Sortition Introduction for 21st Century Democracy Conference in Alexandria, Egypt

The Way Forward – by Terry Bouricius

This is the original full draft of an introductory presentation intended to prepare participants of the 21st Century Democracy conference hosted by the Library of Alexandria for the subsequent day’s sessions largely focused on sortition. Due to earlier panels running overtime, this full speech was never presented, and only a few key points were made in an introduction the next day. Note that some underlining and ALL CAPS appear as emphasis aids for reading the speech aloud.

Discussions about the problems of democracy tend to focus on the problems of the elections.

A fundamental point that needs to be understood is that elections are not the same thing as democracy, and are at best one tool for approaching the democratic ideal. Clearly, a system of free and fair elections is a vast improvement over a dictatorship or one-party state. But the ideal of democracy goes far deeper.

The democratic ideal can be summed up as government of, by and for the people. But modern democracies all have government BY a political class that is distinctly different than the people (mostly male, older, wealthier, better educated, etc.)… and whether that government is truly FOR the people is always a matter of debate.

John Adams, one of the founders of the United States wrote in 1776 that a legislature “should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason and act like them.”

The ideal of democracy is that the government should make the same decisions that the people as a whole would make IF they could all have the time, motivation, information, attention, expert advice, access to conflicting points of view, fact-checking of faulty assumptions, and good facilitation. Obviously it is impossible to have all of the people do this on even one issue, let alone the vast number of public policy decisions made every year. But we know exactly how to achieve this ideal by combining the principles of scientific sampling to select a statistically accurate representative mini-public, with good decision-making procedures. The random selection of public officials like this is known as “sortition.”

This would be government BY the ordinary people, rather than by a political class with only the CONSENT of the people.

I want to draw a sharp distinction between the notion of democracy as CONSENT in which the people get to choose between competing teams of wold-be rulers, on the one hand, and SELF rule, in which ordinary people participate in turns to rule themselves.

To elaborate on this distinction, a brief history of democracy and a brief history of elections will help.

The roots of democracy are generally traced to ancient Greece, and Athens in particular. Let’s set aside their narrow definition of citizen, which excluded slaves and women, and focus on the tools of democracy used by that citizenry (however defined).

We learn in school that the Athenian system was a form of “direct” democracy, where citizens made decisions in face-to-face assemblies, without representatives. We learn that although this kind of system could work on a small scale, it would be unworkable for a nation. However, a careful review of the facts reveals a very different story.

Athenian democracy was fundamentally representative. The People’s Assembly was a sample of the demos (80% of eligible citizens were off doing other things during every assembly meeting). Those who attended effectively represented the entire demos.

Sortition was used to fill nearly all public offices including the Council of 500, which prepared the resolutions and agendas for the Assembly. Nearly all magistrates were selected by lot, and usually worked in teams of ten, to avoid risks of corruption or incompetence. The Courts, were made up of randomly selected juries numbering in the hundreds or even a thousand. These randomly selected juries could even over-rule decisions made by the Assembly. Public officials were monitored and audited by other randomly selected panels of citizens. And… of particular interest to many of us…in the reforms around 403 BC, the Assembly gave up authority to make laws, and transferred that responsibility to panels of randomly selected law-makers, known as nomothetai.

To the Athenians, selection by lot was an essential feature of democracy. Elections were barely used at all, and were not seen as a particularly democratic tool. The Athenians only used elections to fill a few specialized positions such as Generals. They regarded elections as inherently aristocratic, since typically only those with fame or wealth could win. In Book IV of Aristotle’s Politics, we read that “the appointment of magistrates by lot is thought to be democratic, and the election of them oligarchical.” This view of the role of elections and sortition persisted through the European Enlightenment and was reiterated by leading political philosophers such as Rousseau and Montesquieu.

Contrary to the common belief that Athenian democracy has little relevance for modern nation states, the Athenians had solved the problem of scale. The Athenians invented a system of government that worked at a larger than face-to-face scale, in which the citizens ruled through representative institutions, mostly selected by lot. It was called “democracy.”

Our systems of elections on the other hand do not have their roots in democracy.

