National Juries

The reason so many bad policies are good politics is that so many people vote. … Ignorant voters … are biased towards particular errors. …

The best way to improve modern politics? … The number of voters should be drastically reduced so that each voter realizes that his vote will matter. Something like 12 voters per district … selected at random from the electorate. With 535 districts in Congress … there would be 6,420 voters nationally. A random selection would deliver a proportional representation of sexes, ages, races and income groups. This would improve on the current system, in which the voting population is skewed … the old vote more than the young, the rich vote more than the poor, and so on.

To safeguard against the possibility of abuse, these 6,420 voters would not know that they had been selected at random until the moment when the polling officers arrived at their house. They would then be spirited away to a place where they will spend a week locked away with the candidates, attending a series of speeches, debates and question-and-answer sessions before voting on the final day.  All of these events should be filmed and broadcast, so that everyone could make sure that nothing dodgy was going on.

More here.  This logic is simple and strong enough for most folks to both understand and accept.  Yet most would still prefer our current system – why?

My guess: aside from status quo bias, it just doesn’t feel like the political ideal in the back of our minds – how our nomadic forager ancestors long ago would meet every few months to make major band decisions.  All 5-15 men could talk, they wouldn’t break until they’d all had their say, decisions were by informal consensus of all, and dissenters could leave the band.

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  • komponisto

    People *already* complain about small groups (the U.S. Supreme Court, Congress [particularly the Senate], even the voters of one individual state) making major decisions for the rest of the country. (Though of course they don’t seem to mind as much when the decisions aren’t viewed as “newsworthy”.)

    Apparently, people like for average folks to feel empowered (whether or not they actually have much power). I believe you’ve written on this before.

    Incidentally, there is some fictional data (not) to be generalized from: the movie Swing Vote.

  • John Maxwell

    Isaac Asimov wrote a short story similar to this. Every presidential election, one person was chosen as being the most typical voter. This person was then interviewed intensively to determine his opinion on things like the price of milk and the importance of vacation. Based on his answers, a computer crunched the numbers and declared a winner for the election.

    • TGGP

      “This person was then interviewed intensively to determine his opinion on things like the price of milk and the importance of vacation.”
      Sounds like GDP+

  • billb

    I think the kidnapping for a week might have something to do with it. Why not just randomly select the votes that count as they’re cast (or slightly before/after) and not tell anyone what you did? It has the same statistical effects, unless, that is, you were more interested in the week-long “education” campaign than the random jury selection.

    Additionally, I’m not sure that a week of “education” is nearly enough time to fact-check everything the candidates proposed. You’d have to kidnap a panel of experts in a variety of fields for the jurors to bounce their questions off of, etc.

    Also, the pressure these folks and their families would be under to vote the “right” way would be enormous. You’d have to put their families under 24/7 surveillance and protection–most of their friends, too. It’d be a circus.

    I could go on….

    • David C

      The reason you have to tell people ahead of time that they’re going to be chosen is so that they have time to think through their decision. If they don’t know well ahead of the time that they vote that their vote will be the deciding factor, then Jamie Whyte’s suggestion is useless.

      You don’t need a panel of experts in the room. The internet has more information than any panel of experts could ever know by themselves. The jury in question could fact check everything the candidates claimed, especially if the other candidates point it out when their opponent is lying.

      The pressure placed on the 6,240 individuals would be significantly less than the pressure faced by regular representatives in Congress. At most it would be about 1/7th (the minimum necessary for a candidate to win a majority) of the amount of pressure the representative would be under.

      • billb

        Ah, yes, David, the Internet will save them. We’re talking about 6k randomly-selected Americans. Do you really think the Internet will allow them to answer the questions they have about the candidates’ proposals? If Candidate A says, “My proposals will reduce the deficit by $X and create $Y jobs,” how do you suppose that the jurors will be able to evaluate these claims using the Internet?

    • Prolorn

      I suspect that randomly selecting votes rather than voters will not achieve the desired effects of making voters reflect the governed more exactly, and making voters cast votes in absolute seriousness.

      Unless it’s paired with mandatory voting, randomly selecting votes will not make the general populace more inclined to vote in the first place, as there will still be the problem that people would not perceive the influence of their vote. Indeed, it might make the problem worse because the expected effect of any single vote will be even less than before. (Before it was one over the total number of voters; now it’s that ratio times the probability that it will even be counted.)

