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


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.

The Effect of SMS on Participation: Evidence from Uganda

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I’ve been wanting to post about this paper for a while. At the intersection of technology and citizen participation this is probably one of the best studies produced in 2013 and I’m surprised I haven’t heard a lot about it outside the scholarly circle.

One of the fundamental questions concerning the use of technology to foster participation is whether it impacts inclusiveness and, if it does, in what way. That is, if technology has an effect on participation, does it reinforce or minimize participation biases? There is no straightforward answer, and the limited existing evidence suggests that the impact of technology on inclusiveness depends on a number of factors such as technology fit, institutional design and communication efforts.

If the answer to the question is “it depends”, then the more studies looking at the subject, the more we refine our understanding of how it works, when and why. The study, “Does Information Technology Flatten Interest Articulation? Evidence from Uganda” (Grossman, Humphreys, & Sacramone-Lutz, 2013), is a great contribution in that sense. The abstract is below (highlights are mine):

We use a field experiment to study how the availability and cost of political communication channels affect the efforts constituents take to influence their representatives. We presented sampled constituents in Uganda with an opportunity to send a text-message to their representatives at one of three randomly assigned prices. This allows us to ascertain whether ICTs can “flatten” interest articulation and how access costs determine who communicates and what gets communicated to politicians. Critically, contrary to concerns that technological innovations benefit the privileged, we find that ICT leads to significant flattening: a greater share of marginalized populations use this channel compared to existing political communication channels. Price matters too, as free messaging increase uptake by about 50%. Surprisingly, subsidy-induced increases in uptake do not yield further flattening since free channels are used at higher rates by both marginalized and well-connected constituents. More subtle strategic hypotheses find little support in the data.

But even if the question of “who participates” is answered in this paper, one is left wondering “as to what effect?”. Fortunately, the authors mention in a footnote that they are collecting data for a companion paper in which they focus on the behavior of MPs, which will hopefully address this issue. Looking forward to reading that one as well.


Also read

Mobile phones and SMS: some data on inclusiveness 

Unequal Participation: Open Government’s Unresolved Dilemma

Mobile Connectivity in Africa: Increasing the Likelihood of Violence?

Citizen Engagement Improves Access to Public Goods in Mexico

A paper recently published in World Development brings new and fascinating evidence from Mexico of the impact of participatory governance mechanisms on access to services.

Below are a few excerpts from the paper by Diaz-Cayeros, Malagoni, and Ruiz-Euler “Traditional Governance, Citizen Engagement, and Local Public Goods: Evidence from Mexico” (emphasis are mine):

The goal of this paper is to assess the effects of traditional governance on local public good provision. We ask whether poor indigenous communities are better off by choosing to govern themselves through “traditional” customary law and participatory democracy, versus delegating decisions concerning the provision of public goods to “modern” forms of representative government, structured through political parties. This is a crucial question for developing countries seeking to enhance accountability, and a central problem in the theory of participatory democracy.

Our research design takes advantage of an important institutional innovation in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, that in 1995 allowed indigenous communities to choose their forms of governance. The reform gave full legal standing to a form of traditional indigenous governance called usos y costumbres (usos hereafter), which entails electing individuals to leadership positions through customary law in non-partisan elections, making decisions through participatory democracy, and monitoring compliance through a parallel (and often informal) system of law enforcement and community justice. If they did not choose usos, municipalities could opt instead for party governance, which entails the selection of municipal authorities through electoral competition among political parties and the adjudication of conflicts only through the formal institutional channels, namely the state and federal judiciary.


Our results show that electricity provision increased faster in those municipalities governed by usos. They also suggest that traditional governance may improve the provision of education and sewerage. With respect to citizen engagement and elite capture, contrary to existing scholarly work, we find no evidence of entrenchment of local bosses (caciques) associated with the former ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI) in places ruled by usos. Our findings suggest that traditional participatory forms of governance do not handicap democratic development. Furthermore, municipalities governed by usos are more likely to hold open council meetings allowing citizens to participate in decisionmaking processes. We attribute better public goods coverage to differences in local governance and collective decisionmaking practices. We suggest three specific channels through which traditional governance affects local public good provision: the social embeddedness of municipal presidents, broader civic engagement in collective-decision making, and credible social sanctions. We argue that traditional governance practices (which include in our setting decision-making through direct participatory practices, the obligation to provide services for the community, and the establishment of a parallel system of justice), allow poor communities to better hold their political leaders accountable, prevent elite capture, and monitor and sanction non-cooperative behavior.


