Boyd Tonkin: We should fill at least some public offices by lottery

Commenter ee notes an article by Boyd Tonkin in The Independent in which Tonkin, after warming up to the issue of popular displeasure with the electoral system, writes:

Most of the sounder proposals to refresh faith in democracy invoke some kind of “deliberative” process. Informed citizens should, in this model, have the opportunity to take part in every link of the decision-making chain rather than simply issue a yes/no verdict at its finale. In practice, how might this noble notion work? Well, here’s one idea that has even less chance of rapid realisation than an 11 per cent pay hike for MPs. We should fill at least some public offices by lottery.

“Sortition”, or the allocation of civic duties by lot, has a distinguished history. If ancient Athens practised it to supply most rotating city offices, then everyone in modern Britain understands it – and almost all respect it. The jury system still commands near-universal consent. People know that jury service modifies the risks of pure “sortition”. It makes provision for reasonable refusal or deferment, for challenges on the grounds of competence or conduct, and above all for guidance from a corps of impartial professionals – in this case, judges. If qualified random selection allows us to send someone down (or not) for life, then why not to decide on speed bumps and swimming pools?

Why should a proportion of time-limited seats on local authorities, on health trusts or even in Parliament not depend on drawing lots? Many of the chosen would naturally wish to dodge or to delay, and might be granted more latitude to do so than with juries. Many others, given a guarantee of fair, accountable advice, would leap at the chance and rise to the responsibility. Imagine a National Lottery show in which the double-rollover jackpot might bring a huge cheque for one lucky winner and a fixed-term place in the House of Lords for another.

At least two substantial books, by Barbara Goodwin (Justice by Lottery) and Neil Duxbury (Random Justice), have in recent years studied the ethics and practice of social lotteries. When I asked Professor Duxbury of the LSE law department about them this week, he rightly pointed out that office-by-lot could never act as a panacea for alienation: “Some citizens randomly selected … would feel empowered or privileged, some would feel resentful or coerced; some would do a good job, some wouldn’t.” Like professional politicians, maybe? “A genuine lottery,” he warns, “takes away choice from the moment one chooses that lottery to make a decision or allocate a resource: we keep our fingers crossed that it works out for the good.”

Professor Duxbury does suggest a method by which “lotteries and votes are combined”. After an electoral count, “each candidate is entered into a lottery in which their chance of winning is determined by the percentage of votes they got”. Hence “the person with the majority of the votes has the best chance, but no guarantee, of being elected”. This procedure “gives citizens who prefer minority candidates a greater incentive to vote”. Secondly, “it gives them an incentive to vote honestly … for the candidate they genuinely prefer”.

3 Responses

  1. Boyd Tonkin reviewed Barbara’s book when it was first published:

    ‘Weighs in as the year’s most dangerous political book. It should provide a sensation. Fat chance’. Boyd Tonkin, New Statesman

    He clearly knows a bit about the topic — this Independent piece was well thought out.


  2. Hi! I have created a facebook about sortition few month ago! there are less than 100 fans so we can still change the name of it. I am looking for people to manage it with me as I haven’t got anought time now.. I’ve seen your blog isn’t present on the social medias, would you be interested in using that tool? If yes, it could be nice publishing the fb page, and asking in the article if some would be interested in participating (not that time-spending).

    Here is the page:


  3. Etienne Chouard TED talk dubbed in English!
    Shaaare for our lazy real democrats!


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