      The effect of randomly choosing voters (not votes), on the other hand, is that any citizen is equally likely to be chosen (while choosing votes still privileges those who can bother/afford the time to vote). Secondly, the voters that are chosen should cast their votes with orders of magnitude greater seriousness and consideration, presumably making political gimmicks far less effective.

      In short, the advantages random voter selection offers are that the voters will more accurately reflect the governed, and that votes will be cast only in full seriousness.

  • mikem

    I second billb on the need for expert opinion: you can’t trust the candidates to give the best or most complete elaborations of their policies and their consequences. Of course, then their is the issue of how you determine the experts …

    On the issue of pressure being put on the families and friends to make the voter vote ‘right,’ that could mostly be solved by having complete sequestration of the voter during education week (though intimidation before voter selection could still be an issue).

    As for why people don’t go for this, well, I don’t think people have been given the choice yet, unless you can point out some situation where this has been proposed and rejected. One reason I think people would object is that they would think a group of 6,420 would somehow be biased.

  • nazgulnarsil

    it is always in the interest of the losing party to dilute suffrage.

  • tylerh

    The Franchise doesn’t exist to make for better governance. It doesn’t.

    The Franchise exists to prevent tyranny. Which it does.

    History shows again and again again that the powerful will prey on the non-powerful. In Democracy, that means those who vote will shift resources and rights away from those don’t ( or can’t). Look at how our spending priorities are shifting away from education and towards health as the baby boom ages (seniors vote; kids can’t) . Or how quickly government policies in the states of the Old Confederacy shifted once African-Americans secured the vote.

    Folks who don’t or can’t vote get the short end of the stick (or baton), both from the Tax Assessor and the Riot Police. Extending the Franchise as far as possible reduces injustice — at the cost of less coherent governance.

    I’ll take that trade.

    • Captain Oblivious

      There’s an fairly convincing argument that, whatever voting was invented for, it currently functions primarily to prevent violent overthrow of the gov’t:

      It’s hard to get people riled up enough to actually start shooting, when they can just tell themselves that they are in control (via voting), despite all evidence to the contrary (re-election rates that would make the politburo blush, a gov’t that is incredibly out-of-touch with the average person, and totally out-of-control spending)

      • ChristianK

        The ritual of voting produces legitimity for the government. If someones votes the person is less likely to challenge the monopole of violence that the state holds through violence.

        When it comes to the way to design a political system it’s also important to understand that informal rules are often much more important than formal ones when it comes to decision making.
        Certain views that are considered as stupid by the Washington insider crowed won’t become public policy even if a majority of the citizenship wants those policies.

        The problem of the political system mostly lie in informal rules.

        It’s hard to write laws to reduce the complexity of everything when you are seeking comprises in meeting about the actual content of the law.
        It’s tempting to add a little exception to void a complained when you know that you have to come to a consensus.
        Decisions get made late at night because the incentive to agree to a consensus if you want to get sleep.
        Later you discover that the little exception produced a new problem and the law grows as you add something to fix the new problem.

        You left out one open question:
        What does it take to become a candidate in your system?
        Do you want two candidates in the room or ten (hundred)?
        How do you make that preselection?

      • Robin Hanson

        But why can’t this random juror system give folks the same impression that it is they who run the government?

  • Jack of all Trades

    What kind of promises do you think those politicians would make to this group of 6,420 in order to get elected?

    I can think of several that would have bad outcomes for the non-voting majority.

    • David C

      They’d probably be quite similar to the sort of pork candidates give to their constituents in the present system. Any promise a candidate makes to the 12 would have to be allowed by the other 500 people who also win Congressional office. There could also be laws making bribes more difficult.

    • ChristianK

      Even in the present system you don’t have the problem that politicians are overly eager to do the thing that they promised voters.

      You simply have to create a social system where politicians aren’t considered to be wrong when they break a promise of providing pork.

  • Richard Silliker

    > This logic is simple and strong enough for most folks to both understand and accept. Yet most would still prefer our current system – why?

    its familiar.

