Democracy by Jury

Imagine yourself being tried for a sensational crime, one that has gripped the passions of the entire country. It’s Casey Anthony, Duke Lacrosse & George Zimmerman, all rolled into one. Would you like to be tried in a well regulated courtroom, presided over by a judge, your fate in the hands of a jury that has spent weeks carefully reviewing all evidence & expert testimony? Or would you prefer for your fate to be decided by popular vote, your future in the hands of every Joe the Plumber with a pulse & an opinion, regardless of his knowledge of the case details?

Earlier, we had discussed why our current system of democracy is fundamentally flawed, and why our founding fathers had always intended for this nation to be a constitutional republic, and not a direct democracy. We had also discussed an alternative system of democracy, one that incorporates vastly successful insights from Google’s search engine. Understandably, many were wary of making such dramatic changes to our electoral system, one that scraps the idea of one-person-one-vote. Hence why today, I’d like for us to discuss another great alternative & improvement over our current dysfunctional system. One that is much more simple and directly parallels a civic system that we already use everyday, with great success: the Jury system.

Our founding fathers were always very wary of mob rule, and justifiably so. History is full of populism and mob justice gone wrong, with terrible consequences. Even today, who amongst us is willing to put our life in the hands of a mob that is short on facts, but long on emotion & passion?

The solution that was found: Trial by Jury. Power was decentralized and fairly portioned out to all segments of society, by creating a system that randomly picks Jurors from all demographics and walks of life. But at the same time, the problem of misinformation & emotional decision making was solved by requiring that the Jurors spend weeks sitting in a courtroom. One that is well regulated by Judges and a system of procedures to combat the spread of irrelevant & incorrect information. One where both sides get to present their best case through facts, evidence & expert testimony. One where the Jury is required to pay full attention to the proceedings and deliberate carefully before finally making their decision.

Our current system of democracy solves the first problem admirably, by ensuring that political power is fairly distributed amongst all segments of society. But it fails horribly at resolving the second problem. Each campaign season finds itself marked by soundbites, shallow arguments, and opinions as opposed to facts, because these are the things that win elections. Rumors & misinformation roam free and can change the course of elections, as John Kerry, John McCain & Barack Obama can all tell you. Without any pressure to listen to expert testimony from both sides, voters are free to self-segregate themselves within their own individual echo chambers. It’s no surprise that the election process more closely resembles a PR campaign, as opposed to a fact finding mission.

It’s all truly unfortunate, given that a much better system is staring us right in the face.

Imagine during every election year, auditoriums packed full of jurors, convening across every state in the country. Jurors holding the greatest civic responsibility of all: electing our Congressmen and the President.

Imagine every candidate being tried in these auditoriums across the country. Their actions, campaign promises, voting records, public policy platform & general conduct… all scrutinized carefully in a courtroom presided over by a judge. Imagine them being grilled by opposing attorneys for every campaign promise they broke, for every campaign contribution they accepted from lobbyists, for every dollar they spent on wasteful government expenditures, and for every vote they cast in favor of special interests. Imagine experts from the fields of Foreign Policy, Healthcare, Fiscal Planning, Economics & National Security… all brought in to give testimony on the candidates’ positions & how viable their plans are.

Imagine a jury in every county, a hundred strong, randomly picked from the public to represent every section & segment of our society, displaying the full and complete diversity that is America. Imagine a jury, excused from work & school for a few weeks, attentively listening to all expert testimony, carefully considering all the facts & analysis presented, and meticulously deliberating over who they would like to have represent them in their state capitol and Washington DC.

That is the type of democracy that I would like to live in.

Winston Churchill once famously remarked that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” The quote is often invoked as an insult against the average Joe, but I don’t see it that way.

Keeping up with politics, public policy & current affairs isn’t a hobby that most of us dedicate ourselves to… and we shouldn’t have to. We all have our own lives to lead, our own stories, problems & passions that we follow. If every single person was a West Wing aficionado intent on following every political development, our society would be so much more boring and so much less colorful. Some of us may enjoy reading the news religiously, and others may enjoy volunteering in our local communities. Some of us may enjoy careful deliberation of public policy initiatives in Washington, and others may prefer dedicating their lives towards achieving scientific & technological breakthroughs.

These are all great passions worth pursuing, and we need a political system that doesn’t rely on every voting citizen becoming a public policy expert. A system that ensures that every candidate gets a fair & comprehensive hearing, by an electorate that has been given all the evidence, testimony & time needed to carefully deliberate and reach a conclusion. The Jury system may not be perfect – juries do return bad verdicts more frequently than we’d like – and the specific details of its implementation will certainly need to be tweaked to better fit elections. But it is certainly a vast improvement over any popular-vote based alternative. It’s time we applied these lessons to our democratic process as well. It’s time we started conducting our Democracy by Jury.