The virtual monopoly of elections as the method of selecting law-makers today was the result of the path that was set upon by American and French revolutionaries of the 18th Century, who did NOT favor democracy (which they saw as rule by mobs and the poor). Rather than advocating democracy, they generally preferred a system modeled on the senate election system of Rome… a republic governed by an elected aristocracy… Thus elections were seen as the ALTERNATIVE to monarchy AND an alternative to democracy. Rather than allowing rule BY the people, elections were intended to give the people a means for CONSENTING to which elites would govern them.

By the early 19th Century political theorists like Alexis de Tocqueville were using the word “democracy” to describe the system of elections in the United States. And today, most people can’t imagine democracy without elections.

The democratic tool of sortition is now mostly limited to such things as the court system in a number of nations that randomly select juries of average citizens to decide guilt or innocence. The modern descendant of assembly democracy is often considered to be the popular referendum process as exercised in Switzerland. But before we consider the possible advantages of such alternative means of democratic self-governance by the people, we should recognize some of the inevitable flaws of elections as a tool for democracy. I want to briefly mention just a few of the flaws that I see as inherent.

A fundamental reality of any system based on mass elections is the concept of “rational ignorance,” a term coined by Anthony Downs in his seminal work, An Economic Theory of Democracy. Having voters who are informed about issues and candidates is essential for elections to “work.” It takes time and effort to overcome ignorance. Since the chance that a single person’s vote will change the outcome of a large scale election is vanishingly small, a cost/benefit analysis shows that it is irrational to commit any effort to overcome one’s ignorance in this situation. The rational thing to do is put in little or no effort to overcome your ignorance — hence, “rational ignorance.”

As a result, many citizens simply don’t bother to vote, and those who do often rely on a variety of mental shortcuts, for deciding how to vote (perhaps party label, ethnic, religious,clan identity, or simply how handsome or self-confident a candidate appears in the media). This leaves voters open to manipulation by skilled public relations and campaign tactics. Elections often devolve to a battle of image and emotional associations rather than substance.

Sortition offers a solution. With a relatively small number of accurately representative citizens empowered to make a group decision, suddenly they have the motivation and opportunity to overcome their own prior ignorance. Unlike a scientific sample of citizens responding to a public opinion poll, which is devoid of deliberation and maximizes citizen ignorance, sortition uses this scientific sampling but then pairs it with good democratic process such as education, expert knowledge, resistance to corruption, etc.

The imperatives of electoral competition encourages candidates to portray their opponents as either foolish or evil. This demonization of the “others” can then have trickle-down negative effects throughout society. The nature of elections is such that it encourages both politicians and their supporters to think of winning elections as a mandate to do what they want. After all, they WON the election. It is reasonable to see elections as the non-violent cognate of civil war. If we have more fighters we would WIN in a battle and get to rule, just as having more voters means we win

The partisanship that is the essence of electoralism, rarely incorporates any meaningful deliberation among diverse members of society. Politics is generally about winning power with little if any opportunity for problem-solving deliberation or seeking win-win solutions to society’s problems. Here again, sortition offers a solution.

Tomorrow’s sessions are full of discussions about real world implementations of forms of democracy outside the customary electoral arena. There is the participatory budgeting movement that took off in Brazil, and then around the world. Experiments with direct democracy and referendums, and most interesting to me, real world use of sortition. Beginning with the establishment of the Citizens Assembly in British Columbia, Canada in 2004, randomly selected ordinary citizens have been convened to tackle a variety of tasks all over the world. They have proposed constitutional amendments in Ireland, and Iceland, adopted municipal budgets in Australia, reviewed citizen initiated laws in the state of Oregon in the United States, and made recommendations on a wide variety of matters in India, China, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and elsewhere. Proposals for how randomly selected citizen juries might make laws, oversee executive departments, fight corruption, and even supplant elections as a whole will be discussed. I think you will all find it an extremely exciting day of presentations and discussions.

14 Responses

  1. Nice presentation Terry (shame you weren’t given the time to present it).

    >It is reasonable to see elections as the non-violent cognate of civil war. If we have more fighters we would WIN in a battle and get to rule, just as having more voters means we win.

    Not just cognate, more descendant. Counting strong right arms is a lot less costly than deciding the outcome via the swords that they hold. It may be just an urban myth that the two warring armies in Parliament are separated by the length of two swords but the Whigs and Tories have their ultimate origins in the English Civil War. If so, then we need to be a little cautious regarding siren calls to abolish elections.


