A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Friday, 15 December 2017

We Already Have A Voting Lottery

When, on that fateful day last year, the UK voted to leave the European Union, there was a great deal left as yet undecided. There were a great many paths we could have pursued, ranging from the Norway+ options that would have removed us from the European parliament and little else, to the economists' nightmare No Deal scenario. None of these options could at that point be declared "undemocratic", since the referendum gave us an answer to only a single question. Theresa May - or whoever else might have become Prime Minister - could have, if they so wished, declared that "52% to 48% is no mandate for radical change. We will leave the EU, but smoothly and cautiously" and changed very little.

Instead, the narrative very quickly became that the referendum had ultimately been about immigration, and that the British People had ultimately voted to Take Back Control Of The Borders. It's not hard to see why the notoriously anti-immigration Theresa May wished for this narrative to prevail. Moreover, it's not totally absurd - the campaign for Brexit did, after all, emphasise this as a reason in favour of Brexit (though by no means the only one, or even the main one - remember that bus about the money which could go to the NHS?). What is puzzling, however, is the lack of pushback against this narrative. Theresa May may not have wanted to suggest the vote was anything less than an endorsement of radical change, but why have so many other actors, including many who are in principle in favour of immigration, colluded in this narrative and not challenged this interpretation of the vote?

The answer, of course, is that it is a correct interpretation. Not that you could tell this from the Brexit vote alone, of course - referenda are, much like general elections, a quite incredible effort to extract the minimal possible sliver of information from voters. But we have a great many other surveys and polls of public opinion, conducted with great regularity and on a much richer array of questions than the usual choices offered at the polling station. We know that Brits want less immigration, but this is not because given a choice of two highly uncertain prospects, they chose the one likely to involve less immigration: rather, it is because people from YouGov have asked them exactly what their views of immigration are.

An alternative to universal suffrage that almost only ever appears in the academic literature is the "voting lottery". The idea of this is that rather than collect votes from every single person, we select a certain much smaller number of citizens - say, 1000 - and only ask their votes. This would have three key advantages: firstly it would be cheaper ("But you can't put a financial value on democracy!" "Sure you can. In 2011 we rejected AV because it would be too expensive.") Secondly, by increasing the power of those who actually get to vote, it would give them more of an incentive to seriously consider their vote and its impact. Perhaps most importantly, it would provide an opportunity to stratify the sample of voters. Currently certain groups - in particular, the young and various ethnic minorities - are grossly underrepresented by democracy because of their lower turnout. A voting lottery would allow us to ensure that these groups are counted in accordance with their proportion of the total population, not merely the their proportion of the population that turns up to vote.

Now of course many people who encounter this idea have a strong aversion to it. The point of democracy, they say, is in the mass participation. But the fact that our assessment of public opinion comes not from five-yearly general elections but from weekly polls rather pulls the rug out from under this. Voting in an election is screaming into the void: real political participation is happening to be selected for a YouGov survey, and giving your opinion there.

Another common concern is that a sample of 1000 people cannot hope to fully capture the views of an electorate of millions. I'm not married to the 1000 number - in fact, I think it could stand to be more like 10,000. But the basis of all modern polling is the Law of Large Numbers, which in essence states that when you have a process consisting of many small things which are themselves error-prone, but whose errors can cancel each other out - the errors will tend to cancel themselves out. Hence a poll of 1000 people will be within 3% of the true values 95% of the time, and a poll of 2000 people will be within 2% 95% of the time, for example. Yes, the newspaper polls can be wrong, but this is more often due to bias in the way they have selected voters - asking by telephone, or at a particular time of day, or with certain incorrect assumptions about who is likely to vote - which we could eliminate by selecting voters directly from government records.

It ought to be clear where this is leading. How about, rather than maintaining our thin veneer of universal suffrage with all its attendant problems of unrepresentativeness, we acknowledge the fact that we already live in a political system dominated by the voting lottery, and adjust accordingly? Of course there are costs, but there are also real benefits, benefits which we would be much better equipped to realise if we were honest about our political system and learned to live with it.

People have every reason to worry about attempts to disenfranchise them. In the USA, very significant effort goes into attempts to disenfranchise black voters due to their tendency to vote for the Democrat party. But the voting lottery is different both in its intention and its effects: while we would stop even pretending to care about most voters as individuals (as though we ever could in a nation of 65 million!), we would give much greater weight to their views as members of groups. And voting is far from the only way to engage in politics: so long as we have free speech and a free press, those who are not randomly selected for the ballot will have the opportunity to influence the votes of those who do vote though force of persuasion.

There's a Chesterton-like paradox to the suggestion that we should improve our democracy by removing the votes of most citizens. But the idea, I maintain, is not ridiculous. Certainly no more ridiculous than the idea that rather than vote on every single decision, we should delegate this to some 650 people, mostly white men, all living primarily in central London. I urge you to consider being explicit about the voting lottery which we already have - and to consider how it might be put to better use.

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