Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Polocracy

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.


  1. This is an interesting idea, but I'm not sure you'd get the outcomes described. I'll warn now this is a critical post, but I think there are interesting implications of what I take your intuitions to be.

    You argue that it would be cheaper to run a Polocracy than the present system. This might be true as conceived relative to the existing system, but I would point out that it's tough to compare the actual working costs of a system that exists against one that doesn't. For instance, if much of our existing expenses are related to polling integrity and security, might not such expenses multiply as the political importance of the ballots increases? Election officials are largely volunteers, and polling places are buildings the government already owns, but if ballots were much more significant in the way you describe, then we'd have to spend money on identity verification and perhaps armored couriers to take these more important ballots to be counted afterwards. Strong identity verification means having strong document standards establishing your identity, which we currently do not have, although debates currently rage on this in relation to the immigration issue here.

    Moreover, what opportunity costs might be incurred by people's suspicions about the selection process for the electors? Establishing methods for selecting electors would involve a lot more political debate, and subsequent accountability legislation and enforcement of the final process before it could gain public trust (if the political debate over the process was not itself interminable). So it's not clear to me that the proposed solution is cheaper given changeover and working costs.

    Your second argument is that it might be more rational for someone to participate in the process when their vote carries greater weight relative to the outcome. There is a worry here too. In the 2004 election, there was about a 60% voter turnout among eligible voters, and about 41% in the 2006 midterms. This is about 122 million people in 2004 and 85 million people in 2006. If you're suggesting that we select half (or even a third) of the eligible population (roughly 220 million in 2006) on the assumption that they're more likely to show up (this is argument #3, which I'll say more about shortly), then it's actually irrational for me to participate in the new process since there will be about as many or more votes in this new pool and my odds haven't changed all that much.

    Let's say we work with the participation percentage a little further so that people feel it IS rational to participate because their vote counts. The worry is that one then fails to achieve the scale necessary to get a representative sample "of the people for the people." In the faculty-selection example you describe, supposing all graduate students and all faculty at an institution with a large department were included, and that all involved felt their participation meaningful, you would still have a population less than, say, 100 people. Let's multiply that number by a factor of ten to 1000 people who plausibly might feel that in such a pool their participation was meaningful. This would still be far too small a sample to be statistically representative (and thereby to gain the trust) of those who must live under the decisions of the electors. Obviously the greater the increase, the greater the sense that one's participation is meaningless, and the worry is that one could not gain the minimum scale necessary to get meaningful participation without losing the scale that gives the system what public confidence it has.

    Finally, you argue that people might feel special if selected, and that against that possibility they might become more politically aware. The first point I'd like to make is that if the last argument about scale goes through, then from a 220 million voter-eligible population, I might have about the same chances of getting selected as an elector as I do of getting selected for jury duty. People obviously do not study law in anticipation of that possibility, and they certainly do not seem to feel more special because of it. You might think that the reason for the latter is because jury duty lasts longer. However, I would also point out that if 11 million people (only 5% of the voter-eligible population in 2004) were part of the elector group, there would likely be a longer process of selection and verification, during which time targeted campaign advertising could more efficiently target a swing percentage of what was now a much smaller voting population. I could even imagine cottage information industries springing up as soon as it was known who was selected. How would the population of electors be overseen to avoid problems of election-rigging when money that used to be spent reaching a population of 220 million was concentrated on a much smaller population? (There may be here more hidden expenses related to elector-accountability and oversight against argument 1.) How many of those people would take jury duty over a media blitz directed at them personally? The former may be in fact preferable, but in any case, my argument is that "specialness" may not be all it's cracked up to be, and it's not clear that it would motivate people to become more politically active even if they thought they might be chosen (since there is probably going to be a media rush after they get chosen anyway).

    So it's not clear that cost, rationality, or perfectionist ideals are well-served by the offered solution. That said, I would hate to be so critical without offering a parallel suggestion in its stead for you to beat up on in turn.

    I'm somewhat curious about the speculative possibility of creating a third branch of congress based not on elected representation, but on direct polling of the public. Getting legislation to the executive branch in this scheme means passing it through at least two of the three branches (senate/house, senate/public, house/public). The motivating intuition is that people would be involved more often and more importantly, and that problems of scale related to a simple democracy can now be attenuated (or perhaps even eliminated) because we have the technology to collate such results very quickly. The "public branch" could not author, introduce, or amend legislation, nor could they designate commitee composition. This is a concession to the intuition behind a republican democracy that it's good to have professionals working on the machine of state. What this "public branch" effectively does is to create a gridlock-breaking option and means by which individuals can feel that their considerations are being answered immediately instead of every 2-4 years. At any rate, this is pure speculation, and I'm sure there are good reasons (such as those I've enumerated above regarding security and verification) to think that practical considerations may motivate against this scheme, but I think it has a better chance of finding the public trust than the proposed Polocracy, fascinating thought though it is.