  2. Fine speech, Terry–with many good historical and analytical points–even if, unfortunately, you were not able to deliver it as planned.

    Elections, as you say, are not the same thing as democracy. But neither, I must add, is sortition. The difference is that while sortition is a tool of democracy, election is not. So, rather like elections are an improvement over unadorned dictatorship but do not amount to democracy, sortition would in turn be an improvement over today’s electoral system but would not BY ITSELF equate to the attainment of “the ideal of democracy” properly understood. Sortition is an essential mechanism for selecting the members of EXECUTIVE bodies in a democracy, but the LEGISLATURE can and should be left, as in early Athens, as the entire citizen body. Speaking of which: unlike your proposed mini-public legislature which is literally and by design oligarchical (the rule of the few), the early Athenian Assembly was in principle a legislature of all the citizens since all were free to participate although not all did so simultaneously on any given day for purely logistical reasons. Yes, democracy is indeed government of, by, and for the people; however, I disagree that it is “obviously” impossible to have all the people make the necessary major decisions in society together.

    Here are two serious, PRACTICAL–not just quibbling or abstract–problems I see with a mini-public sovereign legislature (as opposed to a lot-chosen executive):

    (1) Although it is quite easy to obtain a sample of the people that is statistically, veritably representative of the general population, the moment they are installed into office these few individuals will not BE the people but rather have power OVER the people, and even if they do not overnight turn into a full-on cabal of Hitlers and Stalins and Bushes, the psycho-social dynamics of having a TINY group of rulers with such power will without doubt result in something substantially if not tragically short of anything resembling democracy–which it will NEVER be, technically speaking. In other words the selected persons will not remain ordinary citizens any more than a common working Joe would remain so after being crowned emperor (even if for a year only).

    (2) Having so few people with official governmental power will make it child’s play for society’s elite to control them one way or another (the means are endless), including of course through bribery but not excluding outright coercion or violence. This possibility (indeed likelihood) is eliminated in real democracy, where all the citizens equally share power and, due to sheer numbers, cannot be effectively bridled. We cannot afford to underestimate the resourcefulness and the sheer, inveterate ruthlessness of the powers that be.

    The problem of the people being able adequately to handle the vast and complex workings of government is resolved not by eliminating all but a handful of the population from decision making and endowing the remaining chosen few with “the motivation and opportunity to overcome their prior ignorance,” but rather by creating a legislature of the needed scale and sophistication so that all the citizens can participate effectively (I suggest one such model at, under “The Idea.”)


  3. Ted,

    I agree with your two objections. The mistake that most advocates of minipublics make is by seeing them as analogous to existing legislatures in which elected persons are entitled to introduce and act as advocates for or against legislative proposals. As soon as this happens the differentials in the persuasive power of the speech acts involved will destroy the aggregate representativity of the sample. Kleroterians also conflate the fact that the blind break of the lottery protects the political process from ex-post corruption and factionalism with the notion that such a body is incorruptible. Of course as soon as the sortition has been made, rich and powerful lobbyists will overwhelm the allotted members, as will the so-called impartial advisors and facilitators required to ensure that the deliberation is adequately informed. This is why the role of minipublics has to be limited to considering the evidence for and against a proposal and then voting. This was how the 4th century legislative courts functioned and the Athenians did not view this as in any way a reduction of their democratic freedoms (in fact Aristotle viewed the juries as far more democratic than the assembly, that’s why he didn’t like them).


  4. Ted,

    Ah… there is the nub of the dilemma… What system would minimize the risk of either corruption or elite manipulation of the average citizens in making decisions? Your point is the sheer number of citizens participating in a vast array of assemblies makes bribery impractical, whereas a small number of randomly selected citizens would be a clear and small target…and if serving for any length of time would also suffer various psychological tendencies that moved them away from being average citizens. Those of us who are skeptical of mass-participation assembly or referenda systems, on the other hand, point out that due to rational ignorance, media control, and related factors, elites have a BETTER chance to corrupt and manipulate people when they are in such mass situations. It is true that small groups CAN be corrupted and manipulated UNLESS the design of the system is carefully constructed, (short duration terms, adequate compensation, independent enforcement and sting operations to effectuate anti-corruption laws, independent mini-publics overseeing and auditing executives and other elements of the system, etc.) But NO design configuration can overcome the reality of rational ignorance in mass participation schemes, (other than a hypothetical total redistribution of wealth such that no person or corporation has any more resources to influence the people than any other person.)