Related Links:

The problems inherent to direct democracy

Direct Democracy vs Representative Democracy

Another suggestion to reform democracy, using the same principles that made Google the world’s greatest search engine

About OutlookZen

Ex-Journalist & Columnist. Loves exploring the world.
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21 Responses to Democracy by Jury

  1. Pingback: It’s Time to Reinvent Democracy | Outlook Zen

  2. Glenn says:

    The electoral college, if prominent people of respected opinion were elected, as intended and not merely selected by the parties as they are currently, could function as an informed jury.

    I would love to have voted explicitly for Noam Chomsky, or the late Howard Zinn, for a seat in the electoral college instead of some party hack committed to voting the party line.

    Of course, we would also need a free press so alternate positions would not remain so obscure to the public.

    • OutlookZen says:

      Interesting thought Glenn. An open-minded Electoral College that exercises its own judgement does sound remarkably similar to the Jury System we have in courts.

      Of course, given the dysfunction that we constantly see in Congress, I would argue that senators & representatives are even more in need of a Jury that will hold them accountable.

  3. Pingback: Reinventing Democracy – The Google Way | Outlook Zen

  4. Perpetual Paradox says:

    While the premise of using a well-educated and “studied” representative sample of the populace to determine elections is appealing, there is a fundamental problem with this theory. This is simply that of determination. Elections are highly politicized. They are inherently a matter of public opinion devoid of “absolutes.” For example, when dealing with a crime, there is a correct and incorrect choice. While the jury may come to the correct conclusion in every instance, the fact remains that the defendant is either guilty or not-guilty of the crime for which he or she is accused. In elections, however, the candidates typically hold different opinions on matters for which absolutes do not exist. Should abortion be legal? What is the answer to immigration reform? How do we balance a budget? What rights does the individual hold and which does he/she concede for the “general” good? These are all questions that while contentious, have no definitive answer. Unfortunately, opinion and fact are antithetical. Fact drives and (should) determine court room decisions, opinion drives and (almost always) determines electoral decisions. Unless we were able to come to agreement on the proper role of government and the appropriate balance of executive, judicial and legislative powers, interpretation will always drive the “electoral jury” and opinion will remain the decider of elections.

    • Perpetual Paradox says:

      EDIT: “the jury may NOT come to the correct conclusion is every instance.”

    • OutlookZen says:

      It’s true that politics & public policy can be subjective in nature. But the idea that facts are “antithetical” to good public policy, is completely false. Better facts & better information can & will generally lead to public policy outcomes.

      Everyone acknowledges that a better educated & more well-informed voting population, is essential to a healthy democracy. A Jury based voting system takes us many steps closer towards this ideal.

      • Perpetual Paradox says:

        1. Facts certainly help to inform better public policy (although being a former political advisor this happens less often than either of us would like), but in no way control for opinion. You’re using an argument against a point that I never made.
        2. A jury-based voting system would no longer satisfy the conditions for a democracy (Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives), and therefore could not, in fact, lead to a more “healthy” democracy. This is precisely the reason that the judicial system uses appointment and the legislative and (some of) the executive branches are elected.
        3. “Everyone” certainly does not agree on anything and a more informed population still does not solve the issue of subjectivism that you mention earlier. Some of the smartest political minds in the country (and world) hold dramatically different opinions not only on the special interest issues that drive most electoral cycles, but more importantly on the constitutional arguments that allow a certain branch of government to address these issues.

        That being said, you make some very valid and important points on the weaknesses of the current democratic system and highlight some of the most significant problems that have been plaguing our interpretation of the constitution and its’ utility in more modern scenarios. Thanks for engaging, I love discussing this stuff with other passionate people.

      • OutlookZen says:

        Sure. I’m glad you’re enjoying the discussion. I wrote this post just as much to stimulate discussion as anything else.

        To quickly respond:

        1. Like you yourself mentioned, facts certainly help to inform better public policy. This is the entire point I’m making. As a general trend, a more-informed electorate will do a better job of holding their representatives accountable, and lending their support to better public policy.

        2. Jury-based-elections lead to a more healthy government, the same way Jury-based courtroom trials lead to a more healthy judicial process. It is important for all segments of society to be given political power, and a voice, in governance. This can be achieved effectively by having a Jury pool large enough that all segments are statistically represented.

