Two newspaper items

The Irish Times carries a piece by Paul Gillespie about Citizen Assemblies and Fishkin’s Deliberative Polling: More power to the people may help politics.

The Jackson Sun, from Jackson Tennessee, carries a letter from Richard Ward which is worth quoting in its entirety:

There are other ways to elect politicians

A recent letter to the editor headline read, “It’s up to voters to fix America.” The letter was dandy, but if that succulent headline be true, then America shall never be “fixed.” Voting is the “adultified” version of the patently adolescent popularity contest. That’s all elections are. It is precisely what has gotten us to where American is today. Refusal to abandon proven failures is a definition of insanity.

Voting is not the only way to choose politicians. Voting is not even the most democratic way of choosing representatives who are for the people. Setting aside spelling bees, beauty pageants, boxing matches and other such non-logical possibilities, election-by-lot becomes the supremely democratic system of electing an open candidate in every election instead of by an anonymous, secret-ballot voter.

Too chancy? So say those who automatically discount the factor of divine intervention. Under a political lottery system — the Golden-Age Greeks called it sortition — any string of presidents, congressmen and/or judges would represent a cross-section of the whole population instead of the assemblage of ego-maniacal popularity freaks who are answerable only to their respective popularizers reigning over propaganda central USA. And election-by-lots is biblical, too.

Lotteries for Education now available

Lotteries for Education: Origins, experiences, lessons by Conall Boyle is now available from Amazon or directly from the publishers, Imprint Academic.

The Blurb reads:

Lotteries are widely used to decide places at schools, colleges and universities. Conall Boyle explores many examples to find out why. The emotional turmoil that the use of ballots can cause to students and parents alike is graphically described. But lottery selection teaches lessons too; now we can find proper answers to controversial questions like “Does choice work?” This book will be of interest to parents, pupils and teachers as well as educational administrators. Any student applying for admission onto a university course should learn about the amazing weighted lottery for entry to medical schools in the Netherlands. There is a better way: it’s a lottery!

C. L. R. James: ‘Every Cook Can Govern’ (1956)

Marxist theorist and activist C. L. R. James, in his 1956 essay ‘Every Cook Can Govern‘, did not offer any specific plan for incorporating sortition into modern government. Instead, James forcefully offers sortition as a radical tool for democratizing government, reflecting in practice the idea that served as the title of his essay.

James began as follows:

The Greek form of government was the city-state. Every Greek city was an independent state. At its best, in the city state of Athens, the public assembly of all the citizens made all important decisions on such questions as peace or war. They listened to the envoys of foreign powers and decided what their attitude should be to what these foreign powers had sent to say. They dealt with all serious questions of taxation, they appointed the generals who should lead them in time of war. They organized the administration of the state, appointed officials and kept check on them. The public assembly of all the citizens was the government.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Greek Democracy was that the administration (and there were immense administrative problems) was organized upon the basis of what is known as sortition, or, more easily, selection by lot. The vast majority of Greek officials were chosen by a method which amounted to putting names into a hat and appointing the ones whose names came out.

Now the average CIO bureaucrat or Labor Member of Parliament in Britain would fall in a fit if it was suggested to him that any worker selected at random could do the work that he is doing, but that was precisely the guiding principle of Greek Democracy. And this form of government is the government under which flourished the greatest civilization the world has ever known.

2010 midterm elections: a call to action

The U.S. mid-terms elections are drawing near, and with them a valuable opportunity for promoting an alternative mechanism for appointing officials, as voters are made to choose between two candidates, neither of which they find very appealing. Disappointment with Obama, the man who was perceived as the alternative to a widely unpopular president, is palpable, and while approval for Republicans in Congress has recovered slightly as approval for Democrats has sunk, both parties now suffer from similarly low ratings.

I suggest taking advantage of the opportunity by creating a half-page ‘sortition manifesto’ and foisting it upon the unsuspecting members of the public as they approach the voting booths. An alternative or additional way to disseminate the manifesto – requiring some monetary expenditure but less effort – would be through a web ad placed on a search engine.

The manifesto could be written as a collaborative effort of all those who are interested in participating. The comments section here could serve as a place to express interest in taking part, and for some initial brainstorming. Work on a specific document could follow.

The uses and risks of ad-hoc decision making by sortition

Stephen Minas sees the proposal for convening a “people’s assembly” on climate change as nothing more than a delay tactic. He writes in the New Statesman:

Chasing the consensus chimera

06 August 2010 11:48

As Australia’s government goes to an election promising consensus-building on climate change, action on the “greatest moral challenge” is again delayed.

Australian Labor fought and won the 2007 election pledging an emissions trading scheme (ETS) by 2010. It will face the people later this month promising to defer a final decision on whether to introduce an ETS to 2012.


A recent poll found that 60 per cent of Australians want an ETS. The global financial crisis is often cited as a reason for weakening demand for action on climate, but Australia did not have a recession. What’s more, many people were persuaded in 2007 of the urgent need to put a price on carbon. They find it difficult to accept that this need has become less urgent, not more, in 2010.

Australian prime minister proposes “people’s assembly” on climate

The Brisbane Times reports that a “people’s assembly” to investigate climate change is being proposed by the Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, as part of her re-election platform:

A JULIA Gillard government would create a ”citizens’ assembly” of ”real Australians” to investigate the science of climate change and consequences of emissions trading, under a plan to build a national consensus for a carbon price.


Few details will be given [in an upcoming speech] about how the citizens’ assembly would operate, other than that an independent authority would select people from the electoral roll using census data. Membership would be optional.

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Institutional design power parameters

Not all decision-making bodies are equally powerful. Even when the area of decision making is given, a decision-making body can be designed so as to wield a significant amount of independent power, or so as to be no more than a rubber stamp for decisions made elsewhere.

Here are some design parameters that impact the amount of independent power of a decision-making body:

  1. Most clearly, an advisory body is less powerful than a body whose decisions are binding.
  2. Period of member service: the shorter the service period, the less time members have to study the decision area and make an informed decision, the weaker is the body.
  3. Ad-hoc, or occasionally convened, bodies are more susceptible to manipulation than permanent, or regularly convened, bodies.
  4. Bodies with a mandate which was pre-determined by an outside political agent are less powerful than bodies that can set the political agenda.
  5. Among bodies with a pre-determined agenda, those that can merely select one of several pre-phrased proposed decisions are weaker than those that can write their own decisions.

Athens had allotted bodies of various types.

The Boule was the most powerful allotted body: it was a regularly convened body, in which members served for a year. It made binding decisions on various issues, including setting the political agenda for Assembly.

The Nomothetai were convened regularly and made binding decisions, but could only accept or veto decisions made by the Assembly, and had to make those decisions within a one-day session. Similarly, the Athenian courts made binding decisions within a one-day session but selected from a pre-set menu of decisions: they could acquit or convict and, if convicting,  select the punishment from a set of two options: the punishment suggested by the accuser and the punishment suggested by the defendant.

Modern sortition proposals range from the weak – Dahl’s advisory bodies, Fishkin’s Delibartive Polls and Leib’s Popular Branch – to the strong – Callenbach and Phillips’s Citizens’ Legislature. The former three would keep ultimate decision power in the hands of elected officials (and those political agents that influence them) while the latter would put significant political power in the hands of the allotted representatives.

Perhaps it is not too early to pay attention to such crucial distinctions.