New project will analyse the use of 'political lotteries' in democracies

  • Date

    Wed 23 Nov 22

Dr Brenda Van Coppenolle

Could randomly selecting members of the public to be part of the decision-making process make politics more inclusive and potentially lead to better policies?

These ‘political lotteries’ were used in parliaments across Europe in the past. A new project at the University of Essex, funded by a European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant, is looking into whether they could help make our political systems more democratic.

Recently, lotteries have put citizens together to find solutions to today’s contentious, polarising issues, such as disaffection, abortion reform, and climate change.

ERC Starting Grants are designed to support younger researchers who have two to seven years’ experience after their PhDs, to launch their own projects, form their teams and pursue their most promising ideas.

Dr Brenda Van Coppenolle from the Department of Government is the project lead.

“I am incredibly excited to start this project,” she said. “This funding will make it possible to draw new insights from historical experience and use this long-distance view to enhance our understanding of democratic development.

“While lotteries today are under close scrutiny by researchers, there is still so much to learn from past experiments in political history.”

There is currently no data on the lotteries widely used for up to 50 years in France, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands. This research will collect this information, and by bringing together theory and evidence, will build an understanding of which types of lotteries work, when, and why.

Dr Van Coppenolle said that what explains the varied success of political lotteries is that they broaden opportunity of access to all.

“Random chance can strengthen those sectors of society who would otherwise be in the minority. A wider variety of opinions can also improve debate and reduce polarisation,” she said.

The project will experiment with lotteries in online citizens’ assemblies today and draw lessons from past experiments in the making of modern democracy in Europe, with legislators randomly assigned to groups within parliament.

Lotteries have been used in making sure that minorities were included in small groups and were given meaningful legislative roles in policy formation. These natural experiments with lotteries have never been investigated before using modern statistical methods, and their role in opening access to politics is almost entirely absent from empirical studies of the formation of democratic processes across Europe.

“The results from this historical research have real-world relevance for institutional design in new or modernising democracies,” said Dr Van Coppenolle.

“The research will inform the design of random assemblies, which are being introduced today to help safeguard political equality in democracies under increasing pressure from rising economic inequality.”

This year, more than 400 researchers have been awarded an ERC Starting Grant.

President of the ERC, Professor Maria Leptin, said: “It is a pleasure to see this new group of bright minds at the start of their careers, set to take their research to new heights.

“I cannot emphasise enough that Europe as a whole – both at national and at EU level – has to continue to back and empower its promising talent.”

Set up by the European Union in 2007, the ERC funds creative researchers of any nationality and age, to run projects based across Europe. The ERC is led by an independent governing body – the Scientific Council.

The ERC offers four core grant schemes: starting grants, consolidator grants, advanced grants and synergy grants. With its additional proof of concept grant scheme, the ERC helps grantees to bridge the gap between their pioneering research and early phases of its commercialisation.