Sortition in Jacobin magazine

Tom Malleson, assistant professor of social justice and peace studies at King’s University College at Western University, Canada, writes in Jacobin magazine that “we need a legislature by lot”.

Some excerpts make the following points. Electoralist regimes are not democratic:

[There is] widespread disillusionment that many of the world’s people feel towards their purportedly democratic systems. [T]he truth, widely known yet rarely acknowledged, is that the American political system is increasingly run not by the people, but by the rich. Plutocracy. Leading scholars of American politics Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page conclude their recent study with the observation that “the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose.”

The standard reform proposals show little promise to fundamentally improve the situation:

What, then, is to be done? There has long been a conventional answer on the center-left: proportional representation and campaign finance reform — the former to enhance the representativeness of elections and the latter to reduce the distorting effects of money. This intuitive belief that the answer to our democratic problems is enhanced elections runs so deep that it is like an article of faith.

Yet should reformed electoral democracy really be the ultimate aim of our democratic hopes and dreams? Consider some of the places that are much closer to achieving an equitable electoral system, such as Canada, the UK, and particularly Western Europe. Such systems tend to function much more democratically than the US, but they run into the same basic problems with elections.

Money continues to play an important role, biasing elections towards the wealthy. Governments continue to be incredibly unrepresentative of the population — almost always composed of rich, white, middle-aged men. Even in Sweden, the young, the less educated, and the working class continue to be dramatically underrepresented (for instance, blue-collar workers make up about 9 percent of members of parliament despite comprising 41 percent of the electorate).

[T]he electoral process is inherently biased in favor of the rich — thereby undermining the cherished democratic ideal of political equality — because the precondition to winning an election is having the time and resources to communicate with the public and mobilize support, and that will always be done more effectively by those who have more money. This means that electoral democracy, regardless of campaign finance rules, will always be somewhat tilted towards the affluent.

Democracy and elections are incompatible:

If you lived in any previous historical era and told your neighbor that you believed in democracy, they would have understood what you meant. Yet if you had said that you believed in democracy and elections, they would have thought you’d lost your marbles.

For more than two thousand years, it was common knowledge that the only people who wanted elections were the rich and the powerful, since they were the ones who invariably benefitted from them. Those who genuinely believed in democracy, on the other hand, believed that political power must be kept in the hands of regular people and typically advocated the selecting of political positions by lot.

Or are they?

This is not to say that elections serve no purpose. When they work well, as they sometimes do, elections can promote other democratic values. Most importantly, they can facilitate accountability, directly incentivizing the government to be responsive to the governed.

Some dubious claims about sortition:

The whole point of a lottery is that it purposefully introduces what political scientists call a “blind break” into decision-making procedures. The fact that lotteries are based on randomness does not make them irrational. Quite the contrary: it makes them a useful and often supremely rational tool for those areas of social life where you want the impartiality, balance, and fairness that randomness generates.

Today the idea of choosing politicians by lot is making a comeback because of two developments. First, the mathematical innovation of the representative sample — the idea that if you randomly sample a large population you can create a “mini-public” that is a statistically representative, miniature version of the whole. And second, the emergence of what theorists call deliberative democracy — particularly the notion that regular people can make good, competent, political decisions if (and this is a big if) they are immersed in a well-designed deliberative context.

The standard recent history of sortition:

Recent years have witnessed a remarkable explosion of interest in the use of random selection to solve political problems. …

A proposal for an allotted body leaving much room for concern about the details:

Imagine a People’s House composed of, say, one thousand people chosen at random (and stratified to ensure accurate representation along gender, race, class, and other important lines). These members could serve four-year terms. The first two years they’d lack legislative power, during which time they’d receive substantial training in issues of budgets, taxation, and distributive justice; be exposed to the various fields of government; take classes in how to deliberate rationally, empathetically, and with a sense of the common good; and “intern” in a specific policy department, such as Health or Energy or the Environment.

In the second half of their term, members would have legislative power, perhaps divided into ten departments with one hundred members each. Each department would deliberate on issues within its purview (in a similar manner to the Citizens’ Assemblies), before submitting legislative proposals to be voted on by the entire body to become law.

To perform well, a People’s House would require a carefully managed infrastructure of resources and support, including skilled facilitators and a number of administrators to support the needs of the deliberators. Such administration would need to be neutral on all ideological and policy questions, concerning itself entirely with the practical matters of deliberation (for example, procuring experts from a wide variety of perspectives). There would also need to be ways for members to remove anyone who is manifestly incompetent, disrespectful, or disruptive, as well as strict rules preventing corruption or bribery.

Actually, let’s keep elections with their “accountability” and that other democratic value, “political competency”, around. Don’t we all love diversity?

Legislature by lot is not a democratic panacea. Such a body would clearly perform poorly in terms of accountability – without elections, regular people would have no formal means to express their political preferences and “throw the scoundrels out.” In addition, there’s the lingering doubts one might have about political competency. Can regular people really make complicated political decisions? I suspect that many of the difficulties of competency could be resolved through good institutional design (including training, educational supports, and ways to weed out the truly unfit). Nevertheless, competency is another democratic value that we might think is ultimately served better through elections.

What this suggests is that we cannot realize all of our democratic values — equality, deliberation, accountability, competency — through any one particular mechanism. Elections and lotteries each have their respective strengths and weaknesses. But the fact that their strengths and weaknesses are so complementary implies an ideal solution: combine them.

4 Responses

  1. By the way, the publication of this essay is an indication of the progress sortition has made over the last few years. In 2013 I submitted to Jacobin a piece about sortition. I never got a reply.


  2. Random Sample Voting integrates elections and sortition and could play a variety of roles in the kind of innovation described above, from deciding on the rules that govern its operation (e.g., choosing criteria for people to be added to the pool from which legislators would be randomly selected, which could address the “qualifications” issue democratically) to selecting 25% of the lot-selected legislators to be replaced each year from the people’s legislature (thus weeding out the most out-of-touch or corrupt(ed) legislators, while allowing the most popular and ethical of them to continue to serve) who would then be replaced by lot. And that barely scratches the surface of possible uses of RSV (and we should note that any Random Sample Voting Proposal is RSVP!!) :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Damn! Between simultaneous efforts at proportional representation reform in Canada and a surprising Jacobin magazine on demarchy, I’ve got to post an Equality By Lot blog on my thoughts on random balloting!


  4. […] Against Elections was (dismissively) reviewed in the New York Times. Sortition was featured in the Left-leaning magazine Jacobin as well as on BBC radio, and was mentioned in the Washington […]


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