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

Book chapter just uploaded to 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 on 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.

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5 Responses

  1. Elitists never tire of offering the same easily refutable, and oft-refuted, arguments against sortition. Unsurprisingly, one can fuel an entire career by repeating arguments in favor of the status quo, no matter how thread-bare.

    A relatively clear glimpse into what is behind Malkopoulou’s argumentation is offered in the “conclusion” section:

    However, the inclusionary function of sortition is a challenge for contemporary democracies that feature broad citizenship and universal suffrage. The recognition of equal competence of all for holding office may be too optimistic, neglecting real-life inequalities between citizens with regard to education, interest and commitment to public affairs.

    The rest, it seems quite clear, is rationalization.


  2. Her conclusion strikes me as factually correct — some citizens are more educated than others and only a tiny minority have any interest in public affairs. While this would not rule out randomly-selected conscripts for short-term legislative jury service (as part of a mixed system of government), it would suggest that sortition could never be an alternative to the election of political office holders.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Anthoula Malkopoulou – possibly unknowingly – creates a problem where there is none. By defining: “… sortition, or the selection of political officers by lot …” a definition which is dangerously wrong.

    Sortition should be used for the appointment of a decision jury which is a very different task compared to deciding the appointment of a political officer. The officer of course should be elected by a sortitioned, deliberatively organised jury.

    Pericles already said: “Although only a few may originate a policy, we are all able to judge it.” Likewise, only a few can be – or should be – a political officer.


  4. HJH,

    >Sortition should be used for the appointment of a decision jury which is a very different task compared to deciding the appointment of a political officer.

    Agree. Although the Athenians appointed both magistrates and juries by sortition they were very clear about the different roles they played. In the fourth century legislative proposals were introduced by a collective magistracy but the decision was in the hands of the allotted jury. Modern political arrangements conflate the different roles — in parliamentary systems MPs are prosecution, defence, judge, jury and executioner. Many modern proposals for sortition also conflate the different functions, for example the subtitle to Oliver Dowlen’s book The Political Potential of Sortition is A study of the random selection of citizens for public office.


  5. More than legislators (especially in a parliamentary system) just blending the different functions that Keith mentions (“prosecution, defence, judge, jury and executioner”), there are other fairly obvious divisions of roles within law-making that could and SHOULD be separated, but aren’t. There is no reason that the people drafting and proposing a law, those amending and perfecting a law, those advocating for a law, and those who judge the proposed laws for final passage should be the same group of people. Indeed, this is a major weakness with many proposals to replace an all-purpose elected chamber with an all-purpose sortition chamber.

    Anthoula Malkopoulou notes 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.”(page 230) The special measures she implies (limiting the role and power of mini-publics) are nearly the opposite of those I propose, but the need to fit the design to the unique character of mini-publics is an important consideration that should not be overlooked. My approach is to subdivide the various legislative tasks in a multi-body sortition design and create a body for each task using a selection method, term or office, etc. to maximize the benefits of sortition and avoid the limitations.


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