Using Sortition to Achieve Campaign Finance Reform

I was sitting in a session of the British Political Studies Association Conference yesterday, listening to several speakers talk about sortition (using random selection in the political process) when I was struck by a way to employ it to achieve campaign finance reform without any restriction on donations or campaign length. So, I share:

We have a problem with money corrupting the political process, and part of that problem is how long our campaigns run. How can sortition ameliorate the problem?

A year before an election for, perhaps, the House of Representatives, we create a list of office-eligible people in each district. A plausible way to do this is by petition drives: have a week in which any potential candidate may collect signatures of those who wish to see her run. At the end of the week, any candidate with over X signatures will be put in a pool. X must be set so as to achieve a decent-sized pool (of which we will say more below) but also to filter out people with few supporters. Once someone has gone into the pool, they will remain in it for, say, a decade. Oh, and along with the signatures, we can ask each candidate to write up something of moderate length on why they are running. Then, for forty-eight weeks, nothing happens — you’ll see why in a moment.

Four weeks before the election, we randomly draw perhaps five names from the pool. Those are this year’s candidates for congress from that district. And we can use a certain amount of government funds to circulate that nice position statement they wrote up for us.

What does this achieve?

First of all, it shortens the campaign to four weeks without any restrictions on speech or spending, but merely by changing the nature of the election. Potential candidates will be willing to spend very little between the petition drive and the drawing, because they don’t yet know if they’re running. Furthermore, if they don’t get picked this election cycle, they might the next, or the next… So one had better save those funds for when one is actually picked.

Secondly, it breaks the hold of the major parties over whatever office it is implemented for. To have a good shot at being elected, one needs only get some signatures on a petition, and then get lucky in the drawing.

Thirdly, as a corollary of the previous point, it opens elections to a greater diversity of viewpoints: one only needs a core of support to potentially get on the ballot.

Fourthly, having the candidates draft campaign statements when they have no idea who they are running against makes it harder for them to strategically adopt positions they don’t really support to defeat a particular opponent. Of course, they can blatantly contradict their initial statement if they wish, but that will take explaining.

The system could also be refined, since we do not literally have to draw from a hat any more. For instance, once a candidate collects the required number of signatures, they could be put in the pool until death or voluntary withdrawal, but with a declining prospect of selection each cycle. (They could always run another petition campaign to get in the pool afresh.) And we could assure party diversity by having the odds of selecting a candidate from party Z decline based on how many from that party have already been chosen.

The giant fly in the ointment: incumbents! I’m not sure how to handle them yet.

In any case, I don’t really expect the United States to adopt this in my life. But if any of you readers are opening your own democracy soon, you might think of giving me a call…

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About Gene Callahan 3 Articles

Affiliation: Cardiff University

Gene Callahan is a doctoral candidate in the Department of European Studies at Cardiff University, and the author of the book Economics for Real People and the recently published novel PUCK. He is an adjunct scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and a charter member of the Michael Oakeshott Association.

Visit: Gene Callahan's Page

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