The Democratic Lottery*

With a newly elected President and the most fragmented Parliament in its history, Brazilian politics are likely headed for gridlock. Lottery could well be the solution.

Tiago Peixoto and Guilherme Lessa

expressobrazil

For many Brazilians who recently cast their ballots to elect a new President, the choice was between the unacceptable and the scandalous. Mr. Bolsonaro, the winning candidate, received 39.3% of votes, while abstentions, null and blank votes accounted for 28.5%. A record 7.4% of votes were null, the largest percentage since Brazil’s transition to democracy in the late 1980’s. Considering that voting is compulsory in Brazil, these figures signal a deep and persistent disbelief in democracy as a means to improve the life of the average citizen. When asked about her preferred candidate at the polling station, it would not be unthinkable for a voter to respond “I’d rather randomly pick any Brazilian to run the country.”

The idea may seem absurd, or a symptom of the ideological schizophrenia that now ravages Brazil, where the two contenders for the highest office were diametrically opposed and their supporters’ main argument was “the other is worse.” Research conducted in the United States indicates that the electorate’s mistrust of their representatives is far from being a Brazilian idiosyncrasy: 43% of American voters state they would trust a group of people randomly selected through a lottery more than they trust elected members of the Executive or Legislative.

Many political scientists view this as a symptom of a global crisis of representation, a growing distance between representatives and the represented, both part of a machine mediated by parties that are disconnected from everyday life and often involved in corruption scandals. While political parties are suffering decreasing membership, political campaigns are increasingly dependent on large donations and mass media campaigns – all of which can be done without the engagement of everyday citizens. The disconnect between citizens and their representatives has driven the international success of candidates who claim to be political outsiders (even if they are not) and private sector meritocrats.

Representative democracy has always suffered from an inherent contradiction: electoral processes do not generate representative results. Think of the teacher who asks her students who wants to be the class representative. Only one or two students raise their hand. To be a representative does not require broad knowledge of the reality of the represented but, rather, an extroverted and sociable personality which, ultimately, lends itself to the role to be played. In the case of elections, the availability of time and money for campaigning, as well as support from the party machinery, are also predicting factors in who gets to run and, most importantly, who gets to win.

The bias generated by electoral processes can take several forms, but is particularly visible in terms of gender, race and income. For instance, despite high turnover in the Brazilian Legislative, the numbers remain disheartening. While half of the population is female, their participation in the House of Representatives stands at a meager 15%. Similarly, 75% of House members identify as white, compared to 44% of the Brazilian population. The mismatch is not unique to Brazil. As reported by Nicholas Carnes in his recent book The Cash Ceiling, in the United States, while millionaires represent only three percent of the American population, they are a majority in Congress. While working-class people make up half of US citizens, they only account for two percent of members of Congress.

The denial of politics as a symptom of this disconnect demonstrates the extent to which inclusiveness in politics matters, bringing about some worrisome consequences. Heroic exceptions aside, the election of new representatives generally fails to alter the propensity of the electoral machine to reproduce its own logic. The Brazilian electoral system, like that of other modern democracies, continues to produce legislative bodies that fail to represent the diversity of their electorate. Changing politicians does not necessarily imply changing politics.

Fixing this imbalance between the electorate and the elected is a complex matter with which many scholars of democracy have grappled. An increasingly popular proposal among political scientists is the use of lottery as a complementary means to select Legislative representatives. Proponents of this approach describe several advantages, of which three are worth highlighting. First, a body of representatives selected by lottery would be more representative of the population as a whole, resulting in agendas and policies that are more closely aligned with societal concerns. Second, the influence of money in campaigning – a constant source of scandal and corruption – would be eliminated. Finally, and in line with well-established research in the field of decision-making, a more diverse legislative body would be collectively smarter, generating decisions that could maximize the public good.

But how would this work in practice?

“Let’s hold a lottery!”, says the spokesperson for today’s miracle solution. Lottery, after all, does have its precedents in democracy’s formative history. For over a century in classical Athens, randomly selected citizens were responsible for important advances in legislation and public policy. Similarly, at its height, the Republic of Florence used lottery to allocate some of the most important positions in the Executive, Legislative and Judiciary. Today, several countries use juries composed of randomly selected citizens as a means to ensure impartiality and efficacy within the Judiciary.    

Globally, we see hundreds of inspiring experiences in which randomly selected citizens deliberate on issues of public interest: in Ireland and Mongolia to guide constitutional reforms; in Canada to inform changes in electoral legislation; in Australia to develop public budgets; and in the United States to support citizens’ legislative initiatives.

Naturally, such a complex and somewhat unexpected proposal brings about a challenging question: how can it be implemented in a way that results in a more representative Legislative? Changing the rules of the game, as we all know, is not a trivial task. Political reform, even if thoroughly thought through, still depends on the approval of those who benefit the most from the status quo.   

The proponents of lottery selection rarely advocate for the direct substitution of members of parliament by randomly selected citizens. Pragmatically, they usually call for the implementation of intermediary strategies, such as the use of citizens’ panels as complementary decision-making processes.

So why not try it?

It is an established fact that Mr. Bolsonaro will be faced with one of the most fragmented congresses in Brazilian history. While his initial popularity may allow the president-elect to pass reforms in the first few months of his mandate, decision paralysis and political gridlock seem inevitable in years to come.What risk, then, would a panel of randomly selected citizens with a voice and a vote in congressional committees dealing with specific policies such as environment and education pose? Like a jury, such a panel would dedicate its time to understanding the facts relating to the subject at hand, listen to different positions, formulate amendments and potentially cast votes on the most divisive issues. It would represent a microcosm of Brazilian public opinion in an environment that is informed, egalitarian and civilized. Although unlikely, such a reform could be the first step towards strengthening the (increasingly weak) link between representatives and the represented.

