The Center for Critical Democracy Studies

Demos21: Should We Replace Elections with Lotteries?

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On Wednesday, December 1, 2021, Demos21, a year-long series of lectures, roundtables and workshops organized by AUP’s Center for Critical Democracy Studies (CCDS), hosted its sixth event of the academic year. Guest speaker Professor Annabelle Lever from Sciences Po Paris led a discussion on her forthcoming paper “Democracy in Selection,” which queries whether lotteries, rather than elections, would be a more democratic way of selecting individuals for political power. The hybrid event, which formed part of the Contemporary European Democratic Theory section of Demos21, saw audience members attend both in person in CCDS’s conference hall in the Quai d’Orsay Learning Commons and online. 

Dr. Lever’s position is that lotteries are, in fact, no more intrinsically democratic than elections. She argued lotteries have a checkered past and set forth a conception of equality that is purely distributive and too individualistic. While it is true that in electoral politics the criteria of competence are skewed in favor of those who already enjoy a certain amount of power, it is also the case that lottery systems offer an imperfect alternative. Lever’s work engages with thinkers such as Iris Marion Young and Anne Phillips. 

The case for lotteries relies on justifications that privilege equality of opportunity, rather than equality of outcome. It does not engage with compelling questions such as whether selected individuals would have the capacity and desire to serve, or what would be the consequences of such service. While inherently impartial, lottery systems may be ill-equipped to address structural problems that require commitments to equality that stretch beyond the realm of individual opportunity. 

Lever also likened the flaws in the lottery system to those found within both the French republican tradition and American liberal value systems, as represented by the concept of colorblindness. In essence, such approaches neglect any special duties a society might have to take care of those who are in need, beyond that which is offered to anyone. Finally, she noted that lottery systems offer even less accountability than electoral systems when it comes to ensuring selected participants make and keep commitments to others within society. 

Ultimately, she argued that her paper provided a variety of critiques at a time when lotteries are being proposed as straightforward improvements upon electoral systems. After her presentation, Dr. Lever addressed questions from the audience around the supposed legitimacy of lotteries and the potential centralization of fringe positions.