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In ancient Athens, most government officials were selected at random from among citizens eligible to fill the positions. Philipp Foltz

Michigan’s effort to end gerrymandering revives a practice rooted in ancient Athens

Michigan has embarked on an experiment in democratic governance using a technique employed in Athens 2,500 years ago but little used since: the selection of government officials by lottery rather than by appointment or election.

The 13 officials selected by lot in August make up Michigan’s Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. By November 2021, the group will draw election districts used to elect officials to the Michigan Legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives.

The redistricting process occurs every 10 years, after the Census Bureau determines how many representatives are allocated to each state. Historically, state legislatures have been responsible for redistricting.

But throughout U.S. history gerrymandering – drawing election districts to favor the political party that controls the state legislature – has characterized the redistricting process.

Gerrymandering has often been challenged in court as a violation of the Constitution’s equal protection clause and on other grounds. But in 2019 the Supreme Court held that federal courts may not hear such claims because they represent a “political question” that is unsuited for resolution by the courts.

The high court held that such issues should be resolved by the legislative and executive branches of government.

Seven states have withdrawn the authority to draw U.S. House election districts from legislatures and assigned it to independent commissions. The procedures for selecting the members of these commissions vary, but in most states they are chosen by state legislators or judges.

Michigan’s commission, created by a 2018 ballot initiative, is unique. As a professor who teaches constitutional law and, occasionally, ancient Athenian law, I am fascinated by the fact that Michigan’s seemingly novel experiment in governance is based on a process that is thousands of years old.

The 13 commissioners

Unlike any other state, Michigan selected its 13 commission members almost entirely by lot from among those who applied for the position.

All Michigan registered voters who met the eligibility criteria – which excluded holders of political office and lobbyists, for example – were eligible to apply.

From 9,367 applicants, the secretary of state randomly selected 200 semifinalists. The process resulted in 60 Democrats, 60 Republicans and 80 independents. By the terms of the ballot initiative, the four leaders of the Michigan Legislature then eliminated 20 of those semifinalists.

In August 2020, the secretary of state randomly selected the 13 commissioners from the pool of 180 candidates – four Democrats, four Republicans and five independents, as required.

The commission – made up of citizens with no special qualifications for the office – will now perform one of the most important roles in a democratic system: creating the districts from which Michigan’s state and federal legislators will be elected.

Random selection in ancient Athens

With the exception of court juries, the random selection of citizens to fill government office is almost unheard of. But it was not always that way.

Random selection was a prominent feature of ancient Athens, the birthplace of democracy. In the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., most important government offices were filled by lottery. The Athenians considered this selection of officials a hallmark of democracy.

These included the 500 members of the Council. This body proposed legislation for the agenda of the Assembly – composed of all free male adult citizens who chose to attend and the centerpiece of Athenian direct democracy. It also handled diplomatic relations between Athens and other states and appointed the members of administrative bodies.

Those selected by lot also included the nine chief officials of the city-state, the Archons, who had executive and judicial responsibilities. About 1,100 officials were selected annually by lot, from a citizen population of about 25,000.

According to the Athenian historian Xenophon, the philosopher Socrates, who was sentenced to death by an Athenian jury for his unorthodox views, thought that the Athenians were foolish to entrust the selection of the bulk of government officials to chance: Nobody would select “a pilot or builder or flautist by lot,” so why trust to chance the selection of government officials who, if unsuited to their responsibilities, could harm the community?

The Athenians agreed with Socrates to an extent. In Athens an additional 100 or so officials were elected by the Assembly, not selected by lot. They included the 10 generals responsible for commanding the Army and Navy. The Athenians thought the generals’ role was too important, and too dependent on skills possessed by few citizens, to allow the choice to be made randomly.

Evaluating the Michigan plan

How, then, should Michigan’s decision to assign unskilled members of the public the job of drawing nonpartisan election districts be evaluated?

Redistricting is a complex task. Michigan’s Constitution says that the districts must be drawn in compliance with federal law. That includes a requirement that voting districts have roughly the same population. It also requires that the districts “reflect the state’s diverse population and communities of interest,” and “not provide a disproportionate advantage to any political party.”

U.S Representative Dan Kildee, D-Mich., speaks outside of the U.S. Supreme Court to call for an end to partisan gerrymandering on Oct. 3, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Olivier Douliery/Getty Images

Dividing the map to meet all of these criteria is not likely to be within the capabilities of a group of randomly selected citizens.

There are several reasons to think that the redistricting commission will nevertheless prove adequate to the task.

First, the constitution authorizes the commission to hire “independent, nonpartisan subject-matter experts and legal counsel” to assist them. Second, there’s precedent in government for citizens who have no specialized skills: Juries composed of randomly selected citizens regularly decide cases that are enormously complicated. An antitrust case may involve thousands of pages of documents. And a patent infringement case may require an understanding of complex engineering issues.

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Finally, considering how far the Michigan Legislature’s efforts have fallen short of achieving the fundamental democratic goal of selecting representatives who reflect the views of their constituents, there is reason to think that a balanced group of unskilled citizens will do better.

A 2018 report by the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan found that the state’s election districts are “highly-gerrymandered, with current district maps drawn so that Republicans are ensured disproportionate majorities on both the state and federal levels.”

Michigan has drawn upon ancient wisdom to redesign its redistricting process. The goal is to enable voters to select representatives who truly reflect their political preferences. If more states follow Michigan’s lead, the impact on the makeup of legislative bodies throughout the country could be profound.

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