Sortition and 21st Century Democracy

Sortition and 21st Century Democracy

David Schecter’s presentation at the “Democracy for the 21st Century” conference, Library of Alexandria, Egypt, December 11, 2015

This conference began with a quote from John Kennedy – “the great enemy of truth is not the lie, but the myth.” I believe that the great enemy of truth about democracy is the myth that there is only one democratic way to choose representatives — through elections.

As Dr. Ismail Serageldin suggested, we have been confusing one means of choosing — elections — with democracy itself. And as Dr. George Ishak said, “In the 21st century, we should find new ways to select representatives.” Sortition is one of those ways. Actually, it is not a new way, it’s a very old way. It was used more than elections in ancient Athens, and people wrote about it here in Alexandria 2,000 years ago.

My colleagues, Terrill Bouricius and Oliver Dowlen, have described specific proposals for incorporating sortition into political system design. I would to talk about a whole set of proposals, and a menu of options.

I have been researching proposals like these, and I have also co-authored one. I have found 18 such proposals so far, and I have had the pleasure of corresponding with the authors. They come from Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, South Africa, the U.K., and the U.S. Together, they represent many new possibilities for democracy.

My talk will have three parts. First, I am going to review the rationale for the use of sortition and “mini-publics” – that is, representative samples of the public. I am also going to respond to some common objections to this idea. Second, I am going to describe a menu of options for incorporating mini-publics into political systems. Third, I am going to pose some important questions that have not yet been addressed within these proposals.
Continue reading

Dr. Ron Prestage thanks Congress

Forbes reports:

On Friday, Congress repealed the country-of-origin-labeling rule (COOL) on beef and pork after the World Trade Organization (WTO) imposed $1 billion in retaliatory import tariffs against United States if the rule was not overturned.

90% of those surveyed in 2013 favored country-of-origin-labeling for fresh meat sold in stores.

Dr. Ron Prestage, president of the National Pork Producer’s Council, released a statement expressing gratitude to Congress for repealing COOL. “I know tariffs on U.S. pork would have been devastating to me and other pork producers,” he said.

2015 review – statistics

Below are some statistics about the sixth year of Equality-by-Lot. Comparable numbers for last year can be found here.

2015 Page views Posts Comments
Jan 2,648 15 256
Feb 3,453 10 284
Mar 3,168 8 169
Apr 2,497 7 137
May 2,947 13 124
June 2,593 5 137
July 1,933 5 72
Aug 1,966 5 94
Sept 2,592 11 136
Oct 2,455 10 189
Nov 2,109 12 185
Dec (to 28th) 1,671 6 109
Total 30,032 107 1,891

Note that page views do not include visits by logged-in contributors – the wordpress system does not count those visits.

Posts were made by 15 authors during 2015. (There were, of course, many other authors quoted and linked to.)

There are currently 223 email and WordPress followers of this blog. In addition there are 137 Twitter followers (@Klerotarian) and 67 Facebook followers.

Searching for “distribution by lot” (with quotes) using Google returns Equality-by-Lot as the 3rd result (out of “about 16,900 results”). Searching for “sortition” returns Equality-by-Lot as the 3rd result (out of “about 62,200 results”).

Happy holidays and happy new year to Equality-by-Lot readers, commenters and posters. Keep up the good fight for democracy!

2015 review – sortition-related events

This is a review of notable sortition-related events of the year 2015.

Brett Hennig wrote to mention citizens’ assembly pilots and the Irish constitutional assembly which led to the marriage equality vote.

In my mind the two most notable sortition-related events of 2015 were:

  • In Mexico, the Morena party allotted of some of its congressional candidates among the party rank-and-file. This was covered on Equality-by-Lot here (English version), here and here.
  • Leading Belgian politicians from various parties proposed changing the selection method of the Belgian upper house to sortition. This is the most high-profile proposal of its kind of the modern age.

Continuing the trend of previous years, those developments happened in the non-English speaking world. However, they are a reflection of a wide-spread disillusionment with elections – a sentiment that is as common in the English-speaking world as it is outside of it.

In the US this sentiment found an electoral outlet in the surprise strength of the campaigns of two presidential candidates which are perceived as being outside of the electoral establishment – Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. This fact was observed in a relatively well-noticed academic paper in Science journal by Fisman and Markovits about the way class affects policy choices. The authors drew from their work some conclusions that come close to an indictment of the electoral method.

