Henry Jeffrey: sortition in Guyana

In his column in Stabroek News, Dr. Henry Jeffrey, former minister of Labour, Human Services and Social Security in Guyana, suggests using the lottery to resolve a political stand-off in Guyana that has left key positions in government vacant.

It appears to me that in the case of the chancellor and the chief justice [the vacant positions] the court can force those who are being recalcitrant to negotiate under the shadow of a lottery. It could demand that based upon the existing criteria, the leader of the opposition present his nominees for the positions to the president within a particular time period and that a final decision be made on both positions by a given date. If the parties fail to complete the process within the stated period a lottery will be imposed and the positions so filled.

Leading to this rather modest proposal is Jeffery’s summary of the advantages of sortition. He cites The Lottery as a Democratic Institution by Delannoi, Dowlen and Stone (2013) as his source:

1) Much as in scientific opinion polls, sortition ensures that any characteristics appearing in the general population will appear in roughly the same proportions on a randomly-selected decision-making body so long as the decision-making body has a significant number of members and random selection proceeds from a pool consisting of the entire population it is supposed to represent.

2) Sortition can help to prevent corruption and/or domination by ensuring that those entering public have no better chance than others, and random selection that excludes reasons from decision-making could ironically enable more reasoned behaviour untainted by special interests.

3) Though desirable, political competition founders when, (as in Guyana because of ethnic allegiances) elites either compete too little or too much (when they engage in civil war).

4) Randomization can mitigate the possibility of highly motivated small groups with outlier agendas suborning the political process.

5) The difficulty of getting people to do jury duty these days indicates that many people do [not? -YG] covet holding public office but whether or not they do, a lottery is a fair means of distribution.

6) Sortition can aid political participation and reduce apathy by allowing the rotation of offices that could include usually excluded groups.

7) Turnover in offices, i.e. rotating the people in power, could alleviate elite domination.

8) Sortition can be psychologically liberating in that officeholders selected by lot are less likely to feel any special entitlement to office and those who lose out are unlikely to be deferential to the winners.

Selina Thompson Seeks Young Collaborators For Sortition Project

Broadway World writes:

Imagine scrapping elections and instead selecting politicians at random. What would you do if your name was drawn out and you suddenly found yourself in charge? How do you think the country should be run?

Award-winning performer Selina Thompson is sending out a far-reaching call to action for young people from all backgrounds to put their names forward for a new project this Summer.

The provocative new work, Sortition, will bring together a randomly selected team of young people under 30 from Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland who don’t vote, feel like voting doesn’t work and that politics as usual doesn’t represent them. Sortition is co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary, supported by Jerwood Charitable Foundation, and will go on to be premiered this September at Arnolfini in Bristol.

Thompson herself is presenting her project in a video on sortitionproject.com:

Frey and Tridimas on sortition

George Tridimas wrote to draw attention to the recent issue of the journal Homo Oeconomicus which has a set of comments (including one of his own) on a 2017 paper by the Swiss political economist Bruno Frey titled “Proposals for a Democracy of the Future” (PDF).

In the paper, Frey has a section called “True  Democracy  by  Random  Decisions?”. Some excerpts from that section:

The major advantage of random procedures in politics is to guarantee equal chance and therewith fairness, given the underlying body (e.g. Stone 2007). Each and every one in the underlying population has an equal chance of getting elected. It is therefore not necessary to introduce special quotas e.g. for the share of women. Interestingly, random procedures even take into account dimensions not yet discussed or even beyond imagination. Most importantly, the body politic is opened to new ideas and otherwise disregarded views. This also holds for preferences not yet even known but which may be important in the future.

The disadvantage of random decisions in politics is that capabilities, education and the intensity of desires are disregarded. This is the main reason why random choices in politics are rarely, if ever, taken from the population as a whole. The advantage of equality and fairness must be compared to the disadvantage of lower competencies. There are a great many possibilities to combine the two – a worthy subject for future research.

In addition to proposing combining sortition with elections, Frey also proposes deciding the outcome of referenda at random with the probabilities of the outcomes given by the vote shares.

Tridimas’s comment contains a review of the use of sortition in Athens. He concludes with a section called “Why Sortition may not Work”:

Clearly, the Athenian democracy was fundamentally different from the present representative democracy. Assembly deliberation, the rule of simple majority, absence of political parties, citizen participation through the courts, and sortition were a joint constitutional package, inexorably linked and mutually reinforcing. Therefore, an institution like sortition that served the direct democracy well may not be easily transferable to a representative democracy without the rest of the institutional structures. Cutting and pasting sortition from Athens to today is not the same thing as grafting it to the current institutional structure, and may fail to deliver ‘‘a better democracy’’.

