The United Methodist Church is a representative democratic institution, meaning that ~800 delegates from the regions of United Methodism meet every four years to vote on its doctrine and polity at General Conference. The next one is in August 2022, delayed from May 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the UMC is not really representative or democratic, and it games the system by counting dead people to boost representation, it tries to be, and that means that every few years, regions elect delegates to General Conference (it’s like the House of Representatives in the USA government). In recent years, it has become more and more polarized, politicized, and broken as a governing body.
What would happen if instead of reforming General Conference that we reform the way how we elect delegates, transforming GC from the bottom-up?
Out of a Hat
The 2020 season of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History included an interview with Adam Cronkright, a proponent of a novel system for election that activists in Bolivia have been implementing: democratic lotteries. Basically, it’s an election system that would take anyone with interest in an elected position, and put their names in a hat, and then draw randomly until the positions were filled. And those randomly selected people would be your leaders or representatives for that term.
The idea is that if you really wanted a representative election, then a random sample is more representative than electing career politicians who campaign better than others.
It made me wonder about our own system of how we elect General Conference delegates. Is a random lottery better than career, repeatedly elected delegates like we seem to have?
I’ve worked in general conference advocacy since 2004, usually with caucus groups that are promoting progressive agenda items. Much of that work involves working with delegates, knowing “who’s who” on General Conference delegations, and working with them to get to certain agendas passed.
And I can tell you, after working membership lists and delegate lists since 2004, that there are many names that are on every list every year. You see them in people’s bios that they claim to have been elected to General Conference delegations for 8, 12, 16 years or more. These are the people with name recognition who are always elected to General Conference, and annual conferences are used to seeing them, so of course, they usually win.
This system makes a certain amount of sense. When you’re asking people to serve as legislators to find common ground and pass polity or proposals, relationships matter. The longer you are on a legislative or deliberative body, the more relationships you have, the more people you get to know, the better you understand this arcane and serpentine system and can be more effective.
The system is geared to be beneficial to repeat delegates, but that doesn’t mean it is the only system.
Full disclosure: This is a personal topic to me. I have been elected twice to serve as a Reserve Delegate to General Conference: in 2016 and for the now-2022 GCs. So yes, my reflections would directly impact and de-privilege me.
I’m not saying that repeat delegates don’t deserve their positions. They have the majority vote of their peers, their peers want them to represent their region. I think that’s great, and as a repeat elector myself, I’m grateful for that support and I try to honor their support.
But part of honoring my election includes critiquing the system even when I am a beneficiary of it.
A General Conference Lottery
And so my question today is “Is there a better system for electing general conference delegates than the one that we have?” If so, could it be this be democratic lottery experiment?
Adam Cronkright and others have been proponents and implementers and evaluators have a democratic lottery in Bolivia, mostly at schools where students are willing to participate in a different process to elect their student councils. Now you would think that this means that random sampling means that you don’t get very good quality people. But in practice, Cronkright and his team found the opposite:
Adam Cronkright began taking a version of this process to various schools — starting in Bolivia — to change their process for choosing student councils. What he had found is that several different things change when the election process becomes randomized. One, many more people want to actually *do* the job than want to *ask people to vote for them* to do the job. Secondly, when people who are untraditional get selected to do the job, it changes what the job is. For instance, instead of student governments in Bolivia planning dances and parades, these ones hold fundraisers to help combat human trafficking and sponsor community festivals. And three, even the most experienced, expert people on the scene (that is, teachers and school leadership in those schools) are often surprised and/or wrong about how effective or ineffective different people are in the job once they get it. The traditional view of what makes a great school leader — poise, communication skills, charisma — doesn’t always correlate to being a great team player, to be willing to do thankless jobs, and to look beyond one’s personal experience to pick important things to work on.
To RUN an office is not always the same skillset as to RUN FOR an office. We’ve seen it work well in certain contexts. Could it work in ours?
This isn’t all random, though. There are two key factors that make a democratic lottery have safeguards:
- First, it is an opt-in system. In Cronkright’s work with students, if you want to serve on Student Council, you have to opt in. So have a school of 400 students only 200 may opt in and then out of that 200, you pick your representatives. So you’ve already cut out half of the population who have no interest. And you retain a much broader pool of representation.
- Second, it’s important to note that this idea of democratic lottery is most effective when it is talking about representative forms of government or leadership. Would you want your pastor chosen by democratic lottery? Not likely! (Okay, sometimes appointments feel that way in The UMC ha!) Conversely, in the podcast episode, Malcolm Gladwell asked students if they wanted their president chose that by lottery. Some said no, but others noted that with 50% of Americans being women, that’s a much better chance that there would have been women as presidents by now.
Counterpoint: It would hurt curated, diverse delegations
Random lottery, however it may break career delegates’ streaks, would have a negative impact on under-represented populations.
My own delegation is a fascinating example. There are 11 of us on a General and Jurisdictional delegation. We have multiple persons of color and LGBTQ+ persons. We are a super-majority of women, a decent diversity of age. There’s a good amount of diversity on our lineup, even if two GC delegates were elected from the same local church for 2022 (slightly better than the three from the same local church in 2016!).
The people who elected my delegation were intentional in centering people who are not a demographic majority in our annual conference. There are higher representations of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ persons in our delegation than the general population of UMs in our conference. I’m immensely grateful.
So then we ask: Would a random drawing yield a similarly diverse result? Sadly, the statistics say no, it wouldn’t, especially on the clergy side. There are multiple barriers to BIPOC and LGBTQ+ persons becoming clergy, and significant bias against women as clergy as well, so their numbers are much lower than straight white men. So if it were a random sample, the likelihood of equal or higher representation would be far lower than with a democratically-elected list.
A random sample would not yield the level of diversity when the pool it represents is stilted against protected classes getting in the pool in the first place. And that’s hugely problematic to conferences that do the hard work to intentionally center historically under-represented demographics in their leadership and elections.
A Two-Stage Solution?
Gladwell ends the episode exploring two-stage approaches to these type of elections that might solve the curated v. random problem:
- The first stage is a sort of peer review: those who can’t or shouldn’t make the cut to be representatives are downvoted off the list. This could be by not submitting their names in the first place, or it could be a certain threshold to participate. This happens today in applicants for federal money as well as for elections of individuals that lead to runoffs. While it has been used to exclude persons, it could be used the opposite way to boost the numbers of protected classes in the pool.
- Then the second stage is the random elections: you draw names out of a hat of those who made it past the first stage. In theory, then you should have a representative sample that has some higher percentages for under-represented classes. Of course, any random sampling could potentially end up with all straight white males, which would be a failure for everyone!
It may be that this would need a reverse Republican strategy: put more barriers in front of the dominant culture (ie. straight white males like me) and less restrictions on minority perspectives (or boosting their numbers in the pool). Though that somewhat can even out the playing field for election, admittedly I’m not sure how to make it happen practically.
Something needs to give in our representative leadership. It may be that introducing random representation could break open old divides—or turn us away from our values entirely, given how rising numbers of laity and clergy cannot articulate Wesleyan values or have rejected them entirely. The likelihood of any annual conference, whose governing structure often includes these same career delegates, taking this on is unlikely.
But if so, the time is now and the opportunity is there. Annual Conferences, local churches, and all the way up to General Conference elections have wide latitude as to HOW they elect delegates. We have several months before the next season of Annual Conferencing: is now the time to examine conference rules and suggest a hybrid approach to representation on conference boards and agencies, and set in place a new way of electing general and jurisdictional representation in your conference?
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