  • Pat

    Who nominates the candidates? What difference does it make whether a 12 person jury makes the final decision if lots of uninformed people, each of whom have no influence, choose the candidates?

  • Anonymous

    I think this might cause a few potential problems:

    * What if you can’t be spirited away for a week? The bedridden, mothers of newborns, and others without a week to spare would be disenfranchised.
    * Juries are famously subject to coercion and bribery… look at any organized crime trial. The larger the voting pool and smaller the decision, the lesser this risk.

    • Jess Riedel

      With only a few thousand people to take care of, significant resources could easily be expended to make sure they are able to cast an informed ballot. Spending $100,000 per person for a week could easily take care of practically any circumstance.

  • Sigivald

    Beyond the objections already raised, I don’t think you can just handwave away the gigantic opportunities for corruption, either.

    It’s all fine and good to specify “random” selection, but actually enforcing that is another matter.

    (And if you were going to do it, why have speeches and live debates? Written words are far less emotionally swaying, and isn’t the whole point here to remove “ignorant voters” voting on their “biases”?

    But if we let “Candidate X has a dreamy voice and is so handsome!” continue to give Candidate X the election, why even bother?

    Also, I see no reason that forcing more young and poor people to vote is superior to letting people choose whether or not they want to.

    The “you must vote or else!” idea as in Australia has always seemed a totalitarian one. Choosing not to vote is more meaningful than being forced to go and vote – apathy matters and tells us something!)

    • Captain Oblivious

      The “you must vote or else!” idea as in Australia has always seemed a totalitarian one. Choosing not to vote is more meaningful than being forced to go and vote – apathy matters and tells us something!)

      One thing that’s always seemed odd is that so many politicians “play to the extremes” (often with great success), instead of the center, even though clearly playing it closer to the center ought to get more votes. I’m pretty sure the problem is that many people don’t bother to vote, so not only do you have to be their preferred candidate, but you have to get people riled up enough to actually go out and vote. Playing to the extremes thus becomes a logical and effective strategy (better to have all of the extremists vote for me than just a handful of the moderates) – to the detriment of the country/state/etc.

      If voting were required, I think this tendency would be greatly reduced. To address the concerns of those who truly can’t stand any candidate, we should allow a “none of the above” choice. If anything, actually going to the polls and voting “none of the above” seems far more meaningful than simply sitting at home and claiming the moral high ground for one’s apathy.

      P.S. Another twist is to say that if “none of the above” wins the election, all of the other candidates are disqualified, and another election is held.

  • Robin Hanson

    komponisto, but ordinary voters *aren’t* empowered now. Under this proposal some of the at least would be.

    billb and mikem, these jurors could listen to whatever experts voters listen to today. How does this make the expertise problem worse?

    tylerh, how exactly does this make tyranny more likely? The riot police would know that any person could be picked for a future jury, just as they know today that they might vote.

    Jack, obviously we’d forbid new laws targeted specifically and obviously at these jurors.

    Anonymous, the bedridden etc. also don’t vote today; how is this worse?

    Sigivald, obviously we must let folks decline to join a jury, though we should offer sufficient financial rewards to attract most of them to join.

    • billb

      If they can listen to whomever they want, then what’s the purpose of the week-long sabbatical? That is, it seems to me that the week in hiding with speeches and Q&A sessions is to better educate the jurors. If so, then it seems like they ought to have access to more than just the candidates. I.e. we ought to put as many sources of data at their hands as possible: the Internet, the CBO, academics, etc. A dedicated expert panel that they can appeal to might not hurt as well.

      If it’s not to better educate them, then why not just randomly select ~6k votes from the congressional districts and count only those? There’s no need to interrupt these peoples’ lives with a week of political speeches and whatnot.

    • Anonymous

      Anonymous, the bedridden etc. also don’t vote today; how is this worse?

      Yes they do. The bedridden can use absentee ballots or a house call from a poll worker.

      • Robin Hanson

        OK, then they can’t participate – seems a small price to pay for more informed voters.

    • Jack of all Trades

      “obviously we’d forbid new laws targeted specifically and obviously at these jurors”

      That seems easier said than done. A more effective solution might be to expect these promises, and then create incentives for the jurors to avoid those politicians.

