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Beyond the Article: A Conversation with Evan Tao on Sortition

Image by Maria Hahne

In the second episode of a new series diving deeper into Brown Political Review Magazine articles, Multimedia Director Mitsuki Jiang interviews BPR Staff Writer Evan Tao (’27) about his recent article, “Political Powerball.” His article is featured in the Shadows edition of the BPR Magazine and can also be found on the Brown Political Review website.

Mitsuki Jiang: Hi, I’m Mitsuki with the Brown Political Review’s Media Board. Welcome to the second episode of Beyond the Article, which is a series where we interview staff writers on their inspiration for—and the content of—their articles. I’m here today with Evan Tao, who is a first year student interested in studying IAPA and is a staff writer for the BPR Editorial Board.

Evan Tao: Hi Mitsuki, thanks so much for having me! 

Mitsuki: Yeah, of course! Evan recently wrote an article proposing the idea of sortition in elections, titled “Political Powerball.” You can find it in the most recent [Shadows] edition of the Brown Political Review’s magazine. Your one sentence synopsis for the article is “Why local governments and Brown should replace elections with lotteries.” That’s, dare I say, a pretty bold statement to make. Could you maybe give a brief summary of your article and your argument, maybe just for anyone who hasn’t gotten a chance to read it yet? 

Evan: Totally. Yeah, well, I do love making bold statements. That’s what BPR is all about. Basically, what I’m writing about is: elections as a principle are not democratic, which they’re trying to be, right? We assume that you kind of need an election to make democracy happen. If it’s not an election, then how is it democracy? But the basic principle behind sortition is that you can have rule by the people by, instead of having elections, selecting a random group of people, just names out of the phonebook, and having them be your city council or your student council or what have you, even your legislature or Congress. And the proposition here is to try this at very local levels and at colleges and cities first, just because these are people who really know their community and their issues the best. And there’s also concerns of how much expertise you need to run a full national level government, [but] that shouldn’t be quite as bad at a city level or local level government. And there’s so many benefits to this. We can start by just talking about why elections are bad, and this is something that I get into a whole lot in the article. 

Where do you even begin? There’s a lot here. So the whole campaigning process, right? It didn’t used to be quite the way it is. But now, most of the election process is devoted to fundraising, glad handing, kissing babies, the like, right. Giving silly speeches—it’s all supposed to give us a good idea of who’s going to be a good leader. Who should I vote for? But it really doesn’t—we’re not very good at picking good leaders. The campaign process also gives [a] big advantage to people who look good on camera, who speak well, people who have the money and resources to take their whole year off of work and instead campaign for mayor or something like that, to spend money on advertising and to have the social capital to fundraise. It gives advantages to certain types of people and disadvantages to other types of people. Moreover, we can see, across the board [that] political representation of women, of people of color, of LGBTQ people is disproportionately small, right? It’s disproportionately rich, white, straight, boomer guys, to put it bluntly. And yeah, one reason is because there [were] the people who have more of the social capital and more of the money, but it’s also because it takes a certain kind of personality type, like very type A, very confident, very go-getting, very entrepreneurial type to want to campaign. And of course, anybody can have those kinds of personality traits. But when this campaign system kind of shuts out people who don’t, who don’t traditionally see themselves as leaders and aren’t really going to get out there and run for mayor. And so what you see with choosing people randomly instead is more diverse candidates, candidates who can be elected leadership who normally couldn’t afford to be, and people of personalities who don’t normally see themselves as leader types. And that’s a good thing, because who you have in office really matters. Who you have in office dictates what kind of people get served, what gets looked at and what gets overlooked. And it’s more democratic, which is what we’re trying to do here in America.

Mitsuki: So this was your second article for BPR. How would you describe your writing process? What’s your experience with writing for the magazine? 

Evan: Oh yeah. I’d say it starts with [coming] up with an idea that I really care about. And caring about it is pretty important. Some people say if you pick something you care about too much, you’ll stop liking it by the time it’s over. But that’s not true for me. So step one: pick something you care about. Step two: brain vomit. Get all the words on paper. Step three: format it. Make it look nice. And then step four: argue with your editors for the next two months.

Mitsuki: I remember this very clearly from our section pitch meeting, which is essentially where all the staff writers pitch ideas for the articles they want to write about (and you can basically write about anything you want as a staff writer). I remember everyone was super interested in the argument that you were going to make because it was pretty much out of left field. So what made you passionate about this issue? What made you want to write about sortition?

Evan: Yeah, that’s a good question. That was a really fun pitch meeting. That was really what cemented that I wanted to write about this—seeing everybody just get up and start arguing about it, because that’s kind of in the spirit of democracy and the spirit of sortition, because when you have those people in the room, that’s exactly what you’re going to see, is people hashing it out over things that matter and eventually coming to consensus. 