    • Zim says:

      “…the defendant is either guilty or not-guilty of the crime for which he or she is accused. In elections, however, the candidates typically hold different opinions on matters for which absolutes do not exist.” -Perpetual Paradox

      I get what you mean here, and based on all the talking (read: yealling) heads on tv it is certainly true; but I think OutlookZen’s proposed system wouldn’t be trying to determine the “correct” answer to difficult political issues. Like you said, these have, “no definitive answer.”

      This system of voter jurys would allow each voter to receive all the information they need to vote for the candidate that would be objectively best for them, based on their situation and their opinions. Our current system can mislead voters into electing the candidate that they agree with less, simply due to not having enough information.

  5. scithion says:

    How about simply organizing the legislature into specialist 9-member committees and directly electing them (each voter can have a vote volume of 1, divisible into arbitrarily many parts, and voters will self-sort themselves by whatever their own concerns and expertise are, and if the candidates are picked by serial elimination it is possible to partially correct for both wasted and redundant votes by redistributing each voter’s wasted/redundant vote fraction by spreading each that fraction accross all the voter’s uneliminated candidates in the proportion in which the voter voted for those candidates) in a single national multiple-winner constituency, and treating the executive similarly.

    [Also, note that committees with more than 20 members tend to crystallize into dedicated opposing groups,and committees with more than 12 people need a mediator or means of organization other than (but pussibly in addition to) in-person handraising, and committees of more than 7 people need a chairperson. My claim about the 20-member committees is supported by some academic literature — —; note the general non-existence of low-corruption countries with more than 20 people in cabinet). I’ve seen some policy papers recommend 9-member committee limits for drafting work, which is why I suggested that, but it may also be possible to have, say, a paid 7-member creative committee in each subject area, and then for each such committee, a 20-member committee specializing in the same subject (and having no common members) will have no creative power but instead will be required to approve the bill. In this case you retain creative efficiency while retaining robustness of ideas, and keeping the number of people who have to approve of the material relatively large, reducing moral hazard and pride of authorship problems.

    • Perpetual Paradox says:

      I’m not sure I follow the first portion of your comment. Are you suggesting that we treat representatives in the same way we elect a President (i.e. allow the general population to vote for the legislative branch without regards to geography)? If so, this would completely unravel the tenants of republicanism as representatives would feel no obligation to uphold the interests of those that elected them. Given this, I feel as though I must have misunderstood your proposal. Additionally, independent of the electoral process, we do have committee assignments in both the House and Senate aimed at targeting representatives with special skills, abilities or experience and using them in a way so as to provide the most benefit for the collect body and nation as a whole.

  6. Ivan Garcia says:

    This idea of democracy by jury is obviously a very noble one. The scrutiny entailed would allow only the best we can provide to run our country. However, we need to ask whether this is practical. How much time would need to be alloted for this process to take place? What and how many resources would be required? Would it be too much of a resource sink, negating any benefits it could provide?

  7. Lane Avery says:

    Jury: random selection from registered voters. Do unregistered voters get no say in politics then? This may be deemed racial/economic discrimination. Peremptory challenges. Jury members excused for cause. The required economics in implementing such a system are unfathomable.

    • OutlookZen says:

      Great care should definitely be taken to ensure that all segments of society are equally likely to be picked in whatever jury selection mechanism is implemented.

      Peremptory challenges and such could likely be scraped as well, to prevent systematic disenfranchisement.

      I don’t see why there should be any economic problem in implementing this. It would be a miniscule portion of the budget.

  8. Nvs Prose says:

    are we talking about the United States of America, cause im sure we were never intended to be a democracy, and were intended to be a republic.. of the people by the people for the people, in all technicality, we should be a constitutional republic…

  9. Joseph Hogan says:

    I have been thinking about a similar system for some time now, it was originally based on the jury system, but I’ve since made some changes that I think improve it’s fairness. I’ll try to explain as clearly as I can and I’d love to hear your feedback.

    start with a president. One individual, after meeting certain criteria wins the position in a standard presidential election. He/she must not claim party affiliation or receive partisan funding.
    He/she holds this position for a long term 20-30 years, in all matters he can cast one presidential vote. and has vito power. His purpose is to look at the long term outcome of decisions.

    next with a basic parliament, the number of members will correlate to the population so that each member represents X percent of the population. as example, if a city contains 4 million people it may have 4 representatives, each would be tasked with representing fairly the demographics in that city. The same for rural areas, an area would be mapped that encloses 1 million residents, and representative is charged with finding the mean opinion of those people. Each representative is in office for a middle length term about ~ 5 years, they represent the people in the middle term.
    When an issue is up for debate the representatives discuss the issue and vote, the winning vote carries through as one vote.