Systems of governance based on electoral competition among political parties differ essentially from usos because decisions are taken by politicians without an ongoing process of consultation with the citizenry. The monitoring and sanctioning dynamics that come into play when citizens gather in public assemblies are usually absent in party-run municipalities, and thus the allocation of resources for public goods seems sub-optimal.


Differences between the two types of governance that we presented in the paper point to a broader discussion of the organization of democracy. The delegated format of decision-making in electoral democracies dominated by political parties seems to bear a higher risk of agency loss than deliberative decision-making of what is often referred to as participatory democracy. (…) there are lessons to be extracted from the fact that, with regard to the provision of some basic services, a non-partisan political arrangement presented some advantages over the widespread electoral and party-based democratic organization. Participation and collective monitoring of authority are hugely important to maximize collective well-being.

Read the full paper here [PDF].


Unequal Participation: Open Government’s Unresolved Dilemma

( cross-posted from techPresident)

In my frequent conversations about open government and citizen participation, the subject of elite capture (or “how representative it is”) is almost unavoidable. Some go as far as evaluating participatory initiatives on the grounds of an ideal notion of representativeness: participants should perfectly mirror the socio-demographic traits of the larger population from which they come.

But oddly enough, the same people who raise these concerns about participatory initiatives are much less inclined to apply the same reasoning and standards to traditional politics. In other words, few take the time to consider how representative and inclusive existing electoral democracy actually is. An article by Nicholas Carnes at the New York Times about political representation in the United States puts the issue into perspective:

If millionaires were a political party, that party would make up roughly 3 percent of American families, but it would have a super-majority in the Senate, a majority in the House, a majority on the Supreme Court and a man in the White House. If working-class Americans were a political party, that party would have made up more than half the country since the start of the 20th century. But legislators from that party (those who last worked in blue-collar jobs before entering politics) would never have held more than 2 percent of the seats in Congress.

I’ve yet to see a participatory process that produces similar results. But the limits of representation do not stop there. African Americans and Latinos are still greatly under-represented in US politics. The gender issue is no different: with the House of Representatives only 17 percent women, the Inter Parliamentary Union ranks the US 82nd in female representation in politics, behind countries such as the Arab Emirates, Sudan, Mauritania and Kazakhstan.

Obviously, the US is by no means exceptional in exclusion. Those working in the field of political participation have long been aware of the excluding effect of representative systems. As put by political scientist Arend Lijphart, unequal participation remains as representative democracy’s “unresolved dilemma.” Even more unfortunately, underlines Lijphart, inequalities in representation and influence “are not randomly distributed, but systematically biased in favor of more privileged citizens (…) and against less advantaged citizens”.

And it is from this unresolved dilemma that the raison d’être of participatory innovations stems. But rather than a replacement for representative systems (as misunderstood by some), participatory innovations are complementary mechanisms to enable the participation of individuals who are systematically excluded from traditional politics, ultimately increasing the overall diversity of voices that influence government.

This observation leads to a fundamental issue when assessing citizen participation initiatives: beyond questioning demographic representativeness, one must also consider the extent to which initiatives succeed (or not) in promoting the participation of previously marginalized sectors of society (i.e. inclusiveness).

So how inclusive are these mechanisms?

To continue with the US example, let’s consider one of the most exciting open government events taking place at the local level in the US: the recent adoption of participatory budgeting in NYC. Unlike most overhyped #opengov experiences, a team of researchers carried out an evaluation of the experience looking at, among other things, the extent to which it promoted inclusiveness. Below are some excerpts from the report [PDF]:

  • Twenty percent of PB voters identified themselves as African American; 14 percent as Hispanic or Latino/a; 2 percent as Asian and 2 percent as “Other.”
  • A higher percentage of African Americans participated in neighborhood assemblies (38 percent), compared to the full population in the four districts (31 percent).
  • Twenty-one percent of budget delegates and 19 percent of PB voters were born outside of the United States.
  • Participants that identified themselves as Black/African American were the most likely to volunteer to be budget delegates.
  • Women represented 64 percent of neighborhood assembly participants, 65 percent of budget delegates and 62 percent of voters in the PB process.

But how these numbers compare with participation in traditional politics is probably one of the highlights of the evaluation (emphasis is mine):

One of the most striking findings about who participated in PB [participatory budgeting] is how the data compares to other types of civic engagement, particularly voting patterns in NYC elections. Across the districts, PB engaged communities that have traditionally been uninspired by politics. People of color, low-income people and some immigrant groups turned out at higher rates than in previous elections.