I’d say it began with the activist group Extinction Rebellion, and they’re a group that started in 2019 in London, and they use civil disobedience tactics to raise awareness on the topic of climate change and to really drive governments and powerful people into action. One of their four core principles is the Citizens’ Assembly, which says that we need to come to a consensus on climate action, not through politics as usual, but through this thing called [the] citizens’ assembly. And that’s where we’re going to select a random group of people from the UK. And we’re going to let them decide how the country is going to move forward in responding to climate change. That was the first time I’d ever heard of something like that, and that just really resonated with me and made me want to get involved. So [in] 10th grade, 11th grade, that’s what I was doing, is getting out in the streets with XR Boston. Part of why it’s so important towards climate action specifically is because of the fossil fuel lobby, which you could talk to Professor Timmons Roberts about here at Brown—he’s done some amazing research on the disinformation networks and lobbying apparatuses that the fossil fuel industry/the Koch network have all set up to delay climate action. Lobbying is an issue that, of course, [is] not unique to this one issue of climate change. It’s pretty much any political issue you can think of [where] there’s money being thrown at to stop the right things from happening. That’s why XR and other activist groups are saying, “look, it’s just so easy for fossil fuel corporations to capture the political discourse around climate action” (if you look at the COP summits, for example, that are always hosted in Dubai and Saudi Arabia). What we need instead is actual democratically led climate action. And that’s the really great thing about the citizens’ assembly—that it kind of circumvents corporate capture. People are not there for very long, so it’s pretty hard to justify spending money to lobby them. There’s no reelection pressure, there’s no fundraising, so they don’t have to feel like they have to kiss up to donors. And that’s why it really made sense to talk about [it] with regards to climate action. But again, this is something that is, you know, you name it, this will help with it.

Mitsuki: I know you had a word limit for this particular article, specifically because it’s featured in the magazine, so I want to kind of go past the article. I’m really curious about what you think the logistics of implementing this should be. So an ideal local government that implements sortition—let’s say, Providence. 

Evan: Okay. Okay. City of Providence.

Mitsuki: So you mentioned that people would serve for let’s say six months, have time off, etc., but who would decide who serves and would the plot of people be completely random or would you try to find a semi-random, diverse-ish governing body?

Evan: Yeah, yeah, all good questions. I think that we would probably lean more towards the latter, where a simple random sample (that is, where every group of citizens is equally likely to be chosen) might not be that great because there’s always a chance that you just get all people from a neighborhood who are all rich people or all poor people. And that would kind of defeat the purpose, right? And then it’d be kind of arbitrary deciding how you have to sort again. So yeah, I definitely want to stratify according to some certain demographic criteria, like you could say neighborhood, you could say income, you could say gender, age maybe. 

There was this one really interesting experiment that some people did where they had America in a hundred people, where they took a bunch of those relevant demographic criteria like age, race, religion, and then chose 100 people—hand picked them from around the country and then invited them to come to a conference and just talk about political issues and the idea was [that] these are 100 people that represent the key demographics in the United States (whether that’s political affiliation, income, all these relevant things). And then they invited them to have discussions about these political topics—[it] went pretty well (there’s a cool little YouTube video about it), so something that looks a little bit like that, so it’s possible to make something like that happen. 

So, number—a lot of the things are kind of sliding scale, right, in terms of how many people you want, how long you want them to serve—it definitely depends on the community and what they would choose. And definitely the first time this is tried out there [are] going to be errors and mistakes, and we’re always learning from the past assemblies that have been tried in other cities (I think in Oregon, Washington, there’s been a few). So yeah, let’s say like 50 people from the city of Providence get a letter in the mail saying “you’ve been chosen to be on this quarter’s citizens’ assembly,” and so you’re going to serve for three months, you’re going to get time off work, you’re going to get paid for your time, so come to City Hall for these hours on these days and you’re going to listen to some people talk to you about the issues and try and persuade you to vote a certain way, and then you’re going to deliberate with your other people in your assembly. And hopefully by the end of this period, you’ll have a list of laws that you want to pass. Now, a lot of the early trials of sortition—the pilot runs—are just kind of recommendations where they make a list of what [they] want and then they send that to the existing law making body (like the legislature or city council). That’s cool. That really shows that you can get a group of people together and get them to come to a consensus— that they’re not too dumb to do it and they’re not too uneducated to do it, that they really have the power to make this happen. But what you want to graduate to eventually is that being actually directly enforceable. For example, in France, they tried something like that, where it was just recommendations, and what they saw was the president and the parliament basically just gutting everything that they had recommended. And then a very small proportion of what they had recommended ended up going to law. So, of course, you know, it’s politics. Every little bit counts. But what we should really hope to see is these bodies actually holding power eventually.

Mitsuki: You know, after I read your article, I was like, if you really think about it, sortition isn’t actually that radical of an idea. I mean, what you’re trying to solve here is low voter turnout, low voter information, gerrymandering—basically every flaw of elections—by replacing elections altogether. Evan: Exactly. 

Mitsuki:  But with this, if the argument is that people are historically ignorant about politics, then what do you think makes them good candidates for local government policy? Would they just automatically care more if they’re part of the governing body?

