Political Lottery in Switzerland

by Martin Sustrik1 min read8th Oct 2020No comments

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Sortition, that is selection of political officials by lottery, was famously used in ancient Athenian democracy. It was also used, since XIV. century, in couple of city states in northern Italy.

A less well known fact is that it was also used in the Old Swiss Confederacy.

In canton Glarus, offices were originally filled by voting by show of hand at a public gathering (Landesgemeinde). However, buying of votes was widespread and the people have, over time, tried different measures to remedy the problem.

  • In 1623, taxes were introduced. Those who were elected to an office had to pay certain amount. The measure haven't had the desired effect. In fact, it has strengthened the aristocratization of politics.
  • In 1640, selecting the officials by lottery was introduced in the protestant part of the canton. It was done in two stages. First, eight candidates were selected by show of hands. Then, an underage boy gave each candidate a ball rimmed in black. Seven of them were silver, one was gold. Whoever got the golden ball got the office.
  • In 1764, a resolution passed by Landesgemeinde warns the candidates that they should "no longer exchange the balls, but rather everyone should keep the ball that he gets". That suggests that the candidates were no longer buying the votes of the entire community, but rather the votes of their counter-candidates.
  • In 1791, the Landesgemeinde adopted a new procedure for some offices. It removed the pre-selection phase and drew the lots directly from all citizens. However, it sometimes happened that people were selected who didn't want or weren't able to exercise the office (e.g. because they were illiterate). In many cases they auctioned the office to the highest bidder.

One can thus think of sortition in canton Glarus not as of a democratization measure, but rather as a way to make buying of votes more cost effective. After all, election bribery led to an increasingly costly arms race between powerful individuals and it was threatening to ruin entire families.

Taken from a great article by Lukas Leuzinger. The article (in German) contains much more interesting detail and can be found here.

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