Reasons to Replace the Popular Vote

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I never shrink away from controversial opinions and unusual ideas. Not least of which is my belief that we should conduct elections using randomly selected juries in a court of law, not mass voting.

When I tell people of this idea, I’m usually met with blank faces and confusion. What’s wrong with our current system of mass-voting? And how would a jury-based system be better? As we head into a heated election season, these questions seem more relevant than ever before. Here I shall lay out the ways in which our current political system is broken, and how we can fix it by using randomly selected juries to elect our politicians.

Elections only work if the people voting are well informed

The central premise of democracy is “wisdom of the crowds”. The belief that individuals may be wrong, but groups of people are more likely to be right. 

One of the linchpin assumptions behind this however, is the assumption of an informed crowd. When debating between different medical procedures, “wisdom of the crowds” works well when you poll a crowd of doctors. And not so well when you poll a crowd of laymen. Hence the common refrain to seek medical advice from a doctor. Legal advice from a lawyer. And financial advice from a financial adviser. Not a random assortment of people on the street.

But those are all very technical topics. Surely when it comes to political matters, the average voter is better informed? Before we reach that conclusion, consider the following:

Seven in 10 Americans (in 2003) continue to believe that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had a role in the 11 September 2001 attacks, even though the Bush administration and congressional investigators say they have no evidence of this… That impression, which exists despite the fact that the hijackers were mostly Saudi nationals acting for al-Qaeda, is broadly shared by Democrats, Republicans and independents.

About half of the general public (49%) says the earth is getting warmer “mostly because of human activity, such as burning fossil fuels,” while 36% say warming is occurring “mostly because of natural changes in the atmosphere.” About one-in-ten (11%) say “there is no solid evidence that the earth is getting warmer.” By contrast, 84% of scientists say the earth is warming because of human activity. Scientists also are far more likely than the public to regard global warming as a very serious problem: 70% express this view, compared with 47% of the public.

Respondents were asked to guess the size of these circumstance-based income gaps in the U.S. labor market — between men and women, whites and nonwhites, and Americans with university-educated parents and those without… Most participants strongly underestimated the income gaps… When asked about government redistribution measures such as increasing taxes, participants who guessed the gaps to be larger were more likely to agree. And after being informed about their actual size, those who underestimated the gaps were most likely to increase their support for such measures, by up to 35 percentage points… 

A year later, I successfully followed up by email with more than a third of the respondents — and found that the information left a lasting impression. Those who had been told about the actual size of the gaps were still more accurate in their guesses, and — if they had underestimated the gaps previously — were still more likely to support government redistributive measures.

How can we expect voters to cast meaningful votes on topics like the Iraq war, climate change, and income inequality, when they are woefully uninformed about the relevant facts?

Even worse, the above are all “sexy” topics that get plenty of attention from the biggest media outlets. How well informed do you think the average voter is about his state senator, and other local issues?

This is precisely the kind of problem that the jury system addresses effectively. By forcing the jury members to sit through (boring) expert testimony for multiple hours every day, we can ensure that the people casting votes are meaningfully informed about the relevant topics. More so than our current soundbite-driven infotainment media can ever hope to accomplish.

Fight misinformation and fake news

Lack of information is damaging on its own, but the problem is even more compounded when we consider fake news and active disinformation. 

Consider the following report from the NYTimes about the rise of misinformation campaigns:

Even by the permissive standards of partisan talk radio, the grave warning from the host of a program on a popular Spanish-language station … was outlandish… the host claimed that a co-founder of Black Lives Matter practiced … witchcraft. “So you ask yourself, ‘Why are they destructive?’” she said, referring to protesters who support the Black Lives Matter movement. “Because they are vibrating with the devil. They are vibrating with negativity. They are vibrating with the dark.” “And whoever votes for Biden, unfortunately, is supporting that,” she concluded.

Ms. Moncada appeared to be citing … a website known to publish conspiracy theories. Researchers say that the scale and extreme nature of misinformation, after ramping up in every election cycle for the past several years, have spiked this year… Many researchers believe that disinformation, particularly in the final days of the campaign, most likely contributed to lower turnout among Black voters during the 2016 election… experts have seen what they call a relentless deluge of false information being passed from those living outside the United States about American politics — and then back again.

Much of the misinformation has come from the Trump campaign itself. … Official campaign operations have claimed that Latin American socialists are promoting Biden and connected protests to actions in Latin American socialists countries, and that Democrats in the United States are responsible for them. Others have claimed that Democrats are ignoring attacks on Hispanic men.

Or the following NYTimes report about QAnon:

QAnon was once a fringe phenomenon… But in recent months, it’s gone mainstream. For months, QAnon supporters have been flooding social media with false information about Covid-19, the Black Lives Matter protests and the 2020 election.

