Organizations designed and developed using the sociocratic circle-organization method use peer-to-peer elections to produce candidates who are better qualified and leaders who are more trusted. They are used to assign people to jobs, choose operations leaders, and elect representatives to policy-making teams. As groups of people who work together toward a common aim, peers have both a vested interest in selecting the best person for a job and the most information about who that might be.
The process, developed by Gerard Endenburg, is now used internationally in businesses, schools, universities, health care facilities, associations—every kind of organization you can name—to assign jobs and choose leaders. It could be equally well used in local, state, and national governments with far better results than our current elections produce.
The Peer-to-Peer Election Process
In a peer-to-peer election, a group meets for the purpose of deciding who is the best available person. The decision-making method is the consent of all members present or prior consent to using another method. Alternate methods may include range voting, preference voting, majority vote, or any other method chosen by consent. The group may also consent to delegating the final decision.
1. The election leader reads the job description. The group may have previously defined the functions and tasks of the person to be elected and consented to the job description, or it may be done in the same meeting. The election leader may have been previously elected, may be the regular leader of the group, or may be elected in the same meeting. This is determined by the size and complexity of the organization and the nature of the election, whether it is expected to be highly competitive or not.
2. Nominations are submitted in writing as simply X nominates X. People may nominate themselves. They may nominate someone who is not a member of the group or nominate a search to be conducted for someone not a member of the group.
3. Members give their arguments for the person they nominated. All arguments for one nominee are presented in the same round, asking the additional nominators if they have arguments to add to those of the first person to present. The election leader should monitor whether arguments are based on the job description and the ability of the person to fulfill its requirements and stop the presenter if they are not.
4. Change or withdrawal of nominations. After arguments in favor of nominations are presented, members are given the opportunity to change or withdraw their nominations.
5. Open discussion or rounds about qualifications of nominated members. Depending on the size of the group, members then do rounds to discuss the candidates or have open discussion led by the election leader. At this time any concerns about or objections to candidates may be addressed by the candidate or other by other members of the group. When appropriate, the election leader may suggest that one person seems to be the best candidate. The group must consent to this decision.
6. Candidates accept or decline. When one candidate has received the consent of all members present, that candidate is asked if they will accept the position. Candidates are not allowed to decline before this point because some candidates migh decline prematurely for fear of standing for election or inappropriately believing themselves to be unqualified. On hearing why their peers have elected them, candidates are more likely to accept.
Candidates may also accept with provisions, such as a modification in the job description, additional financial or personal support, etc. The group must decide to accept these changes using the previously chosen decision-making method. If they do not, another round may be conducted to elect another of the candidates nominated or a new election conducted.
When Peer-to-Peer Elections Produce Bad Results
There are several points at which a peer-to-peer election process can go awry:
1. Failure to read the job description or adhere to the job definition. Not reading the job description will send the discussion off in the direction of favoritism, sympathy, path of least resistance, etc. The election leader should remind members of the job requirements when necessary. If an alternate decision-making method is used that requires a paper ballot, the job description should be included on the ballot.
During the election process, it may become clear that the job description needs to be amended. After amendment during discussion, the nominations round may need to be repeated.
2. Arguing against rather than for a nominee. When arguments are given, they must be in favor of a candidate, not against another candidate. The election leader should stop any negative arguments or comparisons. During open discussion or discussion rounds, any person may raise concerns about a nominee based on previous actions or statements. Any other person present including the nominee may address those concerns. Both concerns and responses must be based on actual events or data, not potential actions or projected data or personal beliefs about the nature of the job or the person. In some contexts, personal feelings may be appropriate as data.
3. Asking the candidate before they are elected if they will serve. Before an election some people will privately ask a person how they feel about being nominated, but generally this should be discouraged. A peer-to-peer election is about the job to be done and the group’s decision about who can best do that job. The process is designed to determine who that person is and to convince that person they are the most qualified. Peers generally know, or it will come out in the discussion, when a person is unable to serve for personal reasons or because of other professional obligations. Asking them if they are willing to serve, short-circuits the process.
4. Attempting to squelch campaigning before an election. Peer-to-peer elections provide their own protection against electioneering. If the group is truly a group of peers, their sense of each other will be determined by their experiences working together. It would be unusual to be able to change this perception by campaigning. With repeated use of peer elections, campaigning beyond prior conversations between members will disappear. Efforts to stop it distracts the focus, placing energy on the wrong issues.
Campaigns are most effective when voters know nothing except what the campaign says. This is why campaigns are so destructive to the election process.
5. Attempting consent without the conditions for consent. Elections by consent are only workable when all members of a group share a common aim, all participating members are willing to discuss together until objections to candidates are resolved, and all members have reached consent on who may participate in the election.
To repeat, consensus requires a common aim, commitment to resolving objections, and defined decision-makers.
Peer-to-Peer Elections in Local, State, and National Elections
Obviously, the peer-to-peer election process cannot be used today in national elections as the federal government is currently organized, or even in state level government elections.
The beginning will be at the bottom, in our neighborhoods. In our workplaces, schools, and organizations. Once a peer election process is used in local organizations and neighborhood elections, it will be better understood and trusted at the state and national levels. Neighborhood representatives would then elect officials to city and county offices. City or county representatives would elect to state level offices. State level representatives elect to the national level. National level representatives, the current Senate and Congressional members, would elect the president.
There would no campaigning and discussion would be limited to statements for a candidate, not by the candidate, that could be tested against the evidence, on actual work with the person being proposed. Not promises.
This would need a different structure than we have in the United States now in which the national governing bodies, the Senate and House of Representatives, are elected and serve apart from their participation in state level governing bodies. But why? Why don’t state level officials elect national representatives? Aren’t they the best to judge whether their state is being best represented nationally?
By using this process at the local level and in our businesses and organizations we would begin to educate ourselves about how to define jobs, how to argue, and how to determine the best candidates. (Do we even have a job description for any elected official?) A bottom-up process would lead to restructuring government based on successful experience by an educated public. A revolution based on what works better, not how many people get to vote on it.
Our current election system is a sham and not worth conducting. It does not produce democracy for all, or a deeper democracy for anyone.