The Gilets Jaunes: what are the prospects for sortition?

An article in RTL by Laure-Hélène de Vriendt and AFP (original in French, Dec. 29, 2018):

Gilets Jaunes marching in Montmartre

Perspective: Some among the Gilets Jaunes propose using citizen participation via sortition in order to create a list for the European elections.

To be used in “the great debate” by the government, proposed by some “gilets jaunes” for the European elections, citizen participation via sortition is riding high, despite some limits emphasized by researchers.

Its detractors fear a “talk-shop where legitimacy is only up to chance”, undermining the foundations of elections. Its supporters praise “the equality of chance to participate in the debate” which sortition makes possible, a specialist in democratic systems working at the Paris VIII university.

In any case, the method has the support of the government: within the framework of “the great debate”, to be held in January and February as a response to the Gilets Jaunes movement, meetings of a hundred allotted citizens in each region will be held in order to give their opinion on the grievances mounting everywhere in France.

“The idea is to make sure that the Frenchpeople who are not necessarily those most involved in public life and public conversation can give their ideas about the debate and the proposals”, explained PM Édouard Philippe last week in Haute-Vienne.

“A much more diverse representation”
For prof. Loïc Blondiaux, a specialist in those matters in Paris I university, “it is a response to the crisis of representation”. Sortition “guarantees a much more diverse representation” because “if we look at the social makeup of Parliament, there are very few workers and wage earners, as opposed to the Gilets Jaunes and to the future assembly members of the “great debate”, emphasizes the researcher. “The representatives will not speak instead of the citizens but as citizens, it is a different voice”, he asserts.

Until now, civic participation via sortition never went above the local level in France. After an experiment during the summer with a national debate for the 5-year energy plan, it “reaches for the first time the national level, with the demand coming from below”, emphasizes Yves Sintomer.

Although citizens councils and participative budgeting using sorititon already exist in municipalities, he observes, “the only institutionalization of sortition at the national level is in trial juries”, going back to the revolution.

More and more supporters
The idea of sortition has made progress over the last few years in the wake of applications abroad, for example in Canada in 2004 or more recently in Ireland for the referendum on the legalization of abortion. In 2016, Emmanuel Macron himself suggested that the president should be audited “each year” by a commission of “allotted” citizens, in order to “report” about his “commitments”. So far, he has not followed up.

A presidential candidate, the head of The Insoumis, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, proposes to allot some of the members of the a Constituent Assembly charged with designing a 6th Republic, following in the steps of Benoît Hamon. Now, some Gilets Jaunes wants to use sortition as well, but this time in order to form a list for the May 2019 European elections. One of the originators, Hayk Shahinyan, proposes allotment “among those who have put themselves forward”.

Do not undermine the legitimacy of elections
The Economic, Social and Environmental Council (Cese) is also going to allot, for the first time, 24 citizens who will participate in their work regarding the crisis of the Gilets Jaunes. A company will select them using a method of quota taking into account “gender, profession, age and the type of the area of origin”, states the lead for the plan at Cese, Michel Chassang.

Above all, the system will have to show that it will not undermine the foundations of representative democracy and the legitimacy of elections. “Participative democracy does not oppose representative democracy. It nourishes it and reinforces it”, assure two promoters of sortition, MPs Matthieu Orphelin (REM) and Bertrand Pancher (centriste).

Another difficulty: motivate citizens to accept the nominations. “Without financial incentives, only 1% of those called upon accept the nominations” according to a number of studies, emphasizes Yves Sintomer.

20 Responses

  1. It is a huge mistake to use random selection to select candidates to stand in elections that are the essence of the principle of distinction. The mixing of contradictory and incompatible bases for legitimacy is nonsensical, and is most likely to backfire. Sortition can EITHER be used (to avoid corruption) by randomly picking from a pool of pre-qualified experts (like picking flower judges from a pool of flower growers), or for statistical representation by picking a large group from the whole population. Picking electoral candidates from among those who put themselves forward is inappropriate the worst of all options. This proposal reveals the lack of understanding of some fundamentals.