      For example, if you multiplied the number of selected jurors by 4-5x, but had only 20-25% of the votes “count” (randomly), then each juror would expect to not be selected and therefor not a recipient of said “pork”. The trick here is to make sure that the identities of the wider pool aren’t known to politicians and aren’t verifiable if they claim publicly to be in the pool; identities of the smaller amount of “chosen” jurors would be made public following the NEXT election cycle.

      In other words, by significantly increasing the odds that a juror’s vote could matter, but still keeping that probability well below 50%, you would create adequate incentives for participation while limiting incentives for gamesmanship.

    • mikem

      How does this make the expertise problem worse?

      I was thinking in terms of bringing in specific experts to directly answer the voters questions, rather than of broadcasting pundits. This is part of sequestering voters from any contaminating influences, like in a jury trial, to prevent coercion of jurors by special interest groups. If you allow free interaction between jurors and the general public, it’s easy to see how they might be bribed, intimidated, extorted or otherwise coerced to vote in a particular direction. The only way I see of avoiding this is to follow with the jury trial analogy and have only approved, expert testimony presented to the jurors. Which makes the issue of properly selecting experts paramount. Perhaps a ‘democratic’ solution for selection of experts to ensure the major perspectives are represented?

      If people were allowed to communicate freely with the public (or even just freely receive information from the public), as you seem to be proposing, how do you see specific, targeted coercion of jurors being prevented/mitigated?

  • Grant

    My guess: aside from status quo bias, it just doesn’t feel like the political ideal in the back of our minds – how our nomadic forager ancestors long ago would meet every few months to make major band decisions. All 5-15 men could talk, they wouldn’t break until they’d all had their say, decisions were by informal consensus of all, and dissenters could leave the band.

    Is there evidence that people inherited this political bias? I ask because we’ve had a number of enduring political systems that were nothing like this (e.g., monarchy).

    • Edward Gaffney

      Indeed, tribal societies often operate on the basis that age confers ability to make decisions, rather than universal suffrage. I don’t know where Robin is getting the evidence on decision-making in prehistoric societies is coming from.

  • PaulG

    I think there’s something weird going on here. A random sampling of the population should have the same outcomes as the population at large with just more noise. Additionally, the idea that pure ignorance is to blame falls flat, since you would expect unbiased ignorant voters to execute a random walk away from the median, canceling each other out and leaving only non-ignorant voters to make the decisions. I believe Bryan Caplan wrote a book about it.

    If you assume that this was executed perfectly (no corruption and perfect common knowledge among the population that there was no corruption), this would be equivalent to just forcing everyone to vote. The main difference with this sub-population sampling idea is that you can make sure that the sample of voters you chose will be truly random and not specifically biased in favor of a specific demographic, which would change the equilibrium in some way, but I don’t think that you can say, a priori, that it would change it in a way that leads to favorable outcomes.

  • Edward Gaffney

    It is easier to subvert the small electorate using bribes or coercion. Strategies that don’t work in large, secret ballot electorates start to make sense when the electorate becomes twelve people whom you can observe for a week.

  • J

    “This logic is simple and strong enough for most folks to both understand and accept. Yet most would still prefer our current system – why?”

    Because this is pretty much what we do now – policies are enacted into law by congress, not the voters. It’s depressing to see this sort of “voters won’t elect people I like because they’re ignorant” nonsense from somebody who I agree with more often than not. It’s been that kind of year…

    “how our nomadic forager ancestors long ago would meet every few months to make major band decisions. All 5-15 men could talk, they wouldn’t break until they’d all had their say, decisions were by informal consensus of all, and dissenters could leave the band”

    Unless they were executive officer for the week, in which case they had to hang around for the bi-weekly ratification meeing. I don’t want to sound too skeptical, but do you seriously think our nomadic forager ancestors made decisions this way? I don’t know exactly which movie you’re recalling here, but my guess is it wasn’t a documentary.

    There’s also an issue here of the (unattainably) perfect being the enemy of the good. The list of government policies I find idiotic would fill pages. Still, I prefer them to rolling the dice on some intellectual elite’s (wildly unrealistic assessment of their) ability to resist becoming tyrants.

