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.

5 Responses

  1. Very interesting new material from Colomar (well new to some of us). I was especially struck by the way he conflated Sortition with Rotation, and short fixed terms.

    Many organisations have instituted a rotating presidency arrangement, such as the EU. Whether this constitutes true sortition is debatable. It doesn’t seem very effective either – witness the German Green party which has dropped the idea.

    Somehow, continuity needs to be maintained, otherwise the bureaucrats take over.


  2. While the short historical review is interesting, the entire analysis is quite shaky. In addition to the matters Peter brings up, three additional weak points are:

    1. Headlam’s argument that sortition in Athens was merely a tool to maintain the power of the assembly is being reproduced as an established fact, despite the fact that no such argument is made by any ancient author, and the fact that it plainly contradicts the “rule and be ruled in turn” motto.

    2. The assertion that sortition is effective only in low-complexity societies. Are elections – which put in power people whose main expertise is in getting elected – supposed to handle complexity more effectively?

    3. The claim that sortition can be used to “diffuse knowledge of public affairs among the members of the community”. Unless the community is very small, the mere use of sortition is unlikely to have a significant educational effect. It may be argued that it is natural to tie educational efforts and democratization of mass media with sortition, but those effects are not automatic, but rather require additional mechanisms and deliberate policy.


  3. I’m not sure about point #3. It all depends upon how frequently sortition is used. The estimates I’ve seen suggest that something like half the Athenian citizenry must have served on the Boule (the great council) at least once in their lives. Given the hundreds of other randomly-selected officials, virtually every Athenian must have served in one or more political offices. John Burnheim’s proposal for “demarchy” would similarly spread random selection pretty far and wide. And so it would probably be realistic to expect political knowledge to be diffused under such circumstances. (Of course, it takes more than just sortition to do this.)

    Incidentally, I got a very thoughtful reply from Colomer. Among other things, he clarified what he intended by associating lotteries with consensus. He believes that there are many circumstances in which fractious societies might be able to agree upon the resolution of contentious social decisions by a randomly-selected decision-making body like a jury, even if they cannot agree on the correct decision itself.


  4. A quick mea culpa. Professor Colomer has further clarified his point to me re: consensus. He is in effect drawing a distinction between legislation and administration, and suggesting that consensus at the former level might be accompanied by sortition at the latter level. I must admit that I am still unconvinced, although I am grateful for the clarification. Athenian politics was surely contentious, and did not require policymaking by consensus, and yet it still delegated administration almost exclusively to randomly-selected boards.


  5. > It all depends upon how frequently sortition is used.

    Slots for any high level position would be rare enough to make the direct “knowledge diffusion” effects negligible. Burnheim’s scheme creates an abundance of low level positions. Experience gained in those positions will have very little to do with gaining knowledge about high level politics.

    > He believes that there are many circumstances in which fractious societies might be able to agree upon the resolution of contentious social decisions by a randomly-selected decision-making body like a jury, even if they cannot agree on the correct decision itself.

    This makes no sense. A society can “agree” to use elections as a way to “resolve contentious social decisions”. Does this mean that elections are “an appropriate formula” for making decisions by “broad consensus”?


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