Papirblat: Getting selected to the Belgian Senate via the lottery

Shlomo Papirblat reports from Brussels in the Israeli newspaper “Haaretz”:

A proposal to select the members of the Belgian Senate at random gains surprising support from politicians in Brussels. The chairperson of the socialist party: “Traditional politics is ailing and new ways have to be considered.”

Senior politicians in Brussels are supporting a legislative reform that could revolutionize Belgian democracy: according to the plan members of the Senate – the upper chamber of the nation’s parliament – would be selected in a lottery that would be held once every four years among the citizenry. The chairperson of the socialist party in the Belgian parliament, Laurette Onkelinx, a former vice prime minister, is saying that “traditional politics is ailing and new ways have to be considered.”

In an interview prominently published Wednesday in the highly regarded “Le Soir” Onkelinx explains that “today’s politicians are generally required to get involved in burning social issues but they are behind – they can’t keep up. On the other hand, more and more grassroot and activist-developed social initiatives are involved in generating solutions.” When addressing the question of who can democracy of “professionals” can be combined with present-day requirements, she said that she thinks that “sortition needs to be adopted to bring normal people to the legislature, at least half the members of the house.”

Parliament members standing outside the federal parliament building in Brussels, 2012

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Timo Rieg: Why a citizen’s parliament chosen by lot would be ‘perfect’

Sortition makes an appearance in the German public discourse. has an English translation of a German article which proposes short-term allotted bodies with decision making power whose agenda is externally determined. The article’s author is described as follows:

Timo Rieg, a German journalist and biologist. He developed and tested the “Youth Citizens Jury”, a form of youth parliament in which members are selected through a draw. He is the author of 18 books. His most recent publication, Democracy for Germany, examines a combination of citizens’ parliament, a directly elected government and referendums.

An excerpt from the article:

‘Citizens’ parliament’

One could firmly establish [a] procedure, which could be called the “citizens’ parliament”. Week by week, 200 new members, selected each time by a draw, could meet in the citizen’s parliament. They could listen to experts and lobbyists in a plenary session, have discussions with their jury and small groups, ask questions, suggest changes and entrust the governing authority to make improvements.

The outcome of this process would be a clear recommendation, a law (or its repeal), and the result is, unlike today’s parliament, always representative! Thus the citizen’s parliament is a “mini-populus”, an almost exact miniature replica of the general public.

All schools of thought, all social backgrounds, all occupations, artistic interests and hobbies would be proportionally represented. No one and nothing would be forgotten, and yet it’s both technically and financially a manageable size.
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The corrupting effects of “money in politics” – campaign finance and lobbying – are a frequent target for political reform. The underlying idea for this agenda seems to be that elected officials promote particular interests because they expect monetary reward, either as contribution for their re-election campaigns or, through some other channel, to their personal pockets.

Lawrence Lessig, law professor at Harvard, has now announced a presidential campaign that he presents as being based solely on the notion of tackling the corrupting influence of money in politics. Lessig seems to believe that a wide consensus among US voters can be created around this issue and that this issue would be compelling enough for voters to de-prioritize other issues to support this one since – as Lessig presents things – the issue of money in politics is preliminary to all other issues because until it is dealt with the corrupting influence of money makes progress on other issues unfeasible.

Lessig’s presents three items in his reform agenda. Two of those items – changing the way electoral districts are created, and reducing obstacles to voting – are commonplace electoral reform items and seem not to have much to do with money in particular. The third item is about pouring more money into electoral campaign – either by using public-funded matching or by using campaign funds vouchers. Those are presumably supposed to decrease the corrupting influence of money because the additional campaign funds are not a-priori unequally distributed.

Lessig seems to believe that with his activism and with this campaign he is striking at the root of the problem of modern politics. There are several reasons to infer that he is misguided.
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Creating a Framework for Sortition

Dr. Roslyn Fuller is a lecturer in International Law based in Ireland. She is a regular contributor to Irish and international media on world trade, privacy, whistle-blowing and the War on Terror. A great fan of the classics, she has been researching democracy for over a decade and is the author of Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed its Meaning and Lost its Purpose, to be published by Zed Books in November 2015. [Welcome to Equality-by-Lot! -YG]

When I first started researching ancient, democratic Athens, I was struck by the layers of randomness built into the political system. Sure, it wasn’t a utopia, but under Athenian democracy wresting control of the decision-making process was at least a difficult and continuous task, because the thrust of the system worked against what Robert Michels would have termed ‘the Iron Law of Oligarchy’.

Lottery selection for most office-holders, as well as for Athens’ enormous juries was one aspect of that randomness. The more I read, the more I was impressed not just with the practice of sortition, but the way the Athenians went about it: dropping their pinakia (identity-tickets) into baskets, having them shaken up, the presiding official randomly drawing a ticket, that person becoming the pinakia-inserter and in turn randomly drawing tickets, dropping the kyboi, or coloured balls, randomly down the kleroterion’s funnel. The Athenians were clearly determined to bastard-proof their system. In my view, their paranoia was justified, and represented nothing more than healthy respect for the criminal (or oligarchic) mind.

But there’s not much point in creating such a fool-proof sortition system if the overarching politics doesn’t change as well. As we all know, in Athens the process of sortition didn’t run in parallel to a sophisticated and expensive electoral system; it ran in parallel to the Assembly. Whatever else one may want to say about Assembly, it was the national focal point for the issues of the day. Assembly attendance was also somewhat random (if self-selecting) in that it generally depended on who showed up of their own volition. A rhetor never looked out on the exact same Assembly twice, and while the ‘professional’, often affluent, rhetors certainly wielded a great deal of influence, they never did know when some unknown citizen would pop out of the woodwork and carry the day against them. Power was possible; power consolidation more of a challenge.

It was this Assembly that was down with sortition in its various forms. It’s hard to look at Athens and see how sortition could have existed side-by-side with the kind of entrenched and powerful electoral politics practised today.
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