  5. Terry,

    The variant of the “rational ignorance” argument I first heard long ago in college was that it was irrational to make even the mere effort to vote (never mind informing oneself beforehand) since in large-area elections any one vote is effectively insignificant while the effort to vote is not negligible for the individual voter. I knew immediately (I was already a community organizer at the time) that this argument, though superficially plausible and held by otherwise knowledgeable professors, is patently false. Any number X is greater than X-1 every time. EVERY person’s contribution to a successful collective effort–whether moving a boulder or electing a candidate or a measure–no matter how small a fraction of the total, counts, and ordinary people know this even if many academics don’t. The phenomenon of the masses either not bothering to vote or voting unwisely in candidate elections has nothing to do with any “rational ignorance” calculation but rather is explained by other reasons intrinsic to this particular, farcical way of making “choices.” More broadly, as political activists (of whatever sort), we must not accept the fallacy that in modern mass society no one person’s contribution to very large undertakings is significant. This attitude is a prescription for paralysis and defeat.

    What does it mean to “corrupt” an entire population when it is voting on a measure like, say, creating a national park? You can’t bribe all of the people by giving them a large sack of money beforehand or promising them a life of luxury afterward (as happens with candidates). People will certainly be influenced by their fellow citizens as well as by all manner of groups and other entities (like media corporations), who naturally have varying degrees and kinds of abilities, prominence, and means and therefore varying influence upon the citizenry. This is unavoidable. No social planner can possibly expect to be able to insulate voters completely from such influence. But it does not amount to corruption or even necessarily to “manipulation”; it’s just a normal feature of living in a diverse society. All we can (and I would argue SHOULD) do is give everyone the opportunity to cast their votes freely and directly on important measures. The ideas and motives in their minds–and where they came from–when they pull the lever is none of our concern. (The people themselves, through the democratic process, i.e. their votes, may in due time decide to rein in certain groups or corporations deemed noxious in their social behavior, but that is entirely up to them.)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ted,
    Yes, rational ignorance can be related to the paradox of voting (why does anyone bother to vote in a mass election), but that is not my point. Although many people do vote (usually a minority in most U.S. elections) almost none of the voters take the time to REALLY understand the issues and policy ramifications in a referendum elections, or really learn about the candidates in a candidate election. Voting in a mass situation is almost always based on what Daniel Kahneman calls system one (fast or emotional) thinking, rather than system two, slow rational thinking. Only when the importance of one’s participation is magnified (by being part of a relatively small group) can people be motivated to spend the time and effort to make good decisions. The analogy can be made to a game of tug-of-war… researchers consistently find that when people are part of a huge group participating, nearly every participant pulls with far less effort than when the teams are small. Simply put… the amount of effort required by each citizen to make good decisions cannot be elicited in mass situations. Either they won’t attend the assemblies, (if you think voter turnout is low in the U.S. now, participation in such assemblies would be miniscule) or those few who do attend assemblies (with the accompanying self-selection bias), will generally not spend the necessary time and effort to form their own judgements, and will instead rely on faulty heuristics (following the lead of ethnic/religious leaders, media corporations, celebrities or whomever). Mass assembly democracy may be “democratic” by some definition, but it will not elicit the considered judgement of the people, and instead allow elites to control decision-making. The saying that “when everybody is in charge, nobody is in charge” is not quite right, because the wealthy and powerful can take charge in such situations.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Ted,

    >EVERY person’s contribution to a successful collective effort–whether moving a boulder or electing a candidate or a measure–no matter how small a fraction of the total, counts.

    But we are not ants, we are rational persons and, as the difference one individual makes to the outcome in a large-scale election is negligible, there is no reason to make the effort to understand the issues involved.

    >as political activists (of whatever sort), we must not accept the fallacy that in modern mass society no one person’s contribution to very large undertakings is significant. This attitude is a prescription for paralysis and defeat.

    Activists, in particular, should not confuse ought and is. It’s better to start with a hard-headed analytical and empirical approach and then introduce normative considerations.