    It reminds me of when I used to work for ranked choice voting (called the alternative vote, or instant runoff voting, depending on where you live) in single winner elections. The point is that in plurality (first past the post) elections, when several candidates are running, the plurality “winner” might have just 40% of the vote (though more than any other single candidate), such that a MAJORITY of voters preferred any of the other choices over the “winner.” If you asked people if they thought we should have a voting system where the winner should have to get a MAJORITY, they would say “yes absolutely.” But if you instead asked them if they thought whoever got the most votes should win, they would also say “Yes, absolutely.” They didn’t understand that there was a fundamental difference between these two concepts.

    The problem with current understanding of sortition in France is that many people just get that it gives ordinary people a chance to get involved, and they don’t see the difference between picking a whole mini-public and picking a handful of candidates.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Terry:> This proposal reveals the lack of understanding of some fundamentals.

    Agreed — that’s why the principal task of this forum is developing the understanding of the fundamentals, rather than “consciousness raising”, as misconceived implementations of sortition will undermine the whole project. The other entailment is that we should focus on implementations that have a solid provenance (ancient and modern), rather than utopian projects to replace electoralism with sortition tout court.


  3. Terry,

    I disagree. Selecting a candidates list via sortition from a pool of volunteers is not perfect, but it could be a step forward – depending on how it’s done.


  4. Yoram,

    That’s hard to understand, given your past advocacy of “statistical” representation. The “principle of voluntarism” skews the sortition selection pool just as consistently as the principle of distinction does for election, so what you appear to be saying is that you approve of the factors that underlie the deviation in the former, but not the latter case. Voluntarist sortition may or may not constitute an epistemic “step forward”, but at the cost of democratic equality.


  5. […] The meeting will also be addressed by Ilaria Casillo, Vice-president of the Commission Nationale du Débat, the independent administrative authority in charge of coordinating the “Great National Debate” in France — a series of regional sortition assemblies — in response to the Gilet Jaunes protests. […]


  6. Yoram,
    Think through the likely scenarios resulting from selecting candidates for some party by lot. First I’ll assume that the distortion of only drawing from those who proactively step forward as potential candidates (which guarantees the pool will be very unlike the population… being more male, wealthy, well-educated, egotistical, and lacking in intellectual humility) is abandoned and that the lottery draw is from the entire population, but allowing those drawn to refuse … (so still somewhat distorted but far less than if drawn from among those proactively volunteering). So the party has selected candidates who then must go into an election still dominated by elite and wealth control of media and messaging. These random candidates will almost universally be less skilled at campaigning and public relations than the regular politicians (so are less likely to shine in the campaign). Voters believe they have a task, which has been well drummed into them, to pick the “best” candidates they can identify. Few random candidates are likely to win in a traditional American election…. But perhaps it is a proportional representation party list election, where the public relations skills of the individual candidates is less crucial. Let’s suppose the disdain for professional politicians among the people is enough to get some random candidates from the sortitioned list elected. These few citizens go into a chamber full of professional politicians skilled at schmoozing and glad-handing. They take these newbies under their wing to “show them the ropes.” It is very unlikely these random elected people will stand out in the elite controlled media as stellar representatives, nor that they will have any significant impact on policy. Throwing a few sheep into a den of wolves isn’t generally a step forward for sheep.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Terry,

    Presumably, we are talking about a party list, not candidates in single-seat districts. The party would campaign based on the fact that it was composed using sortition rather than based on the identities of the individuals in it.

    As for how the allotted would comport themselves once they are elected, that depends on how things are set up. Yes – if they try to act independently they are likely to be out-maneuvered by the professionals.

    However, if the allotment party is well organized, a coherent agenda could be set up and the allotted could be encouraged to play a coordinated role to promote it. For example, an agenda around auditing certain activities of the elected could serve as a very useful service to the public and as an effective way to promote the idea of sortition.


