There is an idea, unspoken often unconscious, that the only way a democratic society can chose officials is by election. That even in democratic societies this not the way all officials are chosen does not occur to people. In this essay I want to explore the various alternatives to elections and the various forms of election.
The most obvious alternative to election is sortition, choosing officials by lot. This method has the advantages of being democratic since every one has an equal chance to be chosen, it is traditional since juries are chosen by lot, and is non partisan in as far as parties can’t influence the choice. The problems with this method is that since everyone has an equal chance of being chosen, it can lead to very unqualified persons being chosen for the office. However for cases such as the jury where the responsibility is divided among 12 people, sortition can provided a useful method of choosing officials.
Another widely used method is indirect election, where a group of elected representatives elect an official. This is fairly democratic since the people chose the representatives, though less so than direct election or sortition. It has the advantage of allowing the electors to chose men in whom they have confidence to chose among candidates they know less well. This was the rational for the electoral college that elects the president. It also is useful in federations because it allows the member governments to choose some or all of the federal officials.
A third method that could be used is examination, where officials are chosen by a test open to all. This was the method by which the Indian Civil Service was chosen and many civil services use this method. It is perhaps not as democratic as election or sortition, because people are not equal in talent. One way examination could be used is in combination with sortition to eliminate the incompetent.
A method that is often used to choose judges is appointment, where one elected official appoints a person to fill a post. This is less democratic since the people have no direct say in who is chosen, though they can get rid of the person who appointed the official. The advantage is that it can make the process less political.
Rotation, citizens filling offices in turn is another democratic method of filling offices. This method would have the same problems of sortition of having incompetent people chosen for important offices.
A method of choosing legislators which I favor is subscription, choosing representatives by contract. This is the system I used in the modified version of Dan’s constitution. In essence, under this system each representative has a number of votes equal to the number of people who chose him as their representative. The advantages of this system is that it is very democratic, it allows people to have representative of their choice with no one excluded because “their candidate” didn’t win the election. This allows all points of view to be heard in the legislature without over representing minority view points. This frankly is my preferred system of choosing the lower house of the legislature.
Election is of course the way most democratic societies today chose their officials. There are a number of variations on this system. There is the single member district system, the multiple member district system, proportional representation and the German cross of PR and single districts.
Single districts have the advantage of there being a direct relation between the elected and the constituent, but have the disadvantage that those who don’t vote for the winning candidate are left without a voice in the legislature.
Multiple member districts can, depending how they are set up, fix some of the problems of single districts. If all the members are elected on the same ballot then a more ideologically diverse group of people that more closely reflects the ideas of the constituents will selected.
Proportional representation is very popular with some academics, because they believe it best represents the people. It does have the advantage of reflecting the ideological beliefs of the people, but it has the serious disadvantage of not allowing the voters to get rid of candidates they don’t like. This system cedes vast powers to private political parties.
The German mixed version retains the advantage close relationship between representative and constituent of single districts while better reflecting the ideological views the electorate. However it retains the problems of the proportional representation system.
Since a republic doesn’t have to be perfectly democratic, I think it helpful to look at other methods used by more aristocratic forms of government.
The classic aristocratic method of choosing office holders is inheritance. This has the benefit of choosing officeholders without the undignified process that characterizes an election and allows the office holder to be educated from birth to fulfill the responsibilities of his office. The problem is that the inherited officeholder may have little interest in the well being of the people as a whole, instead having a narrow class interest. This is not always bad, it can be made to serve a republic, but it must be taken into account.
Another aristocratic form of choosing office holders is by Cooption, where the members of a body, a legislative, judicial, or executive chose new members of the body. This method is could in theory allow those competent to rule to choose like minded successors. The problem is there is no method of correction for a system of pure cooption. If the council becomes corrupt, there is no way to remove the members and start over.
A third aristocratic method of choosing officials is sale. This involves selling the office. Titles of nobility were sold by kings and emperors. At one time commissions in the royal army were sold. While it sounds like corruption, as long as the sales price goes into the state treasury, sale is a legitimate way of choosing officials, though it has disadvantages. The advantage of selling offices is that it takes a potential source of corruption, rich people wanting to influence policy, and turns it into a source of state revenue. The disadvantage is that it gives the rich disproportionate power over the state.
Another method which could be democratic or aristocratic is seniority. Strictly speaking seniority is the system for geriarchy, rule of the old. However this could be used with other methods of selection democratic or aristocratic.
In looking at various methods, I have tried to rank the systems in accordance with how democratic or aristocratic they are. Here is my list from most democratic to most aristocratic.
Rotation or Subscription
Election – Multiple Member Districts
Election – Single Member Districts
Election – German System
Election – Proportional Representation
As we discuss the Union of the English Speaking People, the question of political arrangements is sure to rear its head. I hope this essay will help people organize their thoughts so that such discussions can be more fruitful.