The election of the doge

The ruler of Medieval Venice was chosen by an exceptionally complex ten-step process of alternating random lots and elections.

Grand Council
Canaletto, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A few weeks ago I wrote about modern democratic electoral systems, and a couple of days ago I wrote about the complexities of the American Electoral College. Today I wanted to go even further back, to the Medieval Venetian Republic. There, the selection of a new leader – the doge – was one of the more complex and baffling electoral processes in history. And even so, though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.

The Great Council of Venice was a large legislative body made up of a relatively small number of noble families. Obviously, everyone wanted to be the doge, but the council was very keen to avoid behind-the-scenes bribery, dirty deals, intrigue, and extended and contentious campaigns. To achieve this, the election of the doge went through multiple steps, all designed to reduce power consolidation.

First, thirty members of the Great Council were chosen at random. Then nine of those thirty were chosen, again randomly. Those nine members picked the next set: forty people from the Great Council. And those forty? Twelve, randomly picked from their number, moved on to the next step. Those twelve chose twenty-five; those twenty-five were randomly pared down to just nine. Having fun yet?

This set of nine members chose forty-five more; eleven were picked – again at random – from those forty-five. The eleven chose forty-one members. Those forty-one (finally!) voted for the doge.

There were some additional checks against skulduggery. Each noble family couldn’t have more than one member in each group, and members couldn’t vote for their own relatives. Every time a set of members voted for the next group, more than a simple majority was required: around three quarters of the voting group had to agree. (For the final election, just 25 of the 41 had to agree.)

To recap, this is the process:
Great Council > 30 > 9 < 40 > 12 < 25 > 9 < 45 > 11 < 41 > 1.

Because of this complexity, the chances of rigging or buying the election were greatly reduced, minority concerns were not buried by the majority, but neither was the majority tyrannized by the minority. Today we only use this kind of random process in jury selection and citizen’s assemblies.

[Thanks to Alistair S. for suggesting this topic.]

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