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Friday, 23 September 2011

23. Ostracic Voting

OK, the phrase ‘ostracic voting’ sounds strange.  This may partly be because I have probably just made it up.  Yes, it is connected to the idea of ostracism which, like many of my favourite democratic ideas, goes back to classical Athens.  I wondered whether it might be something that could be applied to the practice of modern local democracy.

Agora Museum in Athens
I got the idea after a visit to the rather beautiful Athens Agora Museum, where, as well as coming face to face with a real life kleroterian as they used for sortitions, I came across some ostraca (ostracons?).  Now these wonderful little broken pieces of clay or shell where used for the process of ostracising (expelling) unwanted politicians.
Ostracism in Classical Athens

The Wikipedia page about ostracism, which is well worth read, explains it like this:
Each year the Athenians were asked in the assembly whether they wished to hold an ostracism...  If they voted "yes", then an ostracism would be held two months later. In a section of the agora set off and suitably barriered, citizens scratched the name of a citizen they wished to expel on pottery shards, and deposited them in urns. The presiding officials counted the ostraka submitted and sorted the names into separate piles. The person whose pile contained the most ostraka would be banished...
Banishment would be for 10 years although, as property rights were essentially unaffected this constituted a political suspension rather than any more significant – you could get the death penalty for political crimes back then.  Once the term was up the victim could resume their place in the political order as before – in special circumstances people could even be brought back early.

The benefit of ostracism for the Athenians was that it provided a countermeasure against tyranny and could also help decide issues of policy where particular positions were strongly associated with individuals.  With the rise of organised factions, however, its use declined.

Ostraca in the Agora Museum in Athens
Ostracic Voting in Local Democracy Today
Thinking about this I wonder if there are at least four ways ostracic voting might be used in local democracy:

1.         Committee Meetings
Committees could be given the option to decide whether to have an vote and the ability to expel a member of the committee for any period of time. This might improve the performance of the committee and keep individual members on their toes.  It would not affect political balance as a replacement would come from the same party. However, party motives may come to the fore and with a small group, the secret nature of the voting might not be sufficient protection against these motives dominating.  On the other hand, where the committee members are genuinely concerned about the effectiveness of the group it gives them the ability to remove unproductive, disruptive or uninterested individuals.

2.         Council Meetings
Council meetings could be given not so much the power to recall, as the power to eject.  Council as a body would have the option to remove any unproductive, disruptive or uninterested individuals and force a by election in their wards.  Again, this procedure could be subject to group politics but, with a secret vote, that would be more difficult to arrange.

3.         Recall Elections
The procedure of recall elections gives voters the chance to remove unwanted representatives. Ostracic voting provides a different way to organise this. Every year voters would have the chance to nominate a councillor they would like to see ostracised (this could be done on a ward or council wide basis), the councillor with the most votes, perhaps with a minimum threshold would be ostracised, and a by election held.

4.         Local Elections
Finally, ostracic voting might be applied to the local election procedure itself. Voters could rank candidates, not in their order of preference, but in their order of disapproval. Selection could take place on the simple basis of the candidate least disliked being elected or after a series or rounds similar to the alternative vote or single transferable vote.  

All of this might sounds weird but perhaps it is not as weird as all that as this method is already popular.  Just look at any number of reality TV shows such as Big Brother to see ostracic voting in action.

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