Encyclopedia Entry on the Lot

The political scientist Joseph Colomer has published several entries in Sage’s new International Encyclopedia of Political Science, including one on “Election by Lot.” Check it out here— 


The article lists some interesting uses of sortition, including some examples from Spain and Latin America with which I was completely unfamiliar. I intend to write to him and ask him for further information about them. 

Colomer does make two arguments about which I have questions. First, he suggests that sortition makes sense “in setting in which an assembly of members or a representative council makes decisions by broad consensus or unanimity.” But I don’t see why this should be the case. Athenian juries decided by majority rule. Second, he suggests that “procedures of rotation by turns of high public offices” will “a priori and in the long term, produce the same effect of random selection as lotteries.” I sincerely doubt that this is true. For one thing, Colomer assumes that sortition always accompanies short terms of office without reappointment. There’s no reason “a priori” why this should be the case. A comparison of the respective merits of sortition-plus-short-terms and rotation-plus-short-terms is just not the same as a comparison of sortition per se and rotation per se. Second, sortition can do things that rotation cannot. Rotation is predictable, whereas sortition (if done with a short enough lead time) is not. This can be good or bad. Predictability makes it possible to bribe or threaten future officeholders, but it also allows officeholders to prepare for their jobs in advance. I discuss the topic in some detail in chapter 5 of my forthcoming book.

On an unrelated note–if you happen to be an Irish lottery enthusiast, then you’re in luck. I’ll be giving a talk at Trinity College Dublin in a few weeks. Drop me a line if you want to know more.