parties got rid of the lottery-based procedures so they could use the selection of committee members themselves to build seniority and reward representatives for loyalty. It is not clear that lotteries at high levels can function with party systems. More broadly, the use of sortition like in Athens disappeared with the advent of electoral parliamentary democracy and the idea that political legitimacy comes via elections.

ISPS: But most discussion of lottery-based government participation today does not involve replacing elections or the broad powers of legislators, right?

AC: Yes, that’s right. What we are learning and what I am researching is how there can be a beneficial place for what are known as “deliberative minipublics.” These are sometimes referred to as citizens’ assemblies, mostly convened in Europe, which involve a group of randomly selected citizens who meet to discuss a particular issue and make policy recommendations. Research has shown that they can produce better policies, involve a more representative sample of the population in government, and expose individuals to different viewpoints.

ISPS: And this is not just a theory, but countries today have actually assembled such groups and implemented their policy recommendations?

AC: Correct. In 2016, Ireland established such a citizens’ assembly to consider questions including the legality of abortion. In 2017, the United Kingdom held a citizens’ assembly to discuss how to establish relations with the European Union following Brexit. Last year, Hélène Landemore, one of my new colleagues at ISPS, helped lead a citizens’ convention in France to reconsider assisted suicide and euthanasia laws. Sometimes these are smaller groups. Sometimes they meet for one weekend. Sometimes more. There are lots of options.

ISPS: If a lottocracy would be too radical to implement at the national level, how else might lotteries in government be deployed effectively?

AC: One way might involve using selection by lottery to choose members of local-level councils, where parties can be less of an obstacle. For example, in Paris, they have a permanent Citizens’ Assembly chosen by a lottery and responsible for local agenda setting. Ostbelgien, Belgium also has a local council selected by lottery. These are both standing bodies, but temporary citizens’ assemblies have also been convened to deliberate on specific issues all over Europe. In most cases, these bodies bring in experts and support staff for these randomly selected individuals, so it’s not like they are left to govern on their own. This might be a way to take advantage of the benefits of a lottery-based selection to include citizens directly in politics without the complications we see on a national level.

ISPS: Of course, the United States is not Europe. Do you think we could ever adopt some form of political lottery at any level of government here? Our jury system functions this way. We ask ordinary citizens to determine facts and apply the law in judgment of fellow citizens. Is this much different?

AC: That’s actually a very good analogy for how a deliberative minipublic operates. Juries meet for one case and then are disbanded. Deliberative minipublics like citizens’ assemblies can debate one issue and then disband. This temporary condition makes it easier for people to commit their time. In addition, studies of American juries show that participants generally rate the experience as positive, acknowledging the benefits of talking to people they don’t necessarily talk to in their regular lives and getting exposed to issues they don’t ordinarily encounter. What we know of juries is that they can be a transformative experience for individuals to experience how their government works.

ISPS: Jury duty is mandatory in the United States. Citizens’ assemblies in Europe are not. What are some of the obstacles to getting people to participate in citizens’ assemblies?

AC: While citizens’ assemblies use stratified random sampling to invite participants, it’s not the case that everyone chooses to attend. If only the most politically active, most educated, most affluent people take their time to participate, because they have the luxury to commit their time, that’s not ideal. Recent studies suggest there might be a greater tendency for men to participate than women. We need to understand selection effects better to make sure we have a wide swath of people participating, exposing one another to different viewpoints and opinions that elite politicians might not hold. One of the projects I am working on for Democratic Innovations is a study of how affective polarization influences potential participation in hypothetical citizens’ assemblies in the United States.

ISPS: It says here on the internet that affective polarization is the tendency for people to dislike and distrust people of an opposing political party.

AC: Right. It’s possible that in a context of high polarization, people might not want to participate in a citizens’ assembly and be forced to talk to people on the other side of an issue or from an opposing party.  So, the study I am conducting will seek to determine people’s willingness to participate in such an assembly if their fellow participants all identify with the same political party, or half of them identify with the same party, or if they have no information about anyone’s partisan affiliation. The survey will also vary proposed topics, from highly polarized issues, such as climate change and abortion, to less charged issues, such as school library funding and health care.

ISPS: How confident are you that Americans would participate in such an effort?

AC: Citizens’ assemblies are a fairly new concept here. It would take some time to show the public this is a need and an innovative, effective way to make policy. I believe it would have to be implemented from the bottom up, starting locally. As people in different parts of the country see it as a supplement to elections, a new way for the public to get involved, then it can spread.