  2. Ben: Thanks for the comments.

    I'm not married to this idea, and I think the proof is in the empirical studies. I will try to see about running a few empirical tests to see if this idea has any empirical support at all.

    Economic benefits: I agree, it might be more expensive to have a polocracy. But it might not. I suspect that, even considering everything you have said, the costs would still be lower to run a polocracy.

    Rationality: There might be a difference in the way that people perceive the rationality of voting. We might predict that half the population will not vote anyways. This prediction ought then feed into our calculation of how rational it is to vote. This prediction is a worry for the view that I'm presenting. I will try to deal with it, or mention it, or whatever. But I'm fairly confident that this claim will win out.

    Perfectionist: I'm not concerned about media blitz' and so on. In fact, I'd be in favour of those sorts of things. There are a few studies that show that political advertising improves people's awareness of the issues, and their ability to make a sensible decision (measured by some standard). If politicians targeted those people, then that would be just fine. It would help my case, not hurt it (it would also, maybe, make advertising cheaper, although that is a dubious suggestion).

    At the practical level, I'm under no illusions. No government is going to go near this. However, companies with voting based on who holds stocks might. So, too, might some university committees, student bodies, and so on. Pitching it at the level of government politics is just a strategy to make the paper more interesting to more people. The real meat of the suggestion might be worth pursuing at non-governmental levels.

    None of these arguments mean much without empirical support. This is the real test of the proposal. I'm happy to abandon the project if it turns out that there are not perfectionist benefits, or that fewer people turn out, or whatever other outcome that is worse than the current system. I just want to motivate people to care enough to test it. Because I still think the proposal has prima facie appeal.

  3. Actually PEI has 4 seats in parliament currently.

    The average population of Canadian ridings is 80 000, though some in Ontario reach 100 000 before the periodic redistribution and creation of new ridings.

  4. I'm not convinced that this would improve the performance of our democratic systems.

    In particular I'm not convinced that the smaller the voting pool the more likely the voters are to be involved in the election.

    The random sampling of people chosen by a lottery would reflect the same trends we see in our current elections, in which 40% of people do not vote. I contend that the improved rationality of casting a ballot under your system would not increase voter participation.

    This system might work in your graduate school of young intellectuals, but is not likely to have the same affect on most voters who spend little time considering politics, and who believe in large numbers that their democratic institutions are morally bankrupt.

    The rationality and perfectionist benefits are not enough to overcome the low esteem voters hold our democracy in. Forty percent of them will still want to vote against the system by not participating. They don't want to poison their souls by being involved in the process.

    As to the burdens and benefits, your polocracy seems like it would have economic benefits, but I'm not sure what other benefits it would bring. Could it not teach the great numbers who do not win the lottery that participation is futile? When their year to win comes up will they be more likely to stay home anyway, accelerating the decline participation rate instead increasing it?

    Still, it is a very refreshing and original post, thanks for the idea.

  5. As I see it your polocracy is supposed to have two benefits: relatively lower cost, and an increase in the rationality of voting as each vote gains more weight. Ben covered all that I would say about those two and a little more.

    I'm not entirely clear on why a company or other group would want to do this though. The main benefit seems to be in cost, and I don't know how much a stockholder vote costs, but I doubt that it is prohibitive or that it makes a real dent in the cash available to the corp.

    On a separate point, what you might gain in the importance of each vote and the saving in cost you lose in terms of legitimating the law (policy?) that is created via the vote. Why should I agree to be constrained by a system in which I literally have no voice? If I would accept this then I might also accept an oligarchy or some such. Maybe I would accept a philosopher king (I totally would), but if that’s true then why should we care about votes at all?

    The sole reason that democracy seems to me to hold any water is that it gives me a reason to subject myself to the coercive power of the State or the CEO (or whatever). Namely, I think it’s legitimated by the rights that I have and the process by which I can ‘throw the bums out.’ While my actual power in the State is minimal or numerically very close to zero I still have the feeling that I have some power.

    Is legitimization really just a feeling? I don’t know. I just thought of it. It seems like that’s the case, so if you can convince the citizens/employees under your system that their coworkers are of like minds with them then you will have something that is legitimate inasmuch as they agree with it. Given that this is the case, what’s the point of the polocracy or any other voting scheme? It has to rest on the consequences that come from the scheme, and I don’t know how polocracy is better at that then regular old democracy?

  6. Anonymous: "The random sampling of people chosen by a lottery would reflect the same trends we see in our current elections, in which 40% of people do not vote. I contend that the improved rationality of casting a ballot under your system would not increase voter participation."