    Then we have the Jury system, a random representative selection of people are assembled and given all the information for the issue from experts for as long as necessary, as brief as possible. they are anonymous, to everyone including each other. Their task is to see how any change will affect the average citizen in the short term. They vote and return to normal life, bound to not speak about their individual votes.

    These three votes, representing the people in short term, middle and long term effects, from people, directly, indirectly and abstractly in the populous, then are shown and express the will of the people.

    There are a few more details and quirks to avoid corruption and logistic difficulties, but I don’t have time for everything right now. tell me what you think, and I’d love to hear your suggestions.

  10. notphil says:

    While I like the idea, I feel there are a few things messing.
    1) Criteria. In a trial by jury there are specific criteria the jury follows in making their decision (laws, rules of evidence, etc.). What criteria would this jury use? Should candidates always fight for their district? for their party? for the nation? selflessly? for social justice? for economic improvement? Many if not all of these obligations can be at odds, even for single decisions, and all of these criteria relevant, with no clear hierarchy. Should a juror in this case vote for a candidate that values their district above the overall health of the nation or not? Which is better a candidate that fights for economic prosperity or human dignity? Is an independent candidate better than a party rubber-stamper?
    2) Jury Duty is nearly universally hated. “The only people that serve on jury duty are people too stupid to get out of jury duty.” Almost no one would volunteer for such a project; except of course people who have already made up their minds before the process begins (corporations who are backing a candidate, family members of candidates, etc.).
    3) Total agreement. Juries work because either everyone agrees or they don’t. As you increase the number of jurors, the probability of total agreement tanks. Put 100 people in a room and there will be no agreement on anything. If, in the end, this just comes to a vote instead of a unanimous decision, then it is no better than the current system.

    • OutlookZen says:

      Interesting comment. My thoughts:

      1) You raise an interesting question, but this is no different from the dilemma that voters already face. Should people vote according to their interest, their state’s interest, or their nation’s interest? A jury system does not resolve this dilemma but it doesn’t worsen it either.

      2) Like you mentioned, stringent safeguards will indeed be needed to ensure that people can’t escape jury duty easily.

      3) Since voting does involve some degree of subjectivity, it’s unreasonable to expect unanimous decisions. Especially so with large pools of jurors. That said, the process of being a juror, sitting in a courtroom, hearing all facts arguments and expert testimony, will serve to make jurors much better informed than the average lay person. This is where the primary benefit of the system comes in.

  11. Joseph Hogan says:

    indeed there will be flaws in the Jury part of the voting system. I expected that.
    I don’t want to get into a wall of text to explain every detail so let’s run through an example case,

    Some issue comes up for debate. In this case let’s say funding for a space program. This is something with no short term benefit, but assuming success, great scientific development in long term.

    a Jury of people, those who meet a certain criteria, are selected and asked to participate. They are explained the situation – economics, government expenditure, etc etc.
    There role is not to be experts, or be precisely fair, but to give the viewpoint of common man, (eg how will this affect my life tomorrow). So lets say that they vote to reduce space program funding.

    than the Parliament members act. during this time when the issue is being discussed it is their role to gather information from the general public, from popular opinion, of those in their area. They can weigh in on the issue and try persuade people one way or the other, but in the end they are forced to vote as the people dictate in their region. A city of 4 million, with 4 representatives might feel there is a 65% pro space program inclination. than 3 representatives will vote for, one against. which of them does this doesn’t matter.

    then Finally the President. S/He must look at the long term future of his/her and even other countries to see if a space program will benefit the country in the long term. in this case after reviewing all the data available, s/he make a decision, and importantly explains the decision on a national broadcast.

    there are 2 votes for and one against. in this way the space program goes ahead.

  12. jamescnz says:

    My thought would be:
    1/ Voters elect politicians.
    2/ Politicians propose legislation, and present the case for/against.
    3/ Juries decide by majority vote.

    People become politicians because they have strong views on political issues. I think this means politicians could be great at presenting a case, but will always be dreadful at deciding on one. If we think of parliament as a court room, politicians are both the lawyers and the jury, and I think they could make excellent lawyers, but will always be abysmal jurors.

    Unfortunately, because politicians judge the merits of their own arguments, those in the majority can win without a decent case, and those in the minority can’t win with one, so neither have much incentive to make one. If the outcome of the vote wasn’t so often a foregone conclusion, I think the standard of debate could rise considerably.

    I don’t think there’s a need to weed out naïvety before the debate begins. In fact I think it may be better if we don’t. Presenting and debating the views of the populace, whatever they are, may better inform the populace, and avoid leaving people disenfranchised because their views aren’t aired, so IMO it’s probably best if everyone gets equal representation, regardless of merit.


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