A few numbers worth noting:

Latino/as represented 39 percent of voters in the 2009 City Council elections. However, 50 percent of PB voters identified themselves as Latino/a (District 8 NYC).

Black or African Americans represented 79 percent of voters in 2009 City Council elections. However, 87 percent of the district’s PB voters identified themselves as Black or African American (District 45 NYC).

Twenty-two percent of PB voters had a household income of less than $10,000 compared to 4 percent of the district’s voters in the 2009 City Council election (District 8 NYC).

I have very little doubt, if any, that the contrast would be even starker if we compared the income of those who sit on the City Council and those who participated in the NYC participatory budgeting. In City Councils across the US, less than 10 percent of members come from a blue-collar background. Conversely, the numbers on income of participatory budgeting participants speak for themselves.

As citizen engagement gains traction in the open government agenda, inclusiveness should be one of the top priorities: both from normative and empirical standpoints, more inclusive initiatives are likely to produce better outcomes. The NYC experience provides valuable lessons for donors, policymakers, advocates, and enthusiasts alike. They can find more about it here and here.

Lawrence Lessig on Sortition and Citizen Participation


When designing citizen engagement mechanisms I always consider sortition (or randomization) as a mechanism of participant selection. Nevertheless, and particularly in the #opengov space, my experience is that this idea does not resonate a lot: it sounds less sexy than crowdsourcing and more complicated than over-simplistic mechanisms of “civil society engagement”.

This is why it is always great to see someone like Lawrence Lessig putting forward a system of  “Citizen Conventions” for proposing amendments to the Constitution based upon sortition. In this video below, at a hearing at the U.S. Senate’s Commission of Justice, Lessig explains in a few seconds how such a system would work:

With his unique eloquence, Lessig also makes the best case for ordinary citizens to engage with the Constitution and reforms:

I think to the surprise of many people, you would see that ordinary people deliberating about what the Constitution needs and how the reforms should go forward, would far surpass ninety eight percent of what is commonly discussed in this particular context. And that’s because, frankly, politics is the one sport where the amateur is better for the nation than the professional.

Lessig’s remark on the amateur’s role in politics reminds me of something I read a while ago from the apologue of Protagoras. When charged with taking to humans the art of politics, Mercury asks Jupiter whether it should be distributed like the other arts, to the competent ones only. Jupiter replies that the art of politics should be distributed to all. Otherwise, says Jupiter, the city would not exist.

Argentina: Does Electoral Accountability Make a Difference?

picture by Andrea Jara S on Flickr

Does Electoral Accountability Make a Difference? Direct Elections, Career Ambition, and Legislative Performance in the Argentine Senate

By Juan Pablo Micozzi

The Journal of Politics, Vol. 75, No. 1, January 2013

Studies analyzing the American Congress demonstrate that senators’ attention towards voters substantially increased after the 17 th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which replaced their indirect appointment with direct election. Even though this finding seems useful for theoretical generalizations, expectations become unclear as concerns about career perspectives differ. Should politicians with non-static ambition shift their attention towards voters if they do not expect reelection? Making use of a quasi-experimental setting, I analyze the impact of the shift from indirect to direct election to select the members of the Argentine Senate. I develop an argument for why, in spite of the lack of systematic pursuit of reelection, elected senators have incentives to be more oriented towards voters. Through the analysis of about 55,000 bills, I evaluate senatorial behavior under both sources of legitimacy. The findings support the idea that audience costs make a difference in behavior, regardless of short-term career expectations.

Read full paper here.

Voice and Choice by Delegation

Food for thought for the advocates of liquid democracy.

In many Western countries, options for citizens to influence public services are increased to improve the quality of services and democratize decision making. Possibilities to influence are often cast into Albert Hirschman’s taxonomy of exit (choice), voice, and loyalty. In this article we identify delegation as an important addition to this framework. Delegation gives individuals the chance to practice exit/ choice or voice without all the hard work that is usually involved in these options. Empirical research shows that not many people use their individual options of exit  and voice, which could lead to inequality between users and nonusers. We identify  delegation as a possible solution to this problem, using Dutch health care as a case
study to explore this option. Notwithstanding various advantages, we show that voice and choice by delegation also entail problems of inequality and representativeness.

For those who are willing to read more than quotes and blog posts, the full paper is here [PDF].