QAnon has also seeped into the offline world, with some believers charged with violent crimes, including one QAnon follower … accused of threatening to kill Joseph R. Biden. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has warned that QAnon poses a potential domestic terror threat.

QAnon has also made inroads in politics. Marjorie Taylor Greene, an avowed QAnon supporter from Georgia, is a heavy favorite to win election to Congress in November. And President Trump has not disavowed QAnon despite being asked about it multiple times, giving more fuel to the theory’s false claims.

QAnon is the umbrella term for a sprawling set of internet conspiracy theories that allege, falsely, that the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are plotting against Mr. Trump while operating a global child sex-trafficking ring.

QAnon followers believe that this clique includes top Democrats including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and George Soros, as well as a number of entertainers and Hollywood celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, Ellen DeGeneres and religious figures including Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama. Many of them also believe that, in addition to molesting children, members of this group kill and eat their victims in order to extract a life-extending chemical from their blood.

According to QAnon lore, Mr. Trump was recruited by top military generals to run for president in 2016 in order to break up this criminal conspiracy, end its control of politics and the media, and bring its members to justice.

Even if you count only the hard-core QAnon believers — excluding “QAnon-lite” adherents who might believe in a deep state plot against Mr. Trump, but not a cabal of child-eating Satanists — the number may be at least in the hundreds of thousands. An internal Facebook study found thousands of QAnon groups … with millions of members between them.

And consider the reports by CNN, Time and NYTimes, about the rise of Fake News from Eastern Europe, specifically targeting American elections:

At first, new recruits to the Internet Research Agency, the notorious Russian troll factory, were thrilled by the better-than-average salaries they earned simply for posting on the internet… “They were just giving me money for writing,” said the former troll, a St. Petersburg resident … drawn by the … $1,400 weekly paycheck… The United States Department of Justice accused the Internet Research Agency … of working illegally to meddle in the 2016 American presidential election

That …. is precisely what the Kremlin and the troll factory set out to do to the United States, undermining faith in its electoral system by encouraging or even establishing groups that would sow domestic discord. Troll factory tactics included applauding Donald Trump’s candidacy while trying to undermine Hillary Clinton’s.

The first task assigned to all new employees was to create three identities on Live Journal, a popular blogging platform… They worked in 12-hour shifts … and the assigned topics popped up in their email: President Vladimir V. Putin, or President Barack Obama, or often the two together; Ukraine; the heroism of Russia’s Defense Ministry; the war in Syria; Russian opposition figures; the American role in spreading the Ebola virus.

The key words and subject line were always assigned … “You had to write that 30 percent of the weapons had been removed, and the next day we would say that 32 percent had been taken out,” he said, adding that he had no idea if any had been removed.

The English speakers discussed the best time to post commentary to attract an American audience … and bragged about creating thousands of fake social media accounts… Once a blog post was created … “Then the magic began!” The computers were designed to forward the post to the agency’s countless fake accounts, opening and closing the post to create huge numbers of fake page views… In his nearly two years the staff around him had mushroomed from a few dozen to over 1,000… Working in a room with about 40 other people, he received a stream of blog posts by other agency writers. His job was to add comments and to share the posts on other social media platforms. He said everyone had a quota of at least 80 comments and 20 shares a day. “The main idea was to work on people’s thinking, to raise patriotism among the Russian people and to portray the U.S. negatively,” Sergei said.

And consider the effects that such misinformation campaigns have had on our past elections:

As Mr. McCain seeks the Republican nomination again, the state is also a painful symbol of the brutality of American politics, the place that derailed his 2000 bid.

A smear campaign … had many … falsely believing that Mr. McCain’s wife, Cindy, was a drug addict and that the couple’s adopted daughter, Bridget, was the product of an illicit union. Mr. McCain’s patriotism, mental well-being and sexuality were also viciously called into question.

People … began to receive phone calls … “Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?”

It was a reference to Bridget, who was adopted as a baby from an orphanage in Bangladesh… Richard Hand, a professor at Bob Jones University, sent an e-mail message to “fellow South Carolinians” telling recipients that Mr. McCain had “chosen to sire children without marriage.”

Literature began to pepper the windshields of cars at political events suggesting that Mr. McCain had committed treason while a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, that he was mentally unstable after years in a P.O.W. camp, that he was the homosexual candidate and that Mrs. McCain, who had admitted to abusing prescription drugs years earlier, was an addict.

