An unexpected election result

This seems a topical moment to talk about the world's first election that didn't quite go to plan.  It happened in 416BC, or thereabouts, in ancient Athens.

Back then two men were vying for control of the city: Nicias and Alcibiades.

Nicias was a crusty old conservative General and an associate of Pericles.  (Pericles had died thirteen years before.) 

Alcibiades was a charismatic, handsome, intelligent, deceitful, self-serving and utterly untrustworthy distant relative of Pericles.  If you think a combination of used car salesman and junk bond trader you won't be far wrong.

A vote against Hyperbolas, from the excellent site

A vote against Hyperbolas, from the excellent site

To put it mildly, these two didn't along.  They both controlled factions that between them were tearing apart the General Assembly, which was the world's first democratic parliament.  

Now in Athens they didn't need elections to their parliament, because every citizen was his own representative.

But they did have elections to exile people from the city.  This was called an ostracism.  The way it worked was that once a year anyone could propose that there be an ostracism.  If the Assembly voted in favour, then it was certain that someone was going to get tossed out, but no one knew yet who that someone was.  They had to have a vote.

This was a vote you wanted to lose, since the "winner" was exiled for ten years.  

On election day every citizen would write the name of the person they wanted to see gone.  Whoever got the most votes was the loser.  The voting slips were broken pieces of pottery, of which Athens had plenty since almost every type of food in every kitchen was stored in ceramic jars.  The ancient Greek word for pottery shard is ostrakon.  The vote was named after the voting slip: ostrakismos. Hence our English word ostracism is named for broken bits of pottery.

So Nicias and Alcibiades were causing lots of trouble, and everyone would be quite happy to see one or the other ostracised.

A dodgy minor politician named Hyperbolos, who wanted more power, realized he could make use of this.  He proposed an ostracism.  The followers of both Nicias and Alcibiades thought this was a wonderful idea, imagining the other side's leader being told to pack his bags.  The vote passed easily.

It was at this point that Nicias and Alcibiades both became very, very uneasy.  Neither was certain he'd survive the vote.

The two got together for a quiet chat, and probably through gritted teeth for the first time in their lives managed to agree on something.  

They both told their followers to vote for Hyperbolos.

When the count was complete, Hyperbolos was the one who ended up being ostracized.  Which probably isn't what he had in mind when he proposed the vote.

The result was such a shocker that the Athenians never again held an ostracism.

The voting slips when they were done with were used as landfill, since ceramic is kind of hard to get rid of any other way.  Thousands of these ostraka have been dug up around Athens.  The one in the picture has the name Hyperbolas written around the edge.  This is one of the votes that did him in.



Elections and Luck

With elections coming up for our friends in the US, here's a quick description of how you'd be voting if we were all back in ancient Athens.

Every election was a combination of vote and lottery.  The Athenians fiddled with the voting system constantly.  They'd only just invented democracy after all, and they weren't afraid to experiment to see what worked best.  But the system always had the same basic elements.  It went something like this:

  1. Each of the ten tribes took it in turn to supply candidates.  (So that each tribe supplied officials once every ten years.)
  2. The tribe whose turn it was selected candidates for all the elected positions.  The candidates were selected by lottery from across the tribe.
  3. All the citizens of Athens then voted from among the randomly-selected candidates for who they thought would do the best job.

Note the lottery system.  It guaranteed that, unlike modern systems, everyone had an equal chance of one day holding office, and that serial power-seekers hadn't a hope.

If you'd asked an ancient Athenian, they would have told you, in all seriousness, that the lottery system was an essential part of any democracy, and that any state that didn't have a luck element wasn't a true democracy.  Plato's quite famous for saying that anyone who wants power, shouldn't have it.  But that was actually the default Athenian view.