What Sortition Can and Cannot Do

There is considerable disagreement regarding the political potential of sortition. Dowlen (2008) argues that sortition is not primarily a system of representation as its invention in classical time predates the discovery of probability. Fishkin (2009) has long advocated sortition as a method of deliberative polling but has not (to date) suggested that it should be incorporated permanently into the system of governance. A host of writers (including the present author) have argued that sortition should either replace or supplement the institutions of electoral democracy as part of a mixed constitutional settlement. At the opposite end of the spectrum to Fishkin a small number of brave souls (mostly active on this blog) have argued for the wholesale replacement of electoral democracy by sortition. In this post I argue that, for purely conceptual reasons, the role of sortition can only be one, albeit an essential, part of a mixed constitution and that the attempt to extend its usage beyond this role undermines any claims that it may have to be a democratic mechanism. My case is based on some partially developed arguments in Pitkin (1967).

In her book The Concept of Representation, Hannah Pitkin argues that there are a variety of aspects to representation – aesthetic, symbolic, formalistic, descriptive and active – the latter two being the most relevant to political representation. Descriptive representation involves “standing for” and requires a degree of identity between the representative and her constituency, as evidenced by contemporary demands for all-women candidate shortlists and positive discrimination on account of ethnic minorities. Random selection is the best way of achieving descriptive representation, hence James Fishkin’s choice of this method for his Deliberative Polling programme. On the other hand, Active representation requires the representative (in a similar manner to a trustee or advocate) to act in the interests of her constituents; there is no intrinsic need for the representative to in any way mirror their identity, thereby justifying electoral representation in single-member constituencies. According to Pitkin, descriptive representation does not cover what the representatives do, while active representation is indifferent to who does it.
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