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Randomizing Democracy in the Golden State

June 29, 2009

by Patrick Atwater
Randomizing Democracy in the Golden State

The Constitutional Convention movement seems  sadly to be coalescing around selecting delegates by lot from the jury pool.(1) This idea seems stupid on its face. We should want our best and brightest to rewrite our Constitution: business leaders, community leaders, leading academics, etc – not Joe the Plumber. I understand where these people are coming from; if you think that the political process is irreparably broken, you’re probably going to be very careful to keep potential wrenches out of your new process to fix the old. But Jesus Christ. This opens the door even wider to the Pandora’s Box critique. I mean the thirty-second TV spot against randomly selected delegates practically writes itself:

The Bay Area Council wants to throw the dice with California’s future. (Cue image of a rich, white guy wearing an expensive Italian suit throwing dice down a craps table.) They want to randomly select people to rewrite our State’s Constitution. (Rich white guy pulls people over from the casino floor, shoving money in their pockets; they look confused.) A Constitution that has guided California since 1879, seeing us rise from a backwater frontier state to the envy of the world. (Our rich white guy mimes for the random citizens to begin tearing apart the document.) Yes California has problems. But California’s problems are not too big for us to fix ourselves. Don’t give up on California; vote no on X.

For the voiceover, I’m thinking Glenn Beck meets Keith Olbermann. But seriously can’t we do better than just randomly selecting delegates? That seems to be the baseline for representation (given a large enough sample, you would present the population again with good accuracy). Yet we want more than that from our representatives. We want them to be able to act in our stead. If I haven’t thought through an issue or a new issue arises (say Iran has a flawed election), we want our representatives to respond effectively. We don’t just want them to act as we would; we want them to be better. There are things that we as a public haven’t thought about or plain just don’t know about.

That’s why we have elections. We select people to represent us not only because they share much of the same value set or space of policy preferences as us but also because we trust the way they think and act.

The worry in selecting Constitutional Convention delegates is that it will allow the process to be perverted by special interests and money. Yet the problem with California politics currently is not that we have special interests or money. It’s that the framework under which those forces operate allows them to pervert the system. In calling for a convention, we get to design the system.

Special interests are not inherently evil. I’m a special interest. If you’ve ever written a letter to a congressman or an article in favor of a policy, guess what, so are you. Furthermore, it’s not like delegates would be beholden to special interests once they get elected. They go off and work on rewriting the Constitution for a couple of years. It’s the ultimate retirement effect. Besides, if we want to get a new constitution passed after the convention does its thing, we’re going to need the support of political stakeholders: special interests. So it doesn’t make sense to entirely exclude them from the process.

I’m not saying we close our eyes to these influences. There are alternatives. We can have elections but close them off to anyone who’s been elected to state office or been a lobbyist. We can make districts that elect delegates smaller so money is less of an issue. We don’t have to give up on electing delegates. Let the special interests have their say; just make sure its not effectively the only say. The stakes are high in this debate. We need to make sure we get this right the first time; as the Obama administration is excessively fond of saying, “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”


(1) I’ve heard a rumor that the Bay Area Council has filed an initiative that might take us down that path, but the Secretary of State hasn’t f*^$ing put the initiative on their website yet.

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