Nested Council System w/ Lotteries & Transferable Vote Elections

In an absolutely perfect democracy every citizen would get an equal vote to apply to every governmental decision that applies to him/her.  Seeing how a direct democracy is impractical if not entirely unfeasible on a large scale, we have settled for a representative democracy.  However, it is fraught with corruptive and deceptive elements, particularly in the election process.  This proposal makes the case that embedding representatives that reach office free from the pressures of campaign financing and party politics will go a long way to exposing and curtailing many of the deceitful practices in our legislative bodies.  Essentially, this new class of representatives will be more apt to act as ombudsmen for the rest of the citizenry.  While the following theoretical legislative structure and its associated selection process may be viewed as impractical, I think few would argue that is in an impossibility if the will exists to see it happen.  The ensuing paragraphs provide a nascent description of how this system might work.  I continue giving my reasons to consider this proposal in another post (

To start with, I propose that we use a system of nested councils, a term borrowed from Dr. Stephen R. Shalom’s theory on participatory politics (, as our legislative body.  It would essentially have a pyramid structure where the lowest level council would represent people at the district level.  That council would in turn send a willing representative to populate the council presiding over legislative matters at the next highest level.  This process would continue until all the councils are fully staffed.

So, how would we select members of these councils?  I believe that the best results would come from using a combination of elected and lottery-selected officials.  Elected officials can be selected by using the single transferable vote system.  This system uses the Droop quota: (total valid votes/(number of seats + 1) ) + 1.  Let’s say that there are 50,000 valid votes and 4 elected seats up for grabs in a council.  Then the quota would be 10,001 votes.  Voters would declare their preferences when voting and any candidate that reached the quota in the first count would be elected.  If seats still remain after the first count, the surplus votes from the elected candidates are tacked on to the totals for the remaining candidates in proportion to the total of 2nd preference votes received.  For example, if candidate A were to have received 10,501 votes in our scenario, 500 surplus votes would be available to distribute among the other candidates.  If 80% out of those who made candidate A their 1st choice made candidate B their 2nd choice, then candidate B would receive 400 surplus votes.  In counts where no one meets the quota, the candidate with the least amount of votes is eliminated and those who voted for him/her as their 1st option will have their votes distributed to their 2nd choice.  This process continues until all seats are filled.  This system allows people to vote for their favorite candidate without obsessing over the possibility of throwing away their vote.

Unlike the androcentric, fairly brainless sortition process in ancient Athens, candidates for lottery selection would have to go through a screening process before entering the selection pool.  Standard prerequisites would apply: having established residence in a district for a certain amount of time, meeting an age requirement, absence of felony convictions in recent years, etc.  Aside from these requirements, aspiring lottery officials would have to pass an exam that tests their knowledge of basic economics, math, science, history, political affairs, and other pertinent subjects.  That raises the question of what is considered a pertinent subject and who gets to create these exams.  I am not sure how many parties would be involved or to what extent this would be a public or private enterprise.  I do assume that our top historians and political science experts would have a great deal of input.  I also imagine that the exam would be easy enough that the average working citizen would be able to put forth some effort in preparation and pass, but hard enough that people who have ignored politics for the most part would not be able to take and pass the test on a whim.  In short, I would expect it to be slightly harder than an exam on the same material geared toward recent high school graduates.  Once in the pool, a candidate would remain there for a defined period of time with the option to renew their candidacy if not selected.  If a candidate is selected as a lottery official and removed from office at a later point, he/she would have to wait a defined period of time before reentering the lottery pool in any district.  If a candidate must vacate their post because they are moving out of the district, then he/she will be eligible to reenter the pool if they left in good standing, i.e., not under probation or investigation.

One of the advantages of this system is that it will be flexible.  The lowest council levels will serve as building blocks for the rest of government.  Some of these councils will have limited responsibilities while others will serve as city, county, or as consolidated governments.  We will also be able to adjust the size of councils and add tiers as needed.  To help illustrate how this will work, let us consider how local, county, state, and federal governments may be structured within a nested council framework.

Before I get started talking at length about hypothetical examples, I would like to reiterate what I have stated in other posts.  Mainly, I believe that we should make states and counties as similar as possible without breaking up metropolitan areas.  I not only mean trying to even out where possible the population disparity, but also the disparity in vital natural resources: arable land, freshwater, etc.  However, as I do not know of a good way to account for or incorporate these resources into the familiar population-based systems of representation, I will disregard them for the time being.