Or the heightened effects of misinformation campaigns in recent times:

During the 2016 presidential election, Russian operatives used Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media platforms to spread disinformation to divide the American electorate… People are engaging more on Facebook today with news outlets that routinely publish misinformation than they did before the 2016 election… In total, Facebook likes, comments and shares of articles from news outlets that regularly publish falsehoods and misleading content roughly tripled… the growth rate of likes, shares and comments of content from manipulators and false content producers exceeded the interactions … with … “legitimate journalistic outlets,” such as Reuters, Associated Press and Bloomberg.

In the 2016 election, tech companies and the mainstream media were often blind to the ways that right-wing groups, including white supremacists, were using bots, memes and other tricks of social media to “hack” the public’s attention… the war since has been one of attrition. Propagandists keep discovering new ways to spread misinformation; researchers … keep sussing them out, and, usually quite late, media and tech companies move to fix the flaws — by which time the bad guys have moved on to some other way of spreading untruths.

Jury-centered elections are a perfect antidote to shadowy digital misinformation campaigns. Just like in courtroom trials today, both sides are given ample opportunity to present their arguments. However, any evidence presented would need to be supported by first hand sources, such as witnesses or expert testimony. They would be subject to vigorous cross-examination, in order to illustrate their weaknesses. And a patient jury would be required to sit through all of the above, before forming their own conclusions.

Just like in today’s world, the jury is certainly not perfect and may sometimes get it wrong. But at least a courtroom setting would neuter misinformation tactics. Spreading breathless rumors about McCain’s daughter being an illegitimate child – that may play well in today’s system of popular voting. But it would hardly stand up in a court of law.

Break up polarized bubbles

Fake news is a major problem to be sure, but it is only half the problem. Even when consuming mainstream media sources, people are increasingly self-segregating into their own echo chambers.

To quote the Pew Research Center:

As the U.S. enters a heated 2020 presidential election year, a new Pew Research Center report finds that Republicans and Democrats place their trust in two nearly inverse news media environments… These divides are even more pronounced between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats… Moreover, evidence suggests that partisan polarization in the use and trust of media sources has widened in the past five years… 

Only seven outlets generate more trust than distrust among Republicans – including Fox News and the talk radio programs of hosts Sean Hannity and Rush LimbaughFor Democrats, the numbers are almost reversed. Only eight generate more distrust than trust – including Fox News, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh… 

And in what epitomizes this era of polarized news, none of the 30 sources is trusted by more than 50% of all U.S. adultsAbout two-thirds of liberal Democrats (66%) trust The New York Times, for example. In comparison, just 10% of conservative Republicans trust the Times, while 50% outright distrust it. Rush Limbaugh, meanwhile, is the third-most trusted source among conservative Republicans (38%) but tied for the second-most distrusted source among liberal Democrats (55%).

Even if the above sources aren’t publishing blatantly false information, they each have their own bias when it comes to the stories and issues they think are most important. Conservative sources like Fox and the WSJ, are more devoted to stories about economic (and stock market) growth, the burden that regulations place on companies, and the abuses of the social safety net. Liberal sources like MSNBC meanwhile, are more devoted to stories about those living on minimum wage, the plight of refugees, and the impact of climate change. 

None of the above constitutes “fake news”, but each source prioritizes stories that portray their political views most favorably. And it’s impossible not to notice that a majority of political commentators on Fox are more conservative, and that the majority at the NYTimes are more liberal.

Naturally, people tend to gravitate towards sources that confirm their pre-existing beliefs, and focus more on the issues they consider to be priorities. Especially in a digital world with a cornucopia of media and social bubbles to choose from. Unfortunately for our political system, this also means that voters are not exposed to the other side’s strongest arguments. Little wonder that our partisan divides seem wider today, than ever before. And that we’re increasingly talking past, not to, each other.

Once again, this is a problem that is amply addressed by a jury-election. Unlike the average Joe, a jury member doesn’t get to pick and choose which witnesses and expert testimony he gets to tune in to. As a jury member, everyone would be forced to listen to the strongest arguments presented by both sides. And after listening to all the relevant facts and analyses presented by both candidates, they would get to decide for themselves which side is more credible.

Regardless of which political camp you yourself fall in, this is something we can all agree on. Our political system would work a lot better if the voters who disagreed with you, had to give your arguments a fair hearing.

Hold politicians accountable for their actions

Maybe this last reason is petty, but I hate seeing politicians weasel their way out of tough questions. It is an open secret that campaign seasons are full of promises that fail to materialize… and that politicians engage in numerous behaviors that they never have to answer to the public for.

Take for instance, Obama’s campaign promises from 2008 that have not been followed through on:

Or more recent scandals surrounding the current government:

Regardless of the validity of the above criticisms, politicians should at least be required to answer to the public. Without deflecting, changing the topic, or refusing to acknowledge the question.

