This post should be of interest to anyone who cares very much about democracy. I admit, this isn't exactly me, but I do like fiddling with the rationality of voting, and coming up with schemes that might improve the performance of democratic systems.
I have in mind a particular scheme that I want to run past everyone. The idea is called "the polocracy." It is called that for fairly obvious reasons.
Some background: In the literature, people have come up with different ways to use lotteries for the purpose of elections. For instance, the traditional lottery voting system runs like this. Every adult citizen casts a ballot (just like now). Then we put all those ballots into a lottery, pick one, and that vote determines who will be the political representative. An alternative system, called jury voting, goes like this. We have a policy in mind. We run a lottery to pick 12 or so ordinary citizens. Those citizens make up a "jury." This jury then deliberates on and decides what policy will prevail.
These uses of the lottery focus on policy and on the elected. The polocracy is aimed at choosing the electors. It would work like this. Every adult citizen puts their name into a lottery. That lottery selects a certain number of persons, a number we have decided upon in advance. Those chosen by the lottery become eligible voters, those not chosen cannot vote in this election. This lottery would be run prior to every election, at every level (federal, provincial/state, local/municipal, and so on).
Suppose, for instance, that we decide on 50% for a presidential election. Following some regional formula, we run the lottery until we have 50% of the American population selected to cast a ballot in this election. They get to vote for the president, the others get to stay home with their children, work on their novel, or do something that actually matters (ha ha).
Why would anyone want a system like this, over the current system? I can see three reasons, although there may be many more. The first reason is economic. If we care about how much elections cost to run, reducing the number of voters may be one way to economize on the costs of running an election. While running the lottery would be a novel cost, I doubt very much that it would swamp the savings of having fewer polling clerks, polling booths, verification procedures, and so on. In addition, this proposal would also economize on opportunity costs. When you vote, you pay the price not only in terms of gas and maintenance for your car to get to the polling booth, but also in terms of what else you could have done with your time.
Secondly, we might see benefits which we can loosely describe as "rationality" benefits. It would not make people more rational, but it would improve the rationality of casting a ballot in the first place. When we consider what we should do, many of us think that it matters whether or not our doing something will have any effect on the outcome at all. This is as true in the case of elections, as it is in the case of, say, hiring new faculty. When graduate students have one collective vote, compared to the faculty, graduate students have less of a reason to even bother letting fellow graduate students know who they prefer. Many of them will disenfranchise themselves from the process. If graduate students had more of a say, we could anticipate greater involvement on the part of graduate students. This is what, relatively speaking, we do see on the part of faculty. And the smaller the faculty, the more involved are each of the members, in general. So if we care about the proportion of eligible voters who bother casting a ballot, we should take seriously limiting the number of participants in the process. The polocracy does this.
Thirdly, we might see perfectionist benefits from such a procedure. I can see two reasons for these benefits. The first is related to the rationality benefits above, and the second stems from what I think will be a feeling of "specialness" on the part of those chosen to cast a ballot. People are more likely to become more conscientious consumers of political information when their input is weighty. Consider again the graduate students in the above example. If they had more of a say in a process that is as important as hiring new faculty, we can predict that they will consume information about possible hires much more conscientiously and actively. So, too, with regular voting. Reduce the number of voters, and you improve, even if just a little bit, how much and how often regular folk look into politics. Secondly, I think it is intuitive to assume that, if you received a letter in the mail saying "you get to vote in this election!" when not everyone gets such a letter, you might be moved to consume more political information on account of feeling "special" or "important." This, of course, will depend on the proportion of citizens chosen as voters, but if the number is sufficiently small, we can predict perfectionist benefits stemming from both of the reasons I have mentioned.
The reasons not to have such a system are (inexhaustively) as follows. We might fret about the perceived legitimacy of a system like this. We might think that the system was rigged to pick certain people, or that the vote would have been different had everyone voted. This is reason to ensure the proportion is sufficiently high to avoid such worries, and sufficiently transparent to make only kooks (like me) think that the system is rigged or would have worked out differently had everyone voted.
For those of us who know a thing or two about polling "science," we might be convinced that the above worries are not as good as all that. After all, as the number of voters increases, the benefit, in terms of accuracy, has declining marginal benefits. There is no particular reason, if we care about accuracy of outcome, to have everyone vote, only very many people.
The most significant concern is probably related to equality of political power. While everyone has an equal chance of being chosen as an elector, once the lottery runs, those chosen have greater political power than those not chosen (at least with respect to selecting the representatives). This is probably a deep and significant worry. One reason not to fret so much is because we are already unequal. Some of us don't bother to vote at all, choosing to forego having a say at all. In practice, then, we are unequal. We might object that there is a significant difference between being told that you can't vote, and choosing not to vote.
I agree that there is a difference here. So consider the second fact: In Canada and the United States, certain regional formulas make people politically unequal anyway. For instance, according to the terms of Confederation in Canada, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and the other maritime provinces have a certain number of guaranteed federal representatives. There are, approximately, 100,000 people living in P.E.I. and they get two Members of Parliament (or one, I can't recall). Whereas, in Ontario, something like 200,000 people choose one M.P., the number is half that (or one-quarter that) in P.E.I. The Islander's have more political power (are twice as, or whatever, more politically powerful) in terms of choosing representatives. The same is true in the U.S. Very few of us stay up at night fretting about this inequality. That is reason to think that our concern for political equality is not the most important consideration, that other considerations might trump our desire for political equality.
The question then becomes: Do the potential benefits of a polocracy outweigh the potential burdens? Since I believe the only very serious worry is the worry about equality, we can rephrase this question as: Do the economic, rationality, and perfectionist benefits justify reducing political equality to some degree? I suspect that they do.