First order of business for this exercise is to set the target size of the lowest level of council.  It should be a number small enough that individuals will feel reasonably assured that their voices will not be drowned out but big enough that councils will not struggle to populate seats.  Let’s make it an even 100,000.  Naturally, there will be some variance allowed within a set of specified parameters as well as exceptions due to geographical remoteness.  Let us also assume that the lowest councils will be comprised of 4 elected officials and 1 lottery official.  Now, if we use these councils as the building blocks for new states with less disparate populations, Alaska, due to its remoteness, will likely be the least populated state (  Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city with a population of roughly 280K, is a consolidated city-borough government with an 11 member assembly that attends to its legislative affairs.  If it were to be split up into 3 of our hypothetical councils, the new assembly would have 15 members, 12 elected officials (EOs) and 3 lottery officials (LOs).  The rest of Alaska will be divided into about 4 councils that will likely function as the borough governments.  The cities within those boroughs can establish their own governments outside of this structure or create a council by this new method.  If they choose the latter, they can integrate their city council into the system and have their members promoted to the borough councils in proportion to their population size or by a weighted lottery system.  For simplicity’s sake, we’ll assume that Alaskan cities other than Anchorage will operate their governments outside the nested council framework.  The state legislature will be populated by promoting a willing member from Alaska’s 7 lower level councils based on public and peer approval (more on this later).  Working under the assumption that Alaska will be the state with the smallest population after redrawing state boundaries, a baseline ratio of representatives to overall population will be set for determining federal representation.  The rationale for working with population numbers as opposed to council numbers is that the aggregate deviations from their target representation goals may be rather large by the time they reach the topmost level.  If the minimum number of state representatives that we want to send to the federal level is 2, then the ratio will be 2 representatives per 710K people (the population of Alaska, the least populated state in this scenario).  The 2 representatives that will represent Alaska at the federal level will then be selected out of the willing state council members by public and peer approval.

If state lines are redrawn to have a more balanced distribution of people and resources, the New York metropolitan area with approximately 19M people will likely overtake California and Texas as the largest state.  It just does not make much sense to subject contiguous cities with inextricably linked economies, transportation systems, and other resources to different state bureaucracies.  Within this metro area, New York City is obviously the biggest city with 8.2M people.  It currently has a 51 member city council.  The well-known 5 boroughs are also counties of the state, but their powers are subordinate to that of the city.  Using our council framework with the lower councils representing roughly 100,000 citizens, Staten Island, The Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn would have 5, 14, 16, 23, and 26 councils respectively.  If each council promotes one member, then NYC would function with an 84 member city council.  An alternate route would be to set Staten Island as the baseline for promoting members to the city council.  For example, setting the ratio of city council representatives to 1 per 5 borough councils would result in 1 representative for Staten Island, 2 for The Bronx, 3 for Manhattan, 4 for Queens, and 5 for Brooklyn.  Naturally, the borough council numbers are not evenly divisible by 5.  In order to try to diminish the discrepancies that would arise from proportioning seats with baseline ratios, we can establish a rule specifying an extra seat for boroughs with remainders over halfway points.  In this case, The Bronx with a remainder of 4 and Queens with a remainder of 3 would each get an extra seat.  A 17 member city council would be the result.  My preference would be for the simpler first proposition.  The rest of the councils in the state would function as legislatures for cities, counties, both as the case with NYC, or neither.  Smaller cities may set up their own governments outside the framework while larger cities would have the option to use the lowest council as a feeder to their city councils.  In any case, there would be about 190 1st level councils that could all feed a representative to the unicameral state legislature.  By comparison, New York state currently has a two chamber system with 212 members total.  Employing the ratio from above using Alaska’s population as a baseline, New York state would have the right to send about 53.521 representatives to the federal council (2 * NY state pop/Alaska pop).  Once again, the .521 remainder could entitle New York to an extra seat by rule.  Another option would be to leave some seats available to allocate to those states closest to the threshold.  Either way, New York would have at least 53 seats at the federal level.  When one of these federal seats is vacated, it would be allocated by public and peer approval and in keeping with fair representation standards.  Since there are less federal seats than there are 1st level councils, they may be distributed in proportion to county size.  The Bronx, for example, would be represented by about 4 federal representatives that have come through its 14 local councils.  Fifty-three seats may be considered a bit too many to populate solely by promotion through nested councils.  In such cases it may be wise to split the seats so that some come from the nested council system and others from direct elections.

As for determining who is promoted to the next council level, I propose we have periodic votes of approval and disapproval for legislative representatives and their appointees.  The number of votes should be limited to avoid unilateral ideological vote casting without differentiating between incumbents.  It is also practical because a high turnover in government all at once would cause turmoil.  Let’s say that I live in the Manhattan envisioned in the previous paragraph and can vote my approval for 5 representatives and disapproval for 2 other representatives every 6 months.  That would mean that I could give my endorsement or express my disappointment with the 5 council members that represent me at the lowest level, the council member selected to represent me at the city level, the council member selected to represent me at the state level, the 4-5 federal representatives from Manhattan, or I could write in an appointee.  I could also show my indifference to a candidate by not giving him/her either a vote of approval or disapproval.  Those with the highest approval ratings from their constituents would be considered first for promotions when available.  Promotions would be voluntary and representatives would have the option of staying put.  If there is no clear cut favorite, as defined by some margin of separation, then the decision of who among the top contenders gets promoted would fall to fellow council members.  Another thing that would factor into who gets promoted would be a requirement for councils to keep a certain percentage of lottery officials so that they do not get systematically diluted by the elected majority and the interests they represent.