*Article translated and adapted from original, published in Revista E, ed. 2400, October 2018.

New Book on Open Parliaments

Brazilian House of Representatives

Cristiano Faria’s book on Open Parliaments has finally been translated from its original Portuguese to English. There are many reasons to read Cristiano’s piece, one of them being the scarcity of literature dealing with the usage of ICT by the legislative branch. I was honoured to be invited to write the preface to this book, in which I list a few other reasons why I think this book is very worthwhile reading. I have reproduced the preface below, with the addition of some hyperlinks.

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Towards the end of the 18th Century, not long after the French Revolution, engineer Claude Chappe invented the optical telegraph. Also known as the Napoleonic Telegraph, this technological innovation enabled the transmission of messages over great distances at unprecedented speeds for its time. This novelty did not go unnoticed by the intellectuals of the period: the possibility of establishing a telegraph network that could connect individuals at high speed and lowered costs was seen as a unique opportunity for direct democracy to flourish.

The difficulties associated with direct democracy, so eloquently expressed by Rousseau just a few years earlier, no longer seemed relevant: simply opening the code used by the telegraph operators would suffice for a whirlpool of ideas to flow between citizens and government, bringing a new era of participatory decision-making. Events, however, took a different turn, and as time went by the enthusiasm for a democratic renewal faded away.

In the course of the centuries that followed, similar stories abounded. The emergence of each new ICT gave rise to a period of enthusiasm surrounding a renewal in politics and government, only to be followed by bitter disillusionment. While the causes of these historical experiences are multiple, it is safe to say that the failure of these technologies to deliver their much-heralded potential is underscored by a lack of understanding of the role of political institutions. These institutions are, inexorably, sources of obstacles and challenges that go beyond the reach of technological solutions.

Indeed, one could argue that despite the historical evidence, even today a certain amount of ingenuity permeates the majority of academic works in the domain of electronic democracy and open government, overestimating technological innovation and neglecting the role of institutions, actors, and their respective strategies.

Not falling prey to the techno-determinist temptation but rather carrying out an analysis grounded in institutions, organizational processes and actors’ strategies, is one of the many strengths of Cristiano Faria’s work. His experience as a civil servant in the Brazilian House of Representatives and his academic rigour bring together qualities that are rarely combined in the literature about the public sector. The result is a work that offers an unusual vision, taking into account a wide range of factors involved in processes of technological enactment and institutional innovation.

While underpinning the book as a whole, this encompassing perspective is most prominent in Chapters 4 and 5, in the case studies on the experiences from Brazil (e-Democracy) and Chile (Virtual Senator). Motivating factors, constraints, and institutional and organizational arrangements are brought to light. The reader encounters elements and processes that often go unperceived by even the most attentive observers and experienced academics.

For instance, while analysing the Brazilian case, Cristiano underscores the essential role played by legislative consultants in channelling citizens’ input into the formal decision-making processes of the House of Representatives. Only an individual who is viscerally familiar with the functioning of the public institutions in question is capable of such an insight – one of many throughout the book.

Even for this reason alone, this work is of inestimable value to the Brazilian and international literature in the fields of electronic democracy and open government. Numerous other characteristics, however, further add to its worth for researchers, politicians, civil servants and ordinary citizens with an interest in these subjects.

The object of study is relevant in itself. There is a disproportionate shortage of literature about the role of technologies with regard to the legislative branch. An incomplete understanding of how public institutions operate and interact among themselves has led an increasing number of academics and observers to focus their attention on the executive branch. Furthermore, in the limited literature that is available about the use of technologies by the legislative, the majority of studies are disappointingly superficial or excessively descriptive.

Cristiano’s text, although rich in detail, never loses sight of the major theoretical and normative perspectives that inform the state of the art in the electronic democracy debate. The literature that guides this piece is impeccable. This is a text that brings the reader into contact with the main theories and arguments relating to issues of transparency, participation, actors’ strategies, and processes of institutional and technological innovation.

Lastly, by presenting cases ranging from New Zealand to the Catalan Parliaments, this book has the inestimable worth of being a historical record, immune to temporal and technological changes. Cristiano Faria captures the state of the art in electronic democracy experiences in the legislative at the beginning of the 21st century. To ensure that the destiny of these experiences differs from that of the Napoleonic Telegraph, a realistic and perspicacious reflection is necessary, to which this book makes its contribution.

Trust and Political Information: Attitudinal Change in Participants in the Youth Parliament in Brazil

 

This article analyses the impact of socializing experiences on the political attitudes of youngsters. More specifically, our goal is to evaluate the impact of the Youth Parliament program on youngsters’ confidence levels in the Minas Gerais State Assembly (MGSA). The analysis focuses on the cognitive foundations of attitudes and results show a substantial increase in confidence levels in MGSA, an increase associated with the acquisition of information on the institution. It is asserted that the increase in confidence in MGSA represents and attitudinal “gain”. The study design involves quasi-experimental research on a non-random sample. We conducted two rounds of interviews in 2008, prior and subsequent to the program, with 335 participants (167 in the treatment group; and 168 in the control group).

By Mario Fuks, Gabriel Avila Casalecchi, Brazilian Political Science Review, Vol 6, No 1 (2012)