The Paradox of Democratic Selection: Is Sortition Better than Voting?

A draft book chapter by Anthoula Malkopoulou:

Sortition, or the selection of political officers by lot, has its antecedent in the direct democratic tradition of ancient Athens. Its transfer into a modern context of representative democracy poses rightful scepticism not only about the practical difficulties, but more so about the theoretical inconsistencies that arise. Modern systems of political representation are based on the aristocratic idea of ‘government by the best’, who are to be selected through a competitive call for candidates (Manin 1997). Sortition, on the other hand, replaces this aristocratic criterion of competition and evaluative election with the democratic mechanics of direct and equal distribution of political office by chance. Hence, the very expression ‘democratic (s)election’ includes a paradoxical contradiction in terms, between the democratic concept of equal access to public office and the aristocratic idea of government by the (s)elected best.

My aim in this chapter is to shed some light into this contradiction by critically discussing the benefits and pitfalls of using sortition today, comparing it throughout the chapter with voting and the general effects of electoral representation. More specifically, my arguments are divided in four sections. I begin by addressing the reasons that drive klerotarians away from electoral representation (1). Next, I consider alternative modes of political ‘outsourcing’, such as the inclusion of civil society actors or the use of quotas (2). I continue by discussing the democratic legitimacy of sortition by dividing the subject in two questions: (a) political equality and (b) political participation (3). Last, I focus on the type of political representation that the lot produces, viewed from the perspectives of descriptiveness, authorization and accountability (4). In conclusion, I suggest that lotteries may offer valuable improvement to current practices of democratic selection, but only if special measures are taken to compensate for the limitations they entail.

Full text (uncorrected draft: not for citation).