Ackerman and Le Grand: How to have a serious referendum on Brexist and avoid a rerun of the original

Not being British I hesitate to post this entry, but I am advised by an informed source that “this is DIRECTLY on point re your sortition cause, and from perhaps the most prominent public law academic of the past century.”

To me the article seems to be a direct lift of Fishkin’s “Deliberation Day”:

A number of things were wrong with the 2016 referendum, including the disenfranchisement of key stakeholders and the extent of misinformation by both sides. Given that referendums should be informed exercises in democratic decision-making, Bruce Ackerman [Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale] and Sir Julian Le Grand [Professor of Social Policy at the Marshall Institute, LSE] explain how a referendum on the deal should look like.

[T]he government should take affirmative steps to fill the information gap. The best way forward is suggested by social science experiments, including an early one held in Britain. In 1994, Channel Four organised an intensive discussion amongst ordinary citizens on whether the UK should become more or less engaged with Europe. The scientifically selected sample of 238 participants went to Manchester for a weekend to engage in a series of small group exchanges with competing experts for Yes and No, as well as representatives from the three major parties. At the end of the weekend, support for Britain’s increased integration into the EU rose from 45% to 60%. In contrast, support for the Euro did not rise above 35%. Before-and-after questionnaires established that participants became more knowledgeable.

Sortition on Ted.com

If you think democracy is broken, here’s an idea: let’s replace politicians with randomly selected people… My TEDxDanubia talk has been promoted to the front page of Ted.com – it should be the featured talk for the next 6 hours or so…

To celebrate, my publisher, Unbound, has cut the price of the e-book edition of The End of Politicians: Time for a Real Democracy.

Students in Bolivia Prefer Sortition to Elections

Here’s the abstract for an interesting new article, “Democracy Transformed: Perceived Legitimacy of the Institutional Shift from Election to Random Selection of Representatives,” in Journal of Public Deliberation:


Simon Pek, Gustavson School of Business, University of Victoria

Jeffrey Kennedy, Faculty of Law, McGill University

Adam Cronkright, Democracy In Practice


“While democracy remains a firmly-held ideal, the present state of electoral democracy is plagued by growing disaffection. As a result, both scholars and practitioners have shown considerable interest in the potential of random selection as a means of selecting political representatives. Despite its potential, deployment of this alternative is limited by concerns about its perceived legitimacy. Drawing on an inductive analysis of the replacement of elections with random selection in two student governments in Bolivia, we explore stakeholders’ perceptions of the legitimacy of random selection by investigating both their overall support for randomly selecting representatives as well as the views that inform this support. Overall, we find that random selection is indeed accepted as a legitimate means of selecting representatives, with stakeholders broadly preferring random selection and recommending its use in other schools—views which are informed by a critical assessment of random selection’s relative merits. Moreover, we find that perceptions may be affected by contextual factors that extend beyond individuals’ own values. Our findings thus contribute to work on random selection, its contextual embeddedness, and on the values underpinning democratic structures.”

Link to download the article: https://www.publicdeliberation.net/jpd/vol14/iss1/art3/


Article The First: Beyond Elections But Lessons From Them

[Disclaimer: I did not intend to write this blog this early.  I’m still caught up by Canadian provincial efforts at electoral reform, of which I’ve posted on Rabble.ca.  That said, an article on Jacobin compelled me, so to speak.]

Article The First: Beyond Elections But Lessons From Them

“After the first enumeration required by the first article of the Constitution, there shall be one Representative for every thirty thousand, until the number shall amount to one hundred, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall be not less than one hundred Representatives, nor less than one Representative for every forty thousand persons, until the number of Representatives shall amount to two hundred, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall not be less than two hundred Representatives, nor more than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons.” (Article The First)

Tom Malleson’s article on Jacobin, Beyond Electoral Democracy, suggests the implementation of a bicameral legislature, with one of the two bodies being selected entirely by lot.  I would argue that this article doesn’t go far enough, firstly and most importantly because there are no direct proposals for controlling the standards of living of representatives, and because there is not even one path, let alone multiple paths, for instant recallability (Paul Lucardie’s “Jacobinland” and genuine Socialist Politics 101).

Other than this shortcoming, the article doesn’t go far enough because, despite the laudable goal of going beyond elections altogether, there are lessons that can be learned from them: particular features.  The main body for public policymaking and accountability should already be populated by lot, but particular features from various electoral systems should be incorporated.

The first, most important feature from electoral systems that must be incorporated is the party concept.  “Party-recallable” checks on legislators by political parties is the apex of this.  It is no coincidence that historians have written about correlations between vibrant civil societies at large and vibrant party systems, such as in Europe.

The second important feature from electoral systems that must be incorporated is proportional representation:

“Proportional representation, and, until this is introduced, legal redistribution of electoral districts after every census.” (Erfurt Program)
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