Opinion: The Case for a Student Senate Lottery
By Carter A. Hanson
In the most recent episode of my podcast, The Consent of the Governed, I argued that the purpose of democracy is to hold meaningful elections, open to all, with universal suffrage and opportunity to run for office if so desired. I still believe that, but I am not so sure about our democratic system’s efficacy.
Recently I discovered, through Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History (which is one of my go-to’s for unusual and inventive ideas), a new way for the democratic process to function: lotteries. Here’s my concept of how it would work here at Gettysburg: at the beginning of every semester, all students would be free to enter the student senate lottery. The responsibilities involved if one is chosen to serve on the senate would be made explicit before students decide to enter the lottery. Then names would be drawn at random—from a hat? From a bag? the method of picking names doesn’t matter, as long as it is random. The students chosen would then serve a term in the senate, perhaps choosing from among them (or by another lottery) a student body president and, within each class’s delegation, class presidents.
Instituting a lottery would cause an immediate, tangible shift in the demographics of Gettysburg’s student government. Last year, for example, only 8 of 23 members of the Student Senate were women, which comprises about 34.8% of the senate. In contrast, women comprised approximately 51.9% of the student body during the spring semester last year, when the election took place. With a democratic lottery, the racial and gender makeup of the student senate would be directly proportional to the student population. If we’d had a democratic lottery last semester, half of the student senate would be women.
Lotteries don’t discriminate, not based on race, gender, sexual orientation, personality type, popularity, or anything else. And more accurately representing the panoply of perspectives in the student body would produce a policy that solves more problems that affect people across the campus community, not just problems that are pertinent to the group of people that are elected—this group is generally white, privileged, and male.
On a fundamental level, elections are essentially our (“the people’s”) expression of who we think are the best people to lead us—to govern. Reflecting on American history, it seems to be the case that we’ve chosen a mixed bag. There have been a few fantastic presidents—Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt—and a great many more not-so-fantastic president—Jackson, Buchanan, Harding, etc. If history is any indication of the ability of voters to choose leaders who are effective in office, it’s not looking good.
The reason for this is that campaigning and governing are two very distinct talents. The former, campaigning, requires one to be a comfortable public speaker, to be charismatic, to be well-known and well-liked, and to present oneself and one’s policy positions effectively. The latter, governing, requires one to understand the policy, to be effective as a team member, to be observant and to recognize community problems, and to have the intelligence and creativity to address those problems. The job of democratic systems should be to get the people who are the best at governing into positions where they can govern. The lottery is far more effective at this than elections because elections put more stock in candidates’ ability to campaign than to govern.
Additionally, by opening the lottery to all students and cutting out the campaigning qualifications that elections put so much stock in, students who would have otherwise never considered participating in student government would have the opportunity to do so. Student government—and the entire community it governs—would benefit from the perspectives of these students, who may prove themselves to be adept at governing, without arbitrarily requiring them to jump through the campaigning hoop.
Last year, only one person ran for Sophomore Class President and, surprise, they won. The current student government system doesn’t work if voters have the choice to choose between one candidate for class president. Had there been a lottery, I am confident in supposing that more than one person would have entered the lottery for that office.
Gettysburg College is the perfect place to test democratic lotteries. At the collegiate scale, issues are not so large as to be absolutely devastating to the community if mismanaged. Conversely, the selection process for student government is important because the issues it tackles are meaningful and impactful. Thus, as a college, we have a unique opportunity to act as a true laboratory of democracy. What that means, in contrast to most uses of that phrase, is that we have to test hypotheses. A democratic lottery is one such hypothesis that I’m advocating for us to test.
The status quo, even if ostensibly functional, is not sufficient. The status quo all-too-easily obscures the truth—in this case, the truth of dissatisfaction. Last year, the student body president won his race with votes from only 10.1% of eligible voters at Gettysburg; the study body vice president won with support from 16.3% of the student body. Is this how democracy should function? By running a contest to see who has the best public speaking skills for a position that requires a completely different skill set, all while relying on a tiny portion of the electorate to make the decision for the rest of us?
I argue that democracy should function more as a cooperative exercise in creating a policy that betters society than a competition of ideologue against ideologue. As national politics become ever more polarizing, I advocate for a rethinking of how the student government should function. I believe that now more than ever, a democratic lottery would refresh and revitalize our campus community and increase and improve the role of student government in producing an effective policy that makes Gettysburg a better place to live, work, and study.