Elections and Luck

With elections coming up for our friends in the US, here's a quick description of how you'd be voting if we were all back in ancient Athens.

Every election was a combination of vote and lottery.  The Athenians fiddled with the voting system constantly.  They'd only just invented democracy after all, and they weren't afraid to experiment to see what worked best.  But the system always had the same basic elements.  It went something like this:

  1. Each of the ten tribes took it in turn to supply candidates.  (So that each tribe supplied officials once every ten years.)
  2. The tribe whose turn it was selected candidates for all the elected positions.  The candidates were selected by lottery from across the tribe.
  3. All the citizens of Athens then voted from among the randomly-selected candidates for who they thought would do the best job.

Note the lottery system.  It guaranteed that, unlike modern systems, everyone had an equal chance of one day holding office, and that serial power-seekers hadn't a hope.

If you'd asked an ancient Athenian, they would have told you, in all seriousness, that the lottery system was an essential part of any democracy, and that any state that didn't have a luck element wasn't a true democracy.  Plato's quite famous for saying that anyone who wants power, shouldn't have it.  But that was actually the default Athenian view.


Botanist said...

I didn't know about the lottery bit, but I think they were onto something. The unsightly scramble for power is a blight on modern versions of democracy!

Lexi said...

I like it.

Stacy said...

The Athenians were on to something, definitely.

Laura Hughes, MittensMorgul said...

Oh, how I long for a quick lottery system rather than the painfully drawn out primary election system we have now! Elections could be over and done with in a matter of days, or weeks at the longest. Right now it feels as if the next election cycle begins as soon as we vote. It's never ending! I think the Athenians had it right!

Amalia Dillin said...

Those were the good old days!

I, too, long for the Athenian mandate of random citizen government, as opposed to the career politicians we have now -- though, Athens was pretty guilty of career politicians, too, wasn't it? I always feel like that's when things started to go down hill.

Gary Corby said...

I probably should have added that Plato's suggestion was to train specially selected people in the art of philosophy and government, and then put them in charge. In effect, technocrats. He noted that anyone of the right temperament for good leadership by definition wouldn't want the job, and would have to be forced to rule.

Gary Corby said...

Amalia, since every citizen was a member of their parliament, they were all career pollies in our sense. But after the death of Pericles there arose a particularly nasty breed of demogogues. The demogogues had no more power than anyone else, but they were very good at persuading the citizenry to vote for populist policies. Which turned out rather badly.

Amalia Dillin said...

Members of Parliament, but they did not make their LIVING off that civic duty -- or am I wrong? It was just one of the obligations of citizenship.

Gary Corby said...

You're dead right. Parliament was a duty of citizenship and no one was paid.

It was hugely controversial when Pericles proposed that jurors should be paid to compensate them for the time lost. Instantly there was a long line of old men who sat on juries every day to make some retirement money.

Unknown said...

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Gary Corby said...

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If you're new to historical mysteries, then there's a wonderful world awaiting you. They're fun.

ThereseTaylor said...

Some aspects of the random method of selection are to be found, still, in the election of the Coptic Pope. A blindfolded altar boy is led forward to pick one of three names out of a box.

It is believed he is subject to divine guidance. It is a very ancient ceremony.


I think it is a nice system, with an air of spiritual mystery.

If the Vatican had such a system, they might have been spared Pope Benedict, who openly intrigued and connived his way into office.