As the US frets, consider this: there’s more to democracy than the popular vote

Whichever party wins office in this presidential race, the US is likely to persist as a conflict-ridden country. But it’s not alone. America is simply a bald-faced illustration of how elections generate animated and antagonistic political campaigns — resulting in a fractured body politic. Electoral regulations go some way to ensure the integrity of the vote, but the fundamental problem remains the vote itself. A complete rethink is not out of the question.

Final countdown ... Donald Trump in Florida.

In January this year, pre-COVID-19, I visited Manchester for an International Week of Democratic Innovation. At the beginning of the 19th century, Manchester was known as “Cottonopolis” – the world’s largest industrial town, with the worst industrial conditions. After direct experience with his own mill there, the German expatriate Friedrich Engels published The Condition of the Working Class in England.

Three years later, in 1848, Engels joined with Karl Marx to release The Communist Manifesto. In the same year, the Chartists presented The People’s Charter to the British Parliament. Signed by almost 2 million, it called for an extension of voting rights to all men. Both the Whigs and Tories regarded the Chartists as “enemies of property and public order” and rejected their demands outright.

Where the Chartists failed in England, they succeeded Down Under. Australia led the world in democratic innovations throughout the 19th century, beginning with the secret ballot, the first independent electoral commission, and then compulsory and preferential voting. The US and Britain were decades behind these developments. Moreover, both countries still persevere with optional voting and first-past-the-post, even with discernibly inferior outcomes.

Average turnouts for voters in the US and the UK are less than 65 per cent, compared with Australia’s 90 per cent with compulsory voting, and the preferential vote provides a more accurate record of voter intentions. New Zealand is often heralded as pioneering the vote for women, but it was Australia that also enabled women to stand for office – 20 years ahead of the Kiwis. The American political scientist Louise Overacker wrote in 1952: “No modern democracy has shown greater readiness to experiment than Australia.”

However, we need to go further. In 2017 the former secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, said: “We need to make our democracies more inclusive. This requires bold and innovative reforms to bring the young, the poor and minorities into the political system. An interesting idea would be to reintroduce the ancient Greek practice of selecting parliaments by lot instead of election. In other words, parliamentarians would no longer be nominated by political parties, but chosen at random for a limited term, in the way many jury systems work. This would prevent the formation of self-serving and self-perpetuating political classes disconnected from their electorates.”

The Athenians’ supreme law-making body was the Council, which consisted of 500 male citizens selected by lottery – not by election. The Council regularly proposed agendas for the Assembly at which any male citizen could attend and vote on policy issues, but rarely ever for political candidates. The remarkable aspect – little appreciated today – is that elections as we know them did not feature at all. Policies didn’t entangle with the careers of ambitious politicians, as they do today.

At the Manchester conference – for many of the attendees – the ancient Greek practice of democratic lottery remains an inspiration. The OECD presented a report listing more than 200 citizens’ assemblies, for which participants are selected by civic lottery. The OECD went further by recommending that such assemblies be embedded into democratic institutions.

This year, in France, President Macron convened an assembly of 150 people to deliberate on measures to combat climate change. Last year, the world’s first citizens’ council was established in the autonomous region of East Belgium. Observers to these “mini-publics” note how well the public can resolve problems, creatively and intelligently, without antagonism.

And yet, the universal franchise prevails – pretty much universally – carried forward by centuries of struggle under the yoke of monarchs, aristocrats, landed gentry and mill owners. Regrettably, notwithstanding the moral potency of “one-man/one-vote”, there’s a problem with elections – even with the freest and the fairest of them. The wisdom of the crowd may be exalted on election day, but it’s an oxymoron: that wisdom is nothing other than public opinion – educated or otherwise.

People may be turned off by the mendacity of politicians spruiking conceit and insult in equal measure, but they still vote – through gritted teeth. Public opinion rewards the persuasiveness of spin, and the spin reaches its nadir during campaigns. Why then should we be so surprised and appalled to see the US careening towards its next, predictable cleavage at the ballot box? It’s the divisive dynamic of the popular vote.

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis is the founder and director of the newDemocracy​ Foundation.

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