    >You can’t bribe all of the people by giving them a large sack of money beforehand or promising them a life of luxury afterward (as happens with candidates).

    That’s the corollary of rational ignorance — you can’t bribe all the people as the causal power of their individual vote is negligible.


  8. Even more severe than the rational ignorance issue (which is indeed a significant problem) is the problem of agenda setting. Who will draft the proposals upon which the assemblies would vote? If the drafters are members of an elite (as is the case in “popular initiative” systems) then this would bias the proposals to serve elite interests.


  9. Terry, what if the tug of war was not a friendly game with no consequences but rather a deadly serious contest with literally life and death consequences (imagine giant, closely spaced circular saw blades in the middle)? I guarantee you the numerous participants would pull plenty hard! The Athenian citizens regularly faced decisions of the latter type in their WELL-ATTENDED assemblies (after all, they themselves fought en masse in their epic wars). And all indications are that they considered the issues carefully and informed themselves assiduously. I don’t think that drastically reducing the number of decision makers is necessary to elicit well thought out decisions–in other words, that these kinds of decisions are impossible in mass situations. Another–from a democratic viewpoint far preferable–method of attaining them is to (a) simply make the voting on issues rather than on candidates, (b) make the agenda-setters a lot-chosen council of ordinary citizens; this will result in measures that are far more relevant to the general population and more intelligibly composed than the arbitrary, abstruse, and confusing, if not downright deceptive, initiatives underwritten today by the wealthy, by corporations, and by special interests, and (c) create a council system with a national council in addition to the local councils, so that the measures on the agenda will include those of the greatest importance to the entire nation.

    I contend that mass assembly democracy not only “may be democratic by some definition,” but rather is the only kind of government that is truly democratic. In any event, my goal is precisely this kind of democracy, regardless of the putative quality of the decisions it produces. In other words, I am for the freedom of the people to govern themselves whether “well-informed” or not (they can and will educate themselves once they have power, not before). Anything less is oligarchy of some kind, no matter how erudite. And to promote this is, frankly, intellectual elitism.

    Yoram, the agenda drafters in the system I envision would not be an elite of any sort but rather a representative sample of the population (chosen by lot), similar to the Athenian Council of 500, which was composed of ordinary citizens.


  10. Ted,

    >The Athenian citizens regularly faced [literally life or death] decisions in their WELL-ATTENDED assemblies (after all, they themselves fought en masse in their epic wars). And all indications are that they considered the issues carefully and informed themselves assiduously.

    Yes that’s very true — this is at the heart of Constant’s distinction between ancient and modern liberty. Are you suggesting we re-engineer literal life and death consequences (for the decision makers) in order to establish an archaic form of liberty irrespective of the quality of the decisions, simply because it cannot be categorised as oligarchical? This really is taking us in the direction of the Killing Fields and makes me even more alarmed than Yoram’s “common sense” perspective on democracy.


  11. Ted,

    > the agenda drafters in the system I envision would not be an elite of any sort but rather a representative sample of the population (chosen by lot), similar to the Athenian Council of 500, which was composed of ordinary citizens.

    Aha – this is a crucial factor. The system that you are suggesting is therefore – just like the Athenian system – a hybrid of a democratic element (the Council) with an oligarchical element (the Assembly). It should certainly be superior to the current system which is purely oligarchical.


  12. Hi Ted,

    You might want to read Terry’s paper “Democracy through Multi-Body Sortition: Athenian Lessons for the Modern Day” in the Journal of Public Deliberation (, which has a detailed analysis of Athenian democracy in the second hundred years, and a detailed description of his proposed legislative model.

    For ideas about randomly-selected groups of ordinary people playing roles in initiative and referendum, an interesting source is a paper by John Gastil and Robert Richards, Making Direct Democracy Deliberative through Random Assemblies (


  13. Yoram:>The system that you are suggesting is therefore – just like the Athenian system – a hybrid of a democratic element (the Council) with an oligarchical element (the Assembly).

    That’s not how the Athenians viewed it. As far as they were concerned the assembly was sovereign and the secretariat that prepared the agenda was selected randomly in order to preserve this sovereignty. Why do you seek to privilege your god’s eye perspective over that of the Athenians? Were they suffering from false consciousness?


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