The most intriguing unpredictable election process was probably that of the medieval Venetian Republic

Thursday, January 16th, 2020

The Venetians had a somewhat tedious way of combining voting and randomness, Nick Szabo explains, that reduced blackmail and pay-to-play political donations:

If would-be purchasers of political favors cannot predict who will win, or even who might win with substantial probability, they cannot purchase any favors prior to an election. A perfectly unpredictable election would be bribe-free.

We can’t make elections perfectly unpredictable, but we can get pretty close. There are historical and even contemporary precedents. For example, we choose jurors by lot from a pool much larger than the twelve jurors selected. This prevents wealthy plaintiffs, defendants, or governments from buying jurors through the selection process. (After selection, there are a number of legal and physical sequestering mechanisms that can be used to isolate a jury from contact with favor purchasers. As for political office, this article deals only with bribery during the selection process).

In ancient Athens, not only juries but many office-holders were selected by lot. But the most intriguing unpredictable election process was probably that of the medieval Venetian Republic. This republic helped turn a secure island into Europe’s wealthiest trading empire. In Venice, many political offices were selected by a repeated cycle of lottery, vote, …. lottery, vote. The final lottery and vote, at least, were held one after the other in the same room, giving favor purchasers no time or privacy to do their business.

I’ve mentioned unpredictable elections before, but sortition came up recently.


  1. Karl says:

    “A perfectly unpredictable election would be bribe-free.”

    That sounds rather stupid. If you can’t predict which candidate will win, simply bribe them all. Happens all the time.

  2. Peter Whitaker says:

    You’re right, Karl. Even if the pool of candidates was expanded to the entire population of the country, a corrupt politician could bribe the entire country by providing everybody with useful government services.

  3. Graham says:

    The very model of an oligarchic republic-

    -Small population

    -smallish electorate with restricted franchise

    -multiple levels of electoral colleges and overlapping legislative and executive bodies to spread, balance, and obscure power

    -relatively small number of families dominating at any one point and, somewhat less typical of the form, many of the same families dominant for most of the thousand year history of the republic

    -tight focus on key interests combined, often enough, with cunning opportunism and flexibility

    -emphasis on a sort of cursus honorum for the elite, with exposure of future leaders to commercial, naval, military and administrative duties

    It all worked very well at small to medium scale for a very long time. Mainly overcome by larger scale changes in the demographics, economics, and administration of larger states.

    But OTOH, the republic also had started to stop working all that well a good few centuries before Napoleon finally toppled its corpse.

    Of course, that’s not necessarily a black mark. No state or institutions are eternal.

  4. Wilbur Hassenfus says:

    So bribe them later.

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