  8. Yoram,
    I will concede that the devil is in the details. (A sortition party might convene its own mini-publics and direct its elected members how to vote.) But as a former legislator, I know that there are countless small, nearly invisible, behind the scenes decisions legislators make every week that fundamentally steer the legislature, which wouldn’t rise to the level of convening a mini-public. I fundamentally think that mixing allotted and elected members in a common legislative body is a bad idea, and is very likely to cast sortition in a very bad light once that system is in use.


  9. I agree that elected and allotted MPs cannot work together as equals. As I suggested, that does not mean that having allotted MPs could not be useful, as long as they recognize their situation and organize and act accordingly.

    > I know that there are countless small, nearly invisible, behind the scenes decisions legislators make every week that fundamentally steer the legislature

    That makes a lot of sense to me. This is familiar from other settings. This is another reason that the concept of “electoral accountability” is nonsense.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. The BBC has a story about the “grand debate” and its reception among the GJs.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. What makes so many people think that those selected by sortition don’t have the same skills and reasoning ability of the legislative elites? Most politicians I know are actually pretty dumb, but are great at campaigning.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I think there is a general feeling that winning the electoral competition is an indication of some sort of competence. This is of course somewhat justified (although the prevalence of electoral dynasties indicates that this is much less so than can be assumed). But as, you say, whatever competence is attested by the ability to win elections, it is not closely related to the competence needed to produce effective policy.

    All that said, the most important point is that competence is just one dimension of good government. The other dimension is representativity. A government that is very competent at producing policy that is antithetical to the public’s interest is a terrible government.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I think it would be far better and much more effective for a sortitionist political party to run on an agenda of giving decision-making and advisory power to minipublics, rather than to use sortition to choose candidates for popular elections.

    With regard to the policies of such a party or candidate other than on sortition (and some other democratic basics that we should support regardless of whether the public do, such as freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention), it would I think make sense for these to be as much as possible based on policies endorsed by minipublics. As cost and lack of public funding might prevent minipublics from being convened, such a party or candidate could support policies they think, based on opinion surveys of the public, would have the support of the informed judgement of the people. If such a party was active in France then if for example opinion surveys indicated a solid majority of French citizens wanted higher taxes on the rich, then they could support higher taxes on the rich on the basis that they probably would be supported by informed public opinion (not just by opinion surveys), until such time (if any) that their surmise of what informed public opinion would be was shown to be mistaken by a minipublic.


  14. Simon:> support policies they think, based on opinion surveys of the public, would have the support of the informed judgement of the people.

    That’s a tall order, given that the sortition party candidate would be as poorly informed as those who participated in the public opinion survey.


  15. Keith:>That’s a tall order, given that the sortition party candidate would be as poorly informed as those who participated in the public opinion survey.

    Granted, but if there is a pro-sortition party running for office they will I think need to have a broader platform than just sortition and democratic reform. Opinion surveys, supplemented by a little analysis of whether that is really what most people would think were they well informed, is probably the best stand-in for (or guesstimate of) what a legislative jury would decide, pending a legislative jury actually being convened and making the decision.

    (But I’m not at all sure about political strategies for furthering democracy through minipublics.)


  16. Simon, That seems like a dangerous path. Personally I think we need to categorically reject public opinion surveys as a meaningful measure of anything other than what messages and spin are being transmitted by media sources. — not informed will of the people.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Terry,

    I agree, and I think it’s very counterproductive for the sortition movement to be associated with any substantive policy issues. The biggest problem with the Brexit CA is that all the people calling for it (Compass, Guardian, Archbishop of Canterbury and sundry Labour MPs) are Remainers. There is no inherent reason that sortition should lead to cosmopolitanism, “progressive” policy on taxation or any other leftist shibboleths. I also have problems with Rousseauian concepts like the “will of the people”, preferring instead the liberal notion of aggregate informed judgment.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Terry and Keith, those sound like reasonable points to me.


  19. Keith and Terry, I think we agree we need a broad left-right alliance in favour of minipublics, to use language sometimes used by Ralph Nader (left-right alliance), but not just by him.


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