Robin Cohen: Beating the Cambridge Analyticas

Robin Cohen, Senior Research Fellow at Kellogg College and Emeritus Professor of Development Studies at the University of Oxford, writes in OpenDemocracy about his concerns following the “Cambridge Analytica” scandal:

We are now all aware of how our electoral systems have been manipulated by harvesting our digital footprints and preferences. Targeted messages, images and false information are then deployed to support or denigrate particular candidates, with no verification and no disclosure of the source of the posts.

We need to change the game to outsmart the Cambridge Analyticas. The best way to do this is vastly to increase the pool of candidates, then select our representatives by lot. This is technically known at sortition, or demarchy.

The system has many advantages, but in this context it would make digital electoral fraud uneconomic and, indeed, pointless. Allocation of offices by lot now gets an increasingly respectful hearing from political theorists [See, for example, Peter Stone ‘Sortition, voting, and democratic equality’, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 19 (3), 2016, 339-56, DOI: 10.1080/13698230.2016.1144858]. There is even a Sortition Foundation set up to promote the idea worldwide.

Here are just some of the advantages:

  • Corrupt, power-hungry or narcissistic politicians will be stopped in their tracks.
  • A public service ethic will be enhanced.
  • As the pool of talent will be massively enlarged there is a good chance that we will get better public servants compared with those who are self-selected or supported by special interest groups.
  • Party loyalties will be diminished, limiting block votes (whipping) and encouraging individual judgement.
  • Given random selection, our representatives will be more representative of the population. There will be no need for women-only shortlists or positive discrimination to include hitherto excluded minorities.

There are two obvious objections to sortition. First, unsuitable people might be drawn by lot. Second, it is generally acknowledged in the literature that the system works best in small communities or assemblies. How damaging are these objections?
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A bold new trust-building project called a Community Solutions Panel

From the Byron Shire Council website:

Community Solutions Panel
What infrastructure spending should we prioritise, and how should we fund these priorities if the rates alone are not enough?

This is the question that Byron Council will put to a randomly selected group of 28 people as part of a bold new trust-building project called a Community Solutions Panel.

Council has chosen to work with the newDemocracy Foundation to see if a community deliberation can be designed which delivers an informed voice of everyday people.
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Some consider Switzerland as a laboratory for democratic experiments. The Swiss town of Bienne exemplifies this trend. This city of more than 50,000 inhabitants is home for a movement called Passerrelle.

Having been created in 2008, Passerrelle recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. In 2011, they advocated for the involvement of foreigners in communal policies. This step toward openness demonstrates their philosophy: use everybody’s ideas. In 2017 Passerelle has proposed the creation of citizen assemblies. The assemblies would suggest ideas for solving municipal problems. Like many sortition proponents, Passarelle mentions the reliance on sortition in ancient Greece.

Two bridges which link different landscapes or methods.

Passerelle is putting up a candidate for the March 2018 elections of Berne’s regional council. Ruth Tennenbaum is the name of their candidate. This is an unimportant detail since, as a hack of the Swiss electoral system, Tennenbaum will resign as soon as she gets elected. I already wrote about a method used by Demorun to mix the electoral system with random selection in a previous post. Passerelle aims to go further and make the random selection after the vote to avoid any possible personification occurring during the campaign. Some “technical” details remain to be decided: the list they will pick from and the method used to perform the random selection. On this latter point I contacted a source close to Passerelle who told me that they might use the method I described in a previous post! The election takes place on the 22nd of March. A story to be continued…

Thank you for reading! If I forgot something, the comment section is just below.

This post was originally published on The sortition blog.

It’s the Economy, (not) stupid!

I’ve never met Paul Wyatt – who describes himself as a self-producing filmmaker and media consultant. I’ve admired his work from a distance though, both as an inspiration for my own efforts to transform myself into a multi-media journalist and also for the subject matter he’s currently focused on.

I’m highlighting his work to Equality by Lot readers as you may be able to help him – right now – to raise some money to promote the cause of random selection and deliberation as it relates to economic policy. The challenge he’s facing is directly relevant to EbL readers. You are people, I assume, who are intent on spreading awareness and best practice of sortition in its different forms.

If Paul gets the money, and completes his film, we’ll all have a tool to help us argue the case for citizens to get a stronger voice in directing economic policy.