Very high disapproval ratings would result in automatic dismissals above a certain threshold.  Below that threshold will be a range where incumbents will be put on probation until the next round of votes are cast.  If the disapproval rating of an incumbent on probation remains high, then he/she is expelled or demoted to a lower council.  Whether an incumbent is expelled or demoted will depend upon the approval and disapproval ratings of the constituents at the level of council directly beneath the one in question (e.g., a member for the New York state legislature w/ a high disapproval rating but also a high approval rating from his/her constituents in Staten Island).  To mitigate the potential for using this system for political gamesmanship, there should be a limit on the number of demotions that an incumbent can receive in a specified period of time before being expelled.  Also, if an incumbent has an approval rating that signifies that he/she represents a significant portion of the community, then that incumbent will be protected from dismissal or probation despite having a high disapproval rating.

The replacement of LOs at the first level after immediate dismissal or a probationary period would be a simple matter of running the lottery again.  If an incumbent, EO or LO, is dismissed from one of the upper levels, one of the representatives with a high approval rating from the level directly beneath would get promoted.  Whether that rep is an EO or LO would only matter if the promotion of one would push the ratio of EOs to LOs in the councils at hand outside the acceptable range.  The position vacated would then be populated in the same fashion by a rep from the next lowest level and so on.  Finally, the lottery would be run again to populate the vacated position at the 1st level.  Much like the way water is transported during evaporation in plants, this system pulls legislative officials upward with every loss.  On a tangential note, the government would incentive through tax cuts and/or subsidies employer protection of stable jobs vacated by selected lottery candidates for a defined period of time.  That way if a LO’s tenure is cut short, he/she can return to his/her former job.  It also alleviates some of the pressure for LOs to compromise their values for financial security.

The promotion system just described would naturally unbalance the councils at the 1st level in favor of more LOs.  This can rectified at the next election, which in the hypothetical case that I described would be in 6 months.  So, if a particular council has shifted from having 4 EOs and 1 LO to one that has 3 EOs and 2 LOs (either having lost 1 EO to promotion or dismissal), then an elected seat would be up for grabs in the next election.  Concurrent with this election, 1 of the LOs would also be dismissed according to his/her approval rating.  Restrictions about promoting an EO from a council that is already off-balanced would limit the extent to which the councils at the 1st level would get skewed.  In some rare instances, 2 EOs from a 1st level council may get simultaneously dismissed and replaced by LOs.  If votes are cast at regular and relatively short intervals, this imbalance would be short-lived.  Although I cannot elaborate intelligently on the specific voting technology to employ, an e-voting system, despite the current drawbacks, would probably be the most efficient and convenient for the elections described above.

Also vital to the legislative process is the ability for citizens to instigate changes beyond simply removing representatives or kowtowing to them.  That is why initiatives and referendums ought to be tools available to the entire electorate at all levels of legislative government.  Citizens should also have the ability to create measures, put them to petitions, and if a certain percentage of electorate signatures are obtained, the councils will be mandated to review them in a timely fashion.  If the measure is beyond the scope of the council in question, they will be required to make alterations and vote on its passage into the next council.  Citizens should also have the power to veto measures directly by attaining a certain percentage of electorate signatures.  Legislatures will be mandated to let measures sit in their finished form long enough for the electorate to peruse them.  Too often laws are rushed and passed at times when legislators know citizen vigilance will be low.

As you may have noticed, I have not mentioned anything about traditional term limits.  Term limits are a precautionary measure to limit missteps in the election process and to prevent the long-term pilfering of authority by the power hungry.  In a system that is more responsive to the wishes of citizens and provides them with more recourse to combat objectionable moves made by their government, term limits are not necessary.  Incumbents who have the support of their constituents needn’t worry about regular reelection pressures in this system.  Barring unethical conduct, those EOs who do get dismissed from the legislature can run for office as soon and as often as they choose.  Lottery officials who wish to reenter the pool after dismissal, again barring illegal and unethical conduct, would be required to wait a defined period of time before regaining the privilege: a privilege which would help to provide us with greater control over the legislative process while also diminishing the power of moneyed interests in our system.

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Posted in Electoral Reform, government structure

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