2015 review – images

Images that appeared on Equality-by-Lot in the passing year.

Equality-by-lot 2015 image review

The choice is clear


Prinz and Garry: Democracy is due for an overhaul – could lawmaking-by-jury be the answer?

In an article in The Conversation, Janosch Prinz and John Garry, both from Queen’s University Belfast, advocate for legislation by ad-hoc allotted bodies.

They start off by recounting a standard list of instances of electoral disfunction:

Many will agree that, in practice, democracy leaves a lot to be desired. The system often falls short of its ideals: whether it’s the US congress causing a total government shutdown; Australian prime ministers being ousted by internal party politics; or the UK’s disproportionate electoral system allocating only one seat to a party which received close to 4m votes.

This misses the point. None of these examples is an indication of a problem inherent in elections. The problem with electoralist systems is not that they don’t function but that they function in favor of electoral elites and their allies rather than for the average person.
Continue reading

Dahl: After the Revolution

I’ve been re-reading Robert Dahl’s 1990 book and a section struck me as particularly relevant to some of the debate on this forum:

Perhaps the greatest error in thinking about democratic authority is to believe that ideas about democracy and authority are simple and must lead to simple prescriptions. . . . if you think there are simple prescriptions, then we cannot hope to understand one another. (p.73)

Dahl’s approach, as always, offers a rich combination of historically-informed theoretical analysis, comparative political science and pragmatic policy proposals. From the political theory perspective, he argues that democracy involves a trade-off between personal choice, competence, economy, and the principle of affected interests. Although ‘primary’ (assembly) democracy is generally viewed as the gold standard, considerations of scale mean that other ostensibly non-democratic mechanisms will often lead to a form of democracy that better manages the trade-off than an attempt to approximate the ideal. Polyarchy may well be a poor approximation of ideal democracy but it’s descriptively accurate and a lot better than actual historical alternatives (various forms of oligarchy and dictatorship).

The error of thinking about democracy as a a single form has led to catastrophe in the past; I fear it will lead to disaster in the future.

Dahl’s historical examples include the excesses of the Athenian demokratia, Jacobinism and the attempts to introduce ‘real’ democracy in the former Soviet Union — where the supposed rule of the people’s soviets in effect meant the dictatorship of the leaders of the vanguard party. From the perspective of the future, Dahl spends longer considering sortition (pp. 122-5) than the mere half page in Democracy and Its Critics, but his treatment is cautious — participation by lot should be restricted to selecting advisory councils for elected officials. This is because sovereignty by sortition would contravene principles of personal choice, competence and economy. In coming to this conclusion he ignores the Greek distinction between magistrates and juries and also fails to capitalise on the dual role of polyarchic officials (policy advocacy and judgment), thereby ignoring the potential of sortition in the latter function without undermining his three principles.

P.S. Andre [or any other Rousseau scholar]: Dahl claims (p.139, footnote 10) that Rousseau ‘strongly objects to the selection of representatives by lot’. Is this true? One might well deduce that this was the case, in that he insisted that all citizens should participate in the sovereign assembly, but did he anywhere actually consider sortition for the legislature? Dahl argues that Rousseau’s throwaway suggestion for spatial rotation in Social Contract Ch.XIII (moving the capital alternately from one village to another) was incompatible with his hostility to sortition in the legislative assembly, but to my mind the possibility of spatial rotation would mean that a statistically-representative assembly would not be ruled out as a matter of principle. After all the Greeks did not see any incompatibility between law-making by assembly vote (5th century) and law-making by the vote of an allotted subset (4th century) — the latter was no less democratic than the former.

Robert A. Dahl, After the Revolution? Authority In a Good Society. Revised edition (1990), Yale University Press.

Call for 2015 review input

This is the yearly call for input for the year’s end review. As in previous years, I would like to have a post or two summarizing the ongoings here at Equality-by-Lot and notable sortition-related events over the passing year. Any input about what should be included is welcome – either through comments below or via email.

Again, I suggest having some sort of an award for sortition-related activity, advocacy, or writing, where the awardee is selected by a vote among Equality-by-Lot readers. Nominations are hereby solicited as well.

For previous years’ summaries see: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010.