That’s why I’m spending some of my time writing this blog post.

Paul is crowdfunding for the money to complete a film on the RSA’s Citizens’ Economic Council.

The RSA programme gave randomly selected British citizens a non-binding say on national economic policy, and influence over the future of the UK economy.

So far, so so, you demanding EbL readers would say. You’d be right, of course, the Council conclusions didn’t oblige any policy maker to do anything with those findings, regardless of how good they might have been. Not at all best practice in sortition land but not catastrophically bad either.

The RSA initiative has had some heavyweight endorsement from the likes of Andrew Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England. Who knows how far its recommendations will make it through the mechanisms of government and public policy? Perhaps its best legacy will be to move the debate and practices forward for others to then pick them up in turn.

Paul secured an RSA commission to document this event – something he did with skill and style in the short film shown below. You can access the kickstarter campaign via this link, and share it far and wide to your networks.

Kialo discussion on lottery is a website featuring a form of debate that is unlike most discussion platforms on the internet. Instead of the usual bulletin format – where debates are often repeated, trolls derail discussions and things can get rather emotional – Kialo focuses on a tree structure. Each argument has pros and cons hanging beneath it. This has the benfit of being concise, the argument following a logical pattern and things tend to stay more focused.

Here’s a short video on how it functions.


The reason for bringing this up, is that a new debate has started on lottery: Lottery should be an integral component of democratic political systems. Bring in arguments of your own! Let’s debate the issue.

Criteria and two proposals for the use of sortition in politics

The Dutch organization has published a document (Dutch, German, Français, English) with criteria for the application of sortition in a political system and with two proposals for the use of sortition in the European political system.

The criteria deal with how the agenda is set, the sampling system, the size of the allotted chamber, its service term, its powers – advisory or binding and the potential for manipulation.

The two proposals are:

  • a “transitional” system in which the size of an allotted chamber is determined by the number of voters indicating support for this chamber during elections, and
  • a ‘European Citizens Jury’ – an allotted chamber set up as a review chamber next to the European parliament.

From the introduction:

According to historical sources, our political system was developed to protect the elite AGAINST democracy (sovereignty of the people). An “Electoral Aristocracy” was installed (18th century). Nevertheless, this can be seen as a positive evolution compared with monarchy.

Later on, some “democratic” elements were introduced, for instance “free”, or so called “democratic”, elections with universal suffrage, the equality principle, freedom of speech, freedom of organization, free press etc. However, some of those elements were moderated or abolished afterwards.

But a “democratic element” is not yet a “democracy”. Freedom of organization may be a “democratic element” without which a democracy cannot exist, but on its own it is no democracy. Hence “free elections”, to appoint a governor for instance, may be a democratic element, but on their own they are by no means a democracy. Furthermore, our political system of representation by elected representatives originates from the Roman Republican system and not from the Athenian Democracy. Calling our political system a “democracy” is deliberately misleading propaganda.
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Let’s do some sightseeing and go to Saillans. A small village in a South of France tried something unusual, and I belong to a collective in Paris wanting to reproduce their experiment. A member sent a bunch of links to videos about Saillans.

Two images to help locating Saillans. Romain Cazé CC-BY

Saillans’ town hall uses sortition massively. 12 randomly selected citizen control the elected official (check 5:00 of this video). They also use random selection to build action groups on specific topics, like designing the city’s urban plan. The experiment demonstrates how we can use chance to enhance citizen involvement. They demonstrate at least two points: (1) Citizens can perform executive functions, and (2) Citizens can be used to control the executive power.

Of course, some locals speak against this method and for them things were better before. And some mayors around look on Saillans with a judgemental eye. They argue that people should not decide on topics unknown to them. We can answer this argument in two ways: people can become experts through action, and certain mayors didn’t have any prior training before their elections.

But the easiest criticism of this experiment is about its scale (Saillans’ population is around 1,200 inhabitants). Hey, we need to start somewhere and better start at the smallest scale possible. I like the bottom-up approach and believe that a revolution should be done one step at a time. The town hall has worked this way for four years now. A story to be continued…

Thank you for reading! Write below, if you want to add information about Saillans or why you agree or disagree.

This post was originally published on