  • Ben Albahari

    Implementing this on a national scale might be a futile fight. Perhaps the idea could be tested on small scale first. It’d make a great documentary-cum-reality show.

  • John Maxwell IV

    What’s the most compelling evidence that the majority prefer our current non-jury system? I doubt many people who have studied voting schemes thinks that plurality voting is the best scheme, but it’s by far the most widely used. So wide use isn’t strong evidence of preference.

  • Alex Flint

    it just doesn’t feel like the political ideal in the back of our minds – how our nomadic forager ancestors long ago would meet every few months to make major band decisions.

    Are you suggesting that we have evolved a notion of democracy?

    • billb

      What’s so strange about the idea of humanity evolving ideas? Memes, anyone?

  • Stuart Armstrong

    It would result in a high variance in results (especially in your House of Representatives, which goes to the votes every two years), and encourage candidates with short term horizons.

    That may or may not be better, but the current political class will never want to go for it.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    My guess: aside from status quo bias

    Why bother searching for extra reasons beyond that? Voting systems never change fundamentaly unless they are in visible crisis, so no-one bothers to advocate fundamental change, so no-one believes fundamental change can ever happen (think of it as a coordination problem).

    Since that effect is so strong, it feels tenuous to try and figure out why people might hypothetically feel some way, if the status quo bias wasn’t there.

  • Buck Farmer

    I agree the logic is compelling even if the details need to be better thought out.

    Why is this not wildly popular? Very simply I think it is historical and cultural inertia and a lack of forces pushing towards political innovation due to vested interests and human psychology.

    Generally, it takes very personal and relatable outrage for dramatic political change to happen. I’m thinking massive corruption, rape, death, et cetera. People don’t get worked up over bad situations that they can’t tie back to a villain (or they find a villain for the bad situation).

    As for the historical bit, if we had been colonized by the Republic of Venice, I bet we would have a lot more of these kinds of systems in place. The Venetians were comfortable with their system of repeated winnowing lotteries and the political caste knew basically how many voters they needed in order to win with a given probability. All the powerful interests were vested in the existing system.

    We neither have the cultural tradition nor vested interests in a lottery system and because there’s no outrage focused on the system as designed there’s no shift.

  • Robin Hanson

    Richard, John, Stuart, Buck, why would voting rules be so much more subject to status quo bias than most everything else in our lives?

    Grant, we think we understand why chiefdoms naturally displaced tribes due to military advantages and capital accumulation. Now that we are rich we can indulge our inherited preferences.

    Edward, if the entire week is televised, undercover police are included among the random jurors, and large bounties are offered to anyone who exposes a bribe attempt, bribing won’t be easy.

    Alex, yes.

    • Robert Koslover

      I fear that any system involving only a handful of voters would be easier to subvert. I suggest you rethink your model, based on an assumption that any/all parties involved in executing the process of gathering, counting, etc, are deeply corrupt. Would it still work?

      • Robin Hanson

        Is this what you assume about our jury system today? Crytographers say they have adequate robust solutions, should we be interested.

    • Grant

      Grant, we think we understand why chiefdoms naturally displaced tribes due to military advantages and capital accumulation. Now that we are rich we can indulge our inherited preferences.

      That sounds plausible, but is there evidence that these preferences are inherited?

    • John Maxwell IV

      >Richard, John, Stuart, Buck, why would voting rules be so much more subject to status quo bias than most everything else in our lives?

      The folks with political power are just those who benefit most from the current voting system.

      In addition, US politics in general has a large inertial aspect. Four years ago, no one would have thought a libertarian candidate had a snowflake’s chance in hell of winning the presidency. A few weeks ago, Ron Paul handily won the CPAC presidential straw poll. Do you think that the US has become significantly more libertarian in the last four years? I don’t. Rather, I think libertarians learned just how many libertarians there were, and decided to vote libertarian instead of strategically voting for more mainstream candidates.

      Instead of status quo bias, try game theory. Right now most libertarians/alternative voting system fans are hunting rabbit, and it’s perfectly rational for them to continue hunting rabbit unless they have evidence that many others are or will be hunting stag. Even if the stag hunt does not apply to the voting systems problem (i.e. there is some way of implementing the national jury without electing any candidates through plurality voting), the fact that the stag hunt does apply to plurality voting has conditioned folks to believe that only ideas that enjoy lots of support are worth supporting.