In theory, journalist interviews are intended to hold politicians accountable for their broken promises and bad behaviors. But in reality, journalists have to “play nice” with politicians, just to secure the interview. To quote a Washington Post writeup on this topic:

In 1964, for instance, he appealed … for an interview with the president. “I can assure you that the portrait I have of him now is that [of] one of our greatest political leaders entering on an historic administration,”

White’s appeal is in part a reflection … of an imbalance that gives way to sycophancy: There is but one president of the United States at any given moment. There are thousands of journalists, meanwhile, seeking to interview him. Whether it’s a personal connection, an ideological affinity, a promise of positive coverage or some other gimmick, journalists will do whatever they can to score a sit-down with the most powerful man in the world.

Juliet Eilperin, White House bureau chief for The Post, tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “We tried repeatedly over a period at least three years to get an interview with President Obama. We proposed multiple themes, on both domestic and foreign policy, and met to discuss this with senior White House officials. It was a negotiation, and neither side was able to close the deal,” … “It was clear that the White House preferred doing interviews with magazines, and certain specific online-only outlets. They often decided to do interviews on specific topics that meshed with their policy agenda.”

Imagine a crime suspect picking and choosing which District Attorney is going to cross-examine him… and which topics the District Attorney is allowed to bring up. That is the reality of political interviews in our current political system.

Once again, this is an easily solved problem in a jury-led election. Imagine politicians being cross-examined by their opponents, for every broken promise, for every campaign donation they have accepted, and for every scandal they have refused to acknowledge. Presided over by a judge with the authority to rein them in when they attempt to deflect the question. In full view of the voters, with nowhere to run or hide. I suspect this is something the vast majority of us would find deeply cathartic.

Preserving our voice

“But if we actually followed through on this idea, I would lose my ability to vote! Voting is my constitutional right, and I am not willing to give it up!”

This is the most common response that I’ve heard from multiple people, and something worth discussing in more detail.

First, at the individual level, this system does not deprive anyone of their voice. Free speech would still exist – everyone would be fully empowered to voice their opinions, sign petitions, write to their elected representatives, and organize rallies in favor of their desired cause. When it comes to voting too, no individual would be deprived of her voting power. Only the structure has changed. Under the current system, you are guaranteed a vote, and that vote is one of hundreds of millions. Under the new system, you would instead have a (purely random) chance of being selected as a juror. And if selected, you would be in a smaller pool of jurors, where your individual vote would have a much more significant impact. Six of one, half-a-dozen of another.

Second, as unintuitive as it may sound, our current electoral system isn’t designed to give you a meaningful vote. If it were, then every single presidential and congressional election in history has been a failure – all of them were decided by margins wide enough, that your vote did not make a difference. What our electoral system is actually designed to do, is to give the people a meaningful vote. No election has ever been decided by your vote, but every single election has been decided by the people’s vote.

And this continues to be the case even in a jury-led election. Regardless of which specific individuals are randomly chosen to serve as jurors, the people as a whole would have complete power over deciding who to elect into office. Democracy was never intended to be a medium for individual self-expression, but rather, a platform for collective decision-making and effective governance.

“But even if the jury is made up of the general public, isn’t there a danger that it won’t adequately represent all demographics in our society?”

This is a very important question to consider, because juries in courtroom trials today do not always represent the wider society. However, there are a couple main reasons for this. First, lawyers today are given wide latitude in excluding specific candidates from the jury pool. Second, juries today are comprised of only ~12 individuals, which leaves much role for luck.

In jury-led elections, both of these flaws can be addressed. First, when an eligible voter is randomly selected to be a juror, neither party should be allowed to disqualify them for any reason. Second, the number of jurors selected should be large enough, that statistically, they are guaranteed to be representative of all demographics. Given the vital importance of our electoral process, there’s no reason why we can’t have thousands of juries, each consisting of an entire auditorium full of jurors, across every single state in the country.

There are numerous ways in which our political system today is deeply broken. Uninformed voters, sealed off in their own individual echo chambers, constantly bombarded by fake news by fake social media accounts controlled by hostile foreign nations, repeatedly hoodwinked by politicians who are never made to answer for their transgressions. It is little wonder that our government is as dysfunctional as it is today, with a Congress that has a rock-bottom 18% approval rating.

But things do not have to be this way. By replacing mass-voting with a randomly selected jury, we can ensure that our elections are decided by voters who are well-informed on all sides of the issue. It’s time we replaced mob rule with jury trials.

Related links:
Democracy by Jury
It’s Time to Reinvent Democracy
Direct vs Representative Democracy
We Don’t Need Elections to Figure Out What People Want
Reinventing Democracy – The Google Way