Rebooting democracy

In the New Scientist, Niall Firth channels a frustration with the democratic process that many in Britain are feeling in the wake of the general election.

The system’s broken. Nothing changes. All politicians are the same. Why vote? It’s a popular refrain, particularly among the young. People feel cut off from the political process and unrepresented by the political elite. [1]

The internet, Firth argues, offers possibilities that could be used to reinvigorate democracy; and he profiles several cases in point, including the Spanish Podemos party, which makes extensive use of online forums for policy debates.

But even as the internet opens up the opportunity to take part in debate, some old problems persist. As the World Bank’s Tiago Carneiro Peixoto points out, there’s the challenge of “pick[ing] the most representative cross-section of decision makers”. [2]

The ancient Athenians devised a solution to this problem, based on a principle that is familiar to scientists: Selection at random from the pool of eligible citizens. In Athens it was only men who were eligible, but the principle could be tweaked in various ways — for instance, selection could be weighted so that an equal number of men and women were included, or an equitable proportion of ethnic groups.

In the late 1990s, when a commission was reviewing proposals for reform of Britain’s House of Lords, Anthony Barnett and Peter Carty published a pamphlet detailing how “the Athenian Option” might be used in place of either hereditary Lords or conventionally-elected politicians. [3]

As part of an experimental approach to democracy, selection of representatives by lot deserves wider consideration — whether as a way of populating conventional ‘face-to-face’ parliaments, or in conjunction with newer, internet-based forms of political participation.

It’s ironic, but true, that a process akin to a lottery could produce a much better — more diverse, less partial, altogether fresher — set of representatives than the current system, the essentials of which we inherited from the 19th century.


[1 & 2] Firth, N. (2015). Better than a ballot box: Could digital democracy win your vote? New Scientist, issue 3018, April 23. [Full text available by subscription.]

[3] Barnett, A., & Carty, P. (2008). The Athenian Option: Radical Reform for the House of Lords. Exeter: Imprint Academic. [Original published by Demos in 1998]

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