Should Citizen Juries Choose America’s President, Congress, Governors and State Legislators?

Many people think choosing politicians by popular vote is an essential part of democracy. Nevertheless, there is another way to choose politicians that is in important regards far more democratic and much better. That way is for politicians to be chosen by juries of citizens drawn from the public by random selection. Such juries could number from 25 to 1,000 or more citizens, with larger juries being used for the most important offices such as President.

In Classical Athens, widely considered the birthplace of democracy, a broad range of decisions were made by juries drawn from the citizens by lottery. The Athenian juries kept a great deal of decision-making firmly in the hands of the citizens, and prevented elite rule. The jury method of democracy exists today in the form of the trial jury, and has also been applied in James Fishkin’s deliberative polls. Before considering how juries could choose politicians, a very brief review of what is wrong with popular election may be helpful.

Problems with popular election

Rule by the people needs to be exercised in an informed manner because only informed views are a good basis for a decision. Unfortunately, popular election is extremely unsuitable for ensuring informed rule because the public only learn about candidates and their platforms voluntarily in their spare time, and often pay little attention.  The empirical evidence shows that voters are poorly informed, according to, for example, social scientist Michael X. Delli Carpini and law professor Ilya Somin.

Sadly, American elections are not even a form of poorly informed rule by the people, but instead largely amount to a form of rule by the rich interests and billionaires that fund them. According to Al Gore, “American democracy has been hacked, … The United States Congress is now incapable of passing laws without permission from the corporate lobbies and other special interests that control their campaign finances.” Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and FDR are among the many other prominent politicians who have noted the considerable influence rich campaign donors have on American politics. Based on a 2014 study he co-wrote, Princeton politics professor Martin Gilens says, “ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States. And economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence.”

Elections are also dominated by political parties. The President is always the nominee of one of the two main parties, as are the vast majority of Congress, state governors and state legislators. There is nothing surprising about this, as political parties have the organization, resources, name recognition and motivation needed to run effective election campaigns. However, it is rather undemocratic because 45% of Americans are political independents, and if the public could become well informed about everyone interested in public office, they might often prefer political independents, as well as party members other than the party nominee.

In elections, younger citizens, low income citizens, and various racial and ethnic minorities, are very much underrepresented among those who vote. It would be more democratic if all portions of the public had a say proportionate to their number.

The media can tilt the scales in favor of some election candidates and against others, for example, by the amount of coverage they provide. The scales can also be tilted by the media choices of the public. For example, viewers of Fox News may hear quite different things about candidates than those following liberal and progressive news and commentary on Facebook and Twitter.

Selecting politicians by jury

Ideally, politicians would be chosen in a way that is very democratic, well informed, and independent from moneyed interests and billionaires, with political independents being on a level playing field with party nominees, with no portion of the public being underrepresented, and with candidates not being dependent on the media to get a fair hearing. All of these things can be achieved if politicians are chosen by juries.

The President could be chosen by a presidential selection jury of perhaps 2,000 randomly sampled citizens. A random sample of this size would be large enough to be an accurate cross-section of the people. The jurors could be paid to work full-time for as many weeks as needed to make an informed choice. By being an accurate cross-section of the people engaged to take the time to make an informed choice, such a jury would provide the democratic ideal of informed rule by the people.

The procedures and rules for juries choosing politicians need to be well designed to ensure an informed choice, and a thoroughly fair and democratic process. A commission chosen by jury could be tasked with working out what is best, but play only an advisory role, with all final decisions about procedures and rules being made by jury. In this manner, all aspects of the way juries choose politicians could be decided in an informed and democratic way, independent from politicians, political parties and special interests.

Those wishing to run for President would provide written applications to the jury, and then appear before the jury to explain why they should be chosen and what they hope to achieve in office. The process could include all-candidate debates and Q & A sessions. The jurors could vote in rounds with the candidate getting the least votes in each round being eliminated until one candidate had the majority of the votes. That candidate would become the President.

Between rounds of voting the remaining candidates could appear before the jurors for further consideration, and jurors could break into small randomly chosen groups for deliberation.

A large number of people might apply to be President, perhaps 1,000 or more. If so, they can go first to a screening jury, which could winnow the number down to perhaps 15 candidates who would then go to the presidential selection jury for a final choice.