    I disagree. I see no reason to think that the system would yield the same non-participation as the current system. I have an intuition that I would feel special if so chosen, when not everyone gets to do something (like vote). I contend that this would give me added motivation to do that (vote). Some people only need a little bit of an extra push to vote, whereas the rest of us may need a lot of pushes. Those who need just a small push may vote under this system, than under the current one. But this is to be settled empirically, not on the basis of what our intuitions tell us. So let's wait for that.

    "This system might work in your graduate school of young intellectuals, but is not likely to have the same affect on most voters who spend little time considering politics, and who believe in large numbers that their democratic institutions are morally bankrupt."

    Maybe. But remember that we would be using a control group--a group of "young intellectuals" under universal voting conditions. The comparison, therefore, would be intra-group. We would compare the same (or similar enough) group of people under conditions of universal voting, and under a polocracy. We can generalize *this* result to the general population, unless there is reason to believe that, compared to the general population, undergrads would respond differently for some reason. I see no reason to think this.

    Matteson: There are three benefits, not two. The one benefit relevant to your counter-example is the purported perfectionist benefits. *This* is what corporations have reason to care about (as well as the small push from cutting costs). When corporations have stockholder meetings, it is probably (plausibly) better for the corp. to have more informed stockholders making decisions, rather than less informed.

    Feeling special, and feeling like your vote means more, are the two reasons I gave for thinking that the perfectionist benefits might flow. You don't deny the rationality story (although anonymous does), so I'll assume that you now have a reason to think that the perfectionist benefits might come from this.

    As for your point about legitimacy. This *is* a worry, I agree. This is what puts upward pressure on the proportion of citizens chosen as electors. But I don't see why it should be as much of a worry as all that. The legitimacy of a system is not merely based on whether or not I have a say about it. For instance, I still think the results of some trial with a jury is legitimate even if I didn't myself sit on the jury. And I sometimes think that certain international bodies (like the U.N.) have some legitimacy even though none of us got to vote on it. And the policies that politicians put forward (that were not in their election platform or whatever) still appear legitimate even though my vote was so indirect as to be laughable.

    If we become convinced that a large-enough poll of voters accurately depicts what the result would have been had everyone voted, then we wouldn't think the system illegitimate. Maybe we can't be convinced of this. And of course if we can't be, because people are not as sensible as all that, or whatever, then that's enough to stop this proposal in its tracks (because practical concerns matter a great deal in politics). But we *should* be convinced, since this is what polling "science" tells us (or, at least, we have good reason to be so convinced).

  7. Actually, I was writing that post over the course of a class in democratic theory, so it was a little shorter than it could have been. I don't think that the perfectionist benefits are appreciable because of the lottery method.

    You say " I have an intuition that I would feel special if so chosen, when not everyone gets to do something (like vote). I contend that this would give me added motivation to do that (vote)."

    I don't think that's the case. People who win the lotto don't feel special, they feel lucky. If you win the right to do something that you didn't want to do in the first place then you aren't going to feel special. What we need then is to do away with the lottery and institute a meritocracy. If you're learn-ed and we think that this is the case then you get to vote. Is it fair? That's debateable. It wouldn't give us a system of equal opportunity, but it would be fair in that everyone would know what the process was and why it was put in place. Really, we'd be focusing on an epistemically better outcome rather than fairness. That suits me just fine.

    I like what you said about legitimacy, but I think that in those cases (and maybe all cases) we are only inclined to think that they are legitimate because they match our intuitions or because we have some small say in the process. If we don't like what the Pres. does we might vote him out of office. If we don't like the jury's verdict we can try to have another. The UN is trickier, but we can start a post on that if you like sometime. I think I'm realy only arguing that "legitimacy" is a function of popular agreement, and it might not be a theoretical problem in this case.

  8. Matteson: "People who win the lotto don't feel special, they feel lucky."

    I'd like to see if you're right about this point. I would be terribly surprised if at least some people who win the lotto feel special. They shouldn't, they should feel just lucky, but I bet they do.

    "If you win the right to do something that you didn't want to do in the first place then you aren't going to feel special."

    Unless you already have some motivation to vote (but "don't want to vote" all-in), and just need a little extra push.

  9. Yeah, I bet you're right about the lotto winner feeling special in some way. They're just deluded.

    As for voting: Your general argument, as I remember it, is that it is irrational to vote at all unless you know that your vote will be 'the Decider.' This always seemed to me to be a normative argument. One shouldn't vote unless it is rational to do so and that is darn rare. In order to make the polocracy seem like a good idea (and maybe legitimate) you need to impress on people that their desires to vote are irrational and they should really desire to stay home instead since the opportunity cost is really to high to go out and vote.

    Maybe this is good for your polocracy. Your people are bound to feel some rebellious urge to vote because you're telling them that it is irrational to do so. Being picked to be 'a Decider' might give them an outlet for their rebellion. I like that idea!