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?

The simplest way to respond is to sketch a short scenario as to how sortition might work, taking a big unit such as England as an example. Regarding ‘unsuitability’, the Greek system survives in jury service where ordinary citizens, chosen by lot, make important and complex decisions on crime and punishment. (In earlier times these were life and death decisions.) Yet, the UK’s jury system is widely admired and emulated.

The issue of scale can be addressed through successive rounds of filtration.

Here Cohen suggests a system where people are allotted into local offices, and upon finishing their terms are allotted into successively higher offices.

When Citizen Politicians reach the National Assembly (the new House of Commons) they will have had ten years of experience dealing with problems and opportunities at all layers of society. However, the pool will be sufficiently large, even at the final level of filtration, to eliminate malicious data mining.

Naturally, there are many unanswered questions. Will there be recusals for medical or emergency staff or for those who are full-time carers? Yes, why not? Will Citizen Politicians be paid? Yes, at different rates at the different tiers. How will executives and cabinets be formed? Probably through slates of candidates elected by Citizen Politicians at each tier. There are other possibilities too. Will there be a Senate? Yes, either through further sortition or perhaps another form of (s)election.

My main point is not to answer every possible question about sortition, but to find a way to defeat the malign intent of those who seek to manipulate and undermine our democratic mechanisms and traditions. No electoral system is perfect and this is true of sortition. However, it is a whole lot better than what we have at the moment – an open goal for hoaxers and rascals.

4 Responses

  1. “There is even a sortition foundatiion” :) at Brett. A related post in English on my blog:


  2. Romain,

    From your post:

    > Elections remains a good choice to designate a leader, when free from any influences. People would vote for a person who represent their interest, in an ideal world.

    This seems to me like a fundamental error. Elections are in fact inherently oligarchical and they are never a good choice for designating a decision making person or body for a country (or any other large group).

    This is caused by “the principle of distinction”. This principle states that elections cannot put into power normal people (since normal people are not known to enough people to be elected). Therefore, the only way elections can produce good government is by having a publicly-minded elite. In the absence of such an elite, no matter how “free from influences” elections are, they cannot produce government that serves the general interest.

    > One can corrupt a random choice only in its very beginning.

    This seems very optimistic. If its design is not well done, an allotted body can be manipulated in various ways: control of its agenda, control of the information that is available to it, manipulation of public opinion, etc.


  3. Yoram: >Therefore, the only way elections can produce good government is by having a publicly-minded elite.

    In practice human agency is a combination of self-interest and attempts to do the right thing (as conceived by the agent). Elections seek to bring this about by rewarding the winner and by allowing voters to choose between competing visions of what constitutes the general interest, so they should not be rule out a priori. The converse is also the case as rule by “normal” people will not automatically secure the general interest, it requires a combination of election and sortition. There are no historical examples of governance that excluded the principle of distinction, so what you are suggesting is more utopian than postulating a “publicly-minded elite”.


  4. […] in the year elites continued to express their dissatisfaction with the way elections are turning out. A proposal was made to use sortition […]


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