  • Tomasz Wegrzanowski

    why would voting rules be so much more subject to status quo bias than most everything else in our lives?

    Regardless of why – they are. Just look at how people in different countries are attached to tiny arbitrary peculiarities of their political systems, each different.

    What you call “status quo bias” isn’t necessarily a “bias” in a bad sense – most ways to change something that works are changes for the worse.

  • Buck Farmer

    Robin, voting rules are a classic example of emergent behavior through a distant and inaccessible system.

    When people vote they don’t think of it like a political economist or a mathematician studying voter theory. They roughly approximate the process as the creation and exercise of a mythical ‘collective will’ or ‘will of the people.’

    (Personally, I am skeptical of the idea of collective will…but that’s another discussion).

    Voting rules are part of the guts of the system and in order to explain why they produce the results they do first you have to disabuse voters of the the myth of a collective will. This is counter-intuitive, evolutionarily novel, and therefore costly and difficult.

    The people that do understand what happens in the sausage factory generally have a vested interest in some close variant of the status quo continuing either

    (1) because they benefit directly through resources or power
    (2) their expert knowledge (and thus status) are reliant on the system staying the same

    In summary, the cost of understanding the problem is high and the people that could make it happen don’t want to. Therefore, high ignorance and high status-quo-bias (as in most ‘ignorant’ or poorly educated communities/cultures).

    Similarly, people have a lot of trouble getting their head around population dynamics, ecology, and economics. These are all systems where the interactions of many small fairly unpredictable particles interact to produce emergent (but often non-linear) order. It is very expensive cognitively to understand this versus the first approximation which is linear and which sees the world as intentional/agent-based.

  • Jack of all Trades
  • Lo Statuz

    How many voters want to admit, to themselves or anyone else, that they’re too ignorant or irrational to be allowed to vote without a week of remedial education?

    On the other hand, if you could sell it as an unfortunate but necessary reaction to all that corrupting money spent on politics by all those evil special interests, then it might have some chance.

    If it ever happens, I’d expect post-election retaliation against jurors. I’d invest in a big “I Didn’t Vote” button.

  • Sticky

    With juries instead of elections, no matter how badly you want to you can’t do a blessed thing to change any aspect of government policy unless you’re randomly selected (with odds approximating winning the lottery, so no, this won’t happen), or are willing to use violence.

    You say voters have no influence now, which I think means two things: 1) the odds of any given vote swinging an outcome are pretty remote, and 2) most people don’t much care for the system we’ve got now, yet it persists.

    For 1, if we replace elections with juries, groups, however large, will be just as unable to swing elections as individuals are, because there will be no elections to swing. You might say they’re going to be represented in proportion to their size in the juries, but represented or not you have everyone sitting helplessly, acted upon rather than acting; subjects, not free citizens. Waiting passively is both infuriating (as it should be, if someone chose it for you), and corrupting; virtue pertains to action. You might now say that freedom and virtue are hazy, unquantifiable god-terms, but they are no more so than whatever value you’re trying to maximize.

    For 2, this is partly a signaling issue: if you say you like the status quo you sound like a simple-minded sheep, but if you don’t like it you have higher standards and an independent mind. But this will always be the case no matter what the status quo happens to be, and people implicitly realize that, which is why they go around saying things like “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.” It doesn’t necessarily mean real disaffection. To the extent that people are genuinely disaffected with our current politics, what they have in mind is more popular control, not less, and getting there is largely a coordination problem.

    If you think juries preferable, then obviously you think that voting does matter. You just think it’s for the worse. I say, to the contrary, being the active agents in our own government is more than worth letting some ill-informed people vote.

  • Nichlemn

    If you’re worried about corruption, why not have a watered-down version? Have a random selection of voters, but remove the “spirited away” aspect. It could even be a fairly high number of votes (e.g. 1% of the population). There would still be incentives to be rationally ignorant, but I would guess the rarity of being able to vote would encourage somewhat higher levels of self-informing. If nothing else, this would decrease the deadweight loss of voting, as the random sample would be so large that the results would be almost identical to the preferences of the whole population, while only a few need to spend time and effort actually voting.