Skip to content

The Electoral Jury

How much time to do you spend figuring out how you should vote? A few hours? A few minutes? Any time at all? I could not find a study that measured the average time that voters spend researching their candidates, but I did find that three quarters of Americans do not know how long a senator's term is. Perhaps an average voter reads the blurbs in the local newspaper, listens to some soundbites on the news about each candidate, and watches a myriad of television ads. Does he read each candidate's website? If not, this is like owning a bagel shop and hiring a manager without reading his resume. Imagine a bagel shop where all employees are hired with the same consideration that the average voter gives to political candidates. Such a shop would operate with the legendary efficiency and effectiveness of a DMV.

You may think I am writing to encourage you to put more effort into deciding for whom to vote. I am not. You are doing it right. Unlike choosing a bagel shop manager, choosing a governor culminates in the counting of millions of votes. The odds that your vote either way will change anything at all is infinitesimal. Your vote, frankly, doesn't matter. It is irrational to vote at all. Enough people do it out of altruism which keeps the system running, but not enough people do the research necessary to keep it running well.

How much research would be appropriate to choose the governor? I just spent a week on a jury deciding a workplace injury lawsuit. Companies and universities spend months looking for a president. Would we be better off if everyone took a week off of work to research the candidates for governor? Well, no. We would undoubtedly end up with a better governor, but the cost would astronomical. And that is just for the governor. Imagine having to do this for the mayor, the city council, the state representative, the state senator, the federal representative, the federal senator, and the Presidentnot to mention lots of other positions that probably should not even be elected positions, like dogcatchers and judges. With the cost of research so high and payoff so small we collectively settle for a million snap judgements and hope for the best.

Can we do better, and if so, how? The reason that an individual vote is worthless is simply because there are so many voters. The decision, while valuable and important by itself, once spread over millions of voters is irrelevant. The huge number of voters per election is simultaneously the reason that it would be prohibitively expensive to have all voters be politically educated. A week of one person's time is not that much; a week of million persons' time is overwhelming. If we want to have votes count, we need to have fewer voters. A solution to this problem is something I call the electoral jury (technically, a form of sortition). In the electoral jury, a random subset of the eligible voting population is chosen and this subset, the jury, is tasked with electing a particular office. Rather than having the entire adult population of a state vote for the governor, a random few are told that they and they alone get to choose the next governor. I present here a small subset of the details of this plan.

Jury Size

Choosing the size of the jury is the most important variable. If the jury is too small, then stochastic effects become important. With an 11-person jury and 60%/40% split between two candidates, the 60% candidate will win 75% of the time. With a 101-person jury, the 60% candidate will win 98% of the time. With a 1001-person jury, the 60% candidate will win 100% of the time. The closer the race, the more likely it will be for the majority winner to lose simply by chance when jury is small. With a 1001-person jury and a 51%/49% split, the 51% candidate will win 72% of the time. At a 10001-person jury, the odds are 98% in the favor of the 51% candidate. So it takes about 10000 people to completely eliminate chance from the election. I am not convinced that one needs to eliminate chance entirely. Is a 51% candidate  clearly better than a 49% candidate such that there needs to be no chance that the 49% candidate is elected? The main benefit of increasing the jury size is to get rid of chance and prevent the government from constantly changing hands even when there is no change in public opinion. If a governor is elected with 60% of the vote and, going into his reelection, 60% of the people still support him, then he should keep his seat. With a jury of only a dozen people, there is a good chance it will not happen.

If the jury is too small, then a successful bribe carries a lot of weight. We do not think much about secret bribes in today's politics. The number of voters is so large that secret bribery is infeasible. In the end, this should not be a large problem. We manage to prevent bribery in criminal and civil cases, where the juries are small and the stakes are high. Nevertheless, it is one effect to keep in mind.

On the flipside, if the jury is too big, then the original problem returns. Each vote begins to not matter much. The original US House of Representatives had one representative for every 30,000 people. Each representative was elected by much fewer than 30,000 people, considering that suffrage was fairly restricted at the time.

Keeping all this in mind, I think a number of jurors in the 1000-10000 range is about right.

Jury Location

The easiest place to have the voters vote is at home. It's cheap, easy, and exactly the same as the current system. But with so fewer voters, we can do so much better. Here is where the big payoff of the electoral jury comes. With a small number of people (1000-10000 range), it is feasible to sequester them at a convention center for a week. Here, they will have the opportunity to listen to speeches made by the candidates, read material provided by the candidates, and discuss among each other their ideas and opinions. Importantly, they will be isolated from all forms of external media. Why is this important? Because this removes money from politics. TV ads, newspaper ads, street criers, door-to-door solicitors—they all swing elections and they all cost money. This requires all candidates to be friendlier toward people with lots of money. With the jury sequestered and every candidate given equal and large access to the voters, campaign contributions are now meaningless. And on top of it all, no one's freedom of speech is impinged. Anyone can say what he wants, spending as much money as he likes to say it; it just will not matter. The voters will not see the ads, and if they do in the months leading up to the election, the message of the ads will be swamped by a week's worth of speeches. A 30 second TV ad is only effective because each voter spend so little time considering to the candidates.

Would sequestering the jury eliminate the value of journalism? If a journalist uncovered the fact that one of the candidates was a secret communist, would the jury never see this? No, the jury would see it, because the candidates are not sequestered. If something important is found outside, one of them can bring it in and present it to the jury.

Another advantage of bringing everyone together is that people are typically good at judging the character of those they meet in person. Judging character is one of the most important aspects of voting. It is not what a politician says he will do that matters; it is what he actually does. That people are pretty good at judging people they actually get to know is more of an impression I have. I have been unable to find research to support this, so maybe this is wishful thinking.


Sequestration for a week will place many jurors under hardship. It is important that they be accommodated as best as possible. The juror's wage should be paid to his family for the week he is absent, so that the electoral jury is not biased against those with dependents. All travel expenses should be paid for by the state so that the jury is not biased against those who live farther away. Childcare either at home or at the convention center should be provided for those who care for small children.

It is impossible to remove all inconvenience. But choosing 10 thousand out of 10 million every four years means that being selected is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Almost everyone will never be chosen to serve on a jury in his lifetime. I expect that most would be willing to tolerate inconvenience to participate.

Final Thoughts

The largest barrier to implementing a plan like this is the status quo. If the politician is chosen by a tiny fraction of the population, how could that be fair? The best point of reference is probably the current court system. The jury is fair, not because everyone in the county votes on it, but because the jurors are randomly selected from everyone in the county. Imagine that you were falsely accused of murder and there are two possible juries. The first possibility is twelve people forced to listen to all the evidence given every day by opposing sides. The second possibility is a million people otherwise going about their day who can choose to watch the case or just catch the news about it (with ads from the prosecutor). The potential jurors may vote on your conviction regardless of how much attention they actually paid. It can be fairer to have a smaller sample represent the whole, especially if we can force that sample to sit through fairly presented evidence before making a decision.

All it takes is one brave state to take up this plan for electing their governor. That state and others watching shall be pleasantly surprised.