Evan: That’s what the argument for sortition kind of lies on. People are rationally ignorant, right? I don’t need to know how the tax policy works. I don’t need to know how the plumbing system works. That’s for someone else to deal with. And that’s okay. We don’t have the brain power to understand everything all at once. That’s why you divide labor. That’s okay. And yeah, that’s a big problem with elections like you mentioned, just low voter turnout. That’s probably the simplest reason why elections kind of suck is most people just aren’t paying attention. And that’s a real shame. It’s different in every country, so it’s interesting to look at why some countries have higher voter turnout than others. But what sortition basically relies on is that most people aren’t really paying attention to the issues and aren’t paying attention to the candidates in the election process when they feel like the system isn’t making a difference, right? When they feel like “whether I vote or not, you know, nothing’s going to really change.” So a lot of this voter apathy, a lot of this low voter turnout is probably coming from—it’s a snake eating its own tail, right—the system being weak as a whole. But it relies on the fact that when you have leadership thrust upon you as Winston Churchill (or somebody) said, then you kind of rise to the occasion and you start caring about it and you realize, “oh, I have power now. Now it’s time for me to really step up. This is my time.” And that’s what the trial grounds have kind of seen. Yeah, normally most people aren’t voting. Most people aren’t really paying that much attention to elections. Most people don’t watch the news every day. But when you put them in this position of power and when you give them responsibility and when you challenge them, then they really step up and they’re able to deliberate these issues; they’re able to grapple with them in meaningful ways. They’re able to advocate for themselves in their communities. They’re able to come to consensus with people, disagree with them, ensure that they’re able to do everything that our politicians can’t do.

Mitsuki: So near the end of the article, you mentioned that we should start the process here at Brown. I think maybe the closest thing I could come up with to sortition was the whole process that led to the birth of the Open Curriculum, but maybe that might have been just a massive protest. When you talk about an opt-in lottery for Brown, are you talking about the CCB or are you talking about the Finance Board or both? What are you talking about here?

Evan: Yeah, a lot of these elected positions, I guess. I think CCB is probably the one that, you know, we as freshmen got to vote for. I don’t know about you, but I just voted for whoever asked me to, [or] the cutest poster. Did I put any research into asking people, “Okay, what are your policies going to be, how are you going to be different from the last guy?” No. That’s rational ignorance, right? It doesn’t matter that much to me. But that means that I’m probably not picking the best person for the job. And the job matters. It really does. Like you said with UFB, right? We saw that big fiasco with the mismanagement of funds last year or two years ago, so the decisions they make really do matter, and so it matters who we vote for. If we vote for someone bad, that’s kind of on us, right? But [also] kind of not, because we can’t be bothered to pay attention to all of this stuff. It’s also kind of a popularity contest, too, where you kind of get the usual suspects, like the same people who were in student council in high school and student council in middle school and headmaster’s list and had all these accolades are going to be the same people who are going to be running for student council in college. They know how to make fancy posters. They’re going to go around asking people to vote for them. And like I was saying before, they kind of have that Type-A go-getter personality and that’s cool. You know, that’s good for them, right? But it’s not necessarily a good prediction of who’s going to make the best leader, because campaigning is a different skill than leading. There are probably plenty of people who are more introverted or who don’t really have the time or the connections or they don’t think they have the experience to get out there. So, by making an opt-in lottery, we’re probably going to see more types of people putting their names in the hat in number and different types of people getting elected, different policies, and different initiatives being led. Now, there’s a Malcolm Gladwell podcast that talks about using the sortition system in a Bolivian high school that is really interesting. And this has come up—Malcolm Gladwell [is] kind of using the high school election as a proxy to talk about elections as a wider system there. But yeah, it’s a really interesting pilot, and I definitely encourage listeners to take a look. It also shows how this system is kind of uniquely situated to be really good at picking people for high school or college student councils.

Mitsuki: The idea of sortition is one that maybe not everyone is familiar with, and you did an amazing job of presenting your argument in the article. Is there anything else that you wanted to include that maybe you couldn’t because of the word limit?

Evan: Yeah, I think [it] definitely would have been good to talk about climate action specifically and talk about lobbying. Since Citizens United (the Supreme Court decision in 2010 which basically removed the limit on donations to super PACs, [aka] political action committees), we’ve seen this influx of dark money being sent to candidates by shady interest groups. This, in my opinion, is how democracy dies right here. The reason why we need citizens’ assemblies now more than ever is because this is how we circumvent that dark money. This is how we circumvent corporate capture of political institutions. And this is how you stop money being translated into political power—by returning the power to the people and eliminating those systems of electoral democracy, which are so easily captured by moneyed interests like campaigning and fundraising and elections.

Mitsuki: So that was all [of] the questions I had. If you guys made it to the end of this episode, don’t forget to check out Evan’s article in either the magazine or on the BPR website, or both. It’s a super interesting read and it’s titled “Political Powerball.” Thank you Evan for your time. Please consider following our podcasts wherever you get them or wherever you’re listening to this now. And please subscribe to the magazine for more amazing articles like Evan’s. Thank you. 

Evan: Thank you so much, Mitsuki. And yeah, if you want to talk to me more about this, I’m usually eating in V-Dub, [so] you can probably find me there, or you can email me at I would love to hash this out further with you all. Thank you so much!