It is easy enough to imagine how a screening jury might winnow down hundreds, or even thousands, of applicants to the 15 who have the most support. For example, applicants could be randomly selected into groups of 40, with each group then being considered by a small screening jury of perhaps 50 citizens.  Each of these juries could, after considering the candidates, give them a letter grade from A to F, with an A meaning they would make an excellent President. Any candidate not getting an A from say at least 35% of the jurors would be eliminated. Further consideration of the remaining candidates would continue, with the juries of 50 combining into larger juries, and the candidates continuing to be eliminated by rounds of letter grade voting, and votes in which the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, until only 15 are left.

State governors, Congress and state legislatures could all be chosen by juries in a similar way. Each member of the House of Representatives and a state legislature could be chosen by the majority vote of a jury drawn from the member’s district. Alternatively, they could be chosen on a basis of multi-member electoral districts, perhaps three-member districts, using a PR (proportional representation) method such as STV (single transferable vote).

The President needs to be chosen by a jury large enough to be an accurate cross-section of the public, so that the jurors will be a good stand-in for the people as a whole. However, there is perhaps no need for the juries selecting the House of Representatives to be large. Even if each Representative is chosen by a jury of just 25 citizens, overall the 435 members of the House would be chosen by 10,875 jurors, large enough to be a very accurate cross-section of the American public. The same concept, of course, applies to state legislatures.

Selection by jury would put all those seeking a political office on a level playing field, or at least far more so than popular election does. Because the applicants appear before the jurors directly face to face and at length, they would have no need to spend a fortune on advertising and campaign staff to reach out to the entire electorate. Candidates with not a single moneyed interest or billionaire backing them, and with no backing from a political party, would be on an equal footing with a candidate backed by big business interests, billionaires and one of the two main political parties. Candidates ignored by the media would be on a level playing field with celebrities and media favorites. Fox, MSNBC and alternative media viewers would all hear from the candidates directly and unfiltered. The jurors would have an open democratic choice of candidates uncurtailed by big money interests, political parties and the media.

Members of Congress would no longer need to spend much of their working time raising election funds. Instead, they would be able to focus on their job and serving the public.

Politicians would be out from under the thumb of moneyed interests, billionaires and party establishments.  America would have a genuinely democratic political system based on informed rule by the people.

Juries would embody the equality of citizens as each citizen would have the same chance of being randomly sampled as any other, and, unlike in a popular election, younger citizens, and all other portions of the public, would be represented in proportion to their number.

Choosing politicians by jury has huge advantages over choosing them by popular vote.

If politicians continue to be chosen by popular election …

If politicians continue to be chosen by popular election, despite the problems with that approach, there are two ways juries can be used to make popular elections much more democratic.

How to democratically decide election rules

Election rules need to be decided independently from politicians and political parties, because fair and democratic decision-making requires that those who decide do not have a conflict of interest. In much the same way that juries could decide the rules under which juries choose politicians, juries could also decide the rules governing popular elections. This would put the deciding of election rules on the highly democratic basis of informed rule by the people, independent from politicians, political parties, and special interests.

Why juries are better than money vouchers for publicly funding elections

According to Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig and Yale law professors Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres, vouchers should be used for the public funding of elections. In this approach, which will be implemented in Seattle in 2017, each citizen gets a money voucher they can donate to political candidates. Unfortunately, vouchers amount to a form of popular vote, and suffer from the same serious flaws as popular election voting.

The “vote of the vouchers” will be just as poorly informed as election voting, probably even more so, as voters are better informed by election-day than earlier in the process when voucher money would be donated. Far from providing a level playing field for candidates, the competition for vouchers will heavily favor candidates who get a lot of media coverage and are backed by powerful interests, such as the establishments of the two main parties. It is also safe to predict that the portions of the public underrepresented among those who vote, will also be underrepresented among those who use their vouchers.

Juries are a far better basis for the public funding of elections. In much the same way that a jury could choose a politician for office, it could award public funding for a politician to run in a popular election. The winning candidate chosen by a jury could be given ample funding for the election. One or several of the top runners-up could also be funded.

Funding politicians by jury has similar advantages to choosing politicians by jury. Funds would be allocated on an informed basis. Candidates seeking funds would be on a level playing field unskewed by special interests, political parties and the media. No portion of the public would be underrepresented.

Using juries to put election rules and the public funding of elections on a very democratic basis would be helpful. However, by no means would it fix all of the serious flaws popular election has compared to choosing politicians by jury.

Simon Threlkeld writes about democracy and proposes that citizen juries (a.k.a. minipublics) can make modern societies far more democratic than they are. He is a former Toronto lawyer, has an MA in philosophy from the University of Toronto and a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School. Read other articles by Simon, or visit Simon's website.