Schulson and Bagg: Sortition needs to become part of mainstream U.S. political discourse

Michael Schulson is a journalist who has written before about sortition. Schulson and Samuel Bagg, a democratic theorist at McGill University, have a new article about sortition in Dissent magazine. Here are some excerpts.

Give Political Power to Ordinary People

To fight elite capture of the state, it’s time to consider sortition, or the assignment of political power through lotteries.

Our broken campaign finance system is a longstanding target of progressive ire. And as Republican state legislatures have made increasingly aggressive moves to entrench minority rule, many people are beginning to see a broader defense of democratic integrity as a crucial part of any left agenda. Yet most of the attention of reformers has been limited to the electoral process—perhaps because we tend to assume that getting “our people” into office will solve the problem.

It won’t. Elite capture of the state extends far beyond the influence of large donors on elections.
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Sortition in the New Yorker

Another step in the thousand mile march: Sortition is positively featured in the second paragraph of Masha Gessen’s article in the New Yorker. The oligarchical nature of elections is rather matter-of-factedly asserted:

The concept of democracy rests on the premise that any citizen is a potential member of government. The ancient Athenian choice of sortition—the selection of government by lottery—was based on the understanding that elections would inevitably favor the aristocracy, and in a democracy the government should be a mirror of the governed. The American system has proved the Athenians right. Access to our electoral system is determined by the candidates’ ability to attract financial contributions. The contest itself is rigged in favor of the white, the highly educated, and the privileged—those who reproduce the class, race, and style of their predecessors.

Criteria for the acceptability of an allotment procedure

With the increasing frequency of the application of sortition in society, it has been rightly pointed out that a lack of strict criteria for the validity of the constitutive procedure of the body would allow sortition to be misapplied and manipulated so that its democratic value is annulled. Of course, there are many aspects to constituting political bodies and they all need careful consideration and standardization if we wish to achieve well-functioning democratic decision making. Here I want to advance criteria for standardization of just one aspect – one that is unique to allotted bodies – the allotment procedure.

For an allotment procedure to be considered well designed it should have the following characteristics:

  1. Public statement of n, the number of people who are going to be allotted.
  2. Public statement of the allotment pool – the set of people from whom the allotted will be selected. This statement should make it easy for every person in society to know whether any other person is included in the pool or not.
  3. Public definition of an equal-probability allotment mapping. An allotment mapping is a mapping of each sequence of digits of length L, for some fixed number L, to a list of n people. The mapping is publicly well-defined if it is possible for anybody putting in reasonable effort to determine with reasonable accuracy, given a sequence of numbers, the people who correspond to that sequence. The mapping is equal-probability if the number of sequences which result in a list containing each person in the pool is between N0 and N1 for some fixed numbers N0 and N1, where N1 / N0 < 1.01.
  4. A public definition of a procedure to generate a practically-random equal-probability sequence of L digits. A procedure for generating sequences of digits is practically-random equal-probability if there is a general acceptance that as the procedure is launched as far as anyone can determine every sequence among the 10L possible sequences is equally likely to be the outcome of the procedure.
  5. The random sequence procedure should be launched after the four public statements above were made. Its launch and applications must be public so that it is applied exactly once and once it is applied, its outcome (i.e., the sequence of digits it generated) is immediately public.

Other than the first criterion, all of these criteria are non-trivial to implement. There is, of course, some similarity to a prize lottery procedure, but there are some complications associated with the fact that each person must have exactly one “winning ticket” and of course with the fact that the prize – political power – could be of much greater value than any other lottery prize ever.

In particular, making sure that the digit sequence selection procedure is practically-random equal-probability is fraught with difficulties since any physical randomization device may potentially be rigged by powerful attackers. If you have ideas for rigging-resistant randomization procedures please post them in the comments.

Scotland’s opposition parties attacking the government’s citizen assembly proposal as untrustworthy

The National reports:

Citizens’ Assembly: Scotland in Union tells Scots to stay away
By Andrew Learmonth

SCOTLAND’s staunchest Unionists are trying to kibosh the Scottish Government’s plans for Citizens’ Assembly before they’ve even started.

Scotland in Union has warned Scots to stay away, saying they’ll be “misused” for independence.

Nicola Sturgeon announced the initiative back in May, saying the Government was keen to follow the example of Ireland where the assemblies were used to find consensus on reforming Ireland’s abortion laws. [Details.]

But the Tories and the LibDems have already said they don’t want to be involved, calling the assemblies a “stunt to kick-start the conversation about independence”.
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Bradatan: Today’s democracy favors the the power-hungry, arrogant, oppressively self-assertive political animal

Costica Bradatan, professor of philosophy at Texas Tech University, has a free-ranging essay about democracy in the New York Times. It is a rather incongruous mass of ideas, some more convincing than others. It does mention (approvingly? hard to tell) sortition as one of the fundamental foundations of Athenian democracy.

The institutions of democracy, its norms and mechanisms, should embody a vision of human beings as deficient, flawed and imperfect.

Ancient Athenian democracy devised two institutions that fleshed out this vision. First, sortition: the appointment of public officials by lot. Given the fundamental equality of rights that all Athenian citizens — that is, free male adults — enjoyed, the most logical means of access to positions of leadership was random selection. Indeed, for the Athenian democrats, elections would have struck at the heart of democracy: They would have allowed some people to assert themselves, arrogantly and unjustly, against the others.

The other fittingly imperfect Athenian institution was ostracization.

Bradatan notes how different is the modern system that self-describes itself as “democracy”:
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Sortition at the University of Lausanne

A short video by Michele Andina on swissinfo.ch featuring Maxime Mellina and Aurèle Dupuis from the University of Lausanne discussing sortition.

Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland

The Scottish government has announced that it is going to set up a citizens’ assembly “to help shape Scotland’s future” (turns out this is also a business opportunity):

The process of establishing the new Citizens’ Assembly to explore some of the major challenges facing Scotland has begun.

A contractor is being sought to randomly select 120 members of the public to serve on the Assembly. The individuals will be broadly representative of Scotland’s adult population in terms of age, gender, socio-economic class, ethnic group, geography and political attitudes.

The Assembly will consider three broad issues:

* what kind of country should be

* how can Scotland best overcome challenges, including those arising from Brexit

* what further work is required to enable people to make informed choices about the future of Scotland

Schedule and remuneration:

Members will be identified by early September, with the Assembly meeting on six weekends between the autumn and Spring 2020.

Assembly members will receive a gift of thanks of £200 per weekend to recognise their time and contribution. Travel, accommodation and other reasonable costs, such as child care, will also be covered.

CommonSpace has some reactions from experts. Oliver Escobar, senior lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh and an expert on deliberative/participative democracy inquires about the institutional context of the assembly and wants to make sure it reflects an elite consensus:

This is a momentous announcement – a potential milestone for democratic innovation in Scotland.
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