Sortition in Madrid

An article about the political activity of Pablo Soto in Madrid is mostly devoted to a popular initiative mechanism, but the last few paragraphs deal with an allotted body:

This month Madrid plans to launch Mr Soto’s most far-reaching reform yet – an “observatory” of 57 citizens selected at random to advise the city’s 57 councillors.

Mr Soto explains that an algorithm will ensure that observatory members will be representative of Madrid’s social diversity, with a one-year mandate and access to expert assistance to reach well-informed decisions.
Image caption A selection of the citizens’ proposals (translated from Spanish) featured on the platform in early January

The concept was inspired by the ancient Athenian practice of choosing citizens to form governing committees, and by more recent examples where governments have asked the people to decide on single issues to break political deadlock.

In Australia, a “citizens’ jury” was asked about the construction of a nuclear dump.

“The idea is as old as democracy itself,” he says. “A group of people chosen at random – if they have the time and capacity to study the issues in depth – can take very representative decisions.”

7 Responses

  1. Mr Soto explains that an algorithm will ensure that observatory members will be representative of Madrid’s social diversity, with a one-year mandate

    Unfortunately such a small sample will not be representative, especially if participation is not quasi-mandatory, speech acts are involved and the service term is not ad hoc. The very fact that the number (57) is chosen to mirror the number of councillors indicates a lack of understanding of the essential difference between the electoral and statistical mandate.

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  2. Keith — When you say 57 is not representative, do you mean that Madrid’s 3.166 million people are not meaningfully represented by only 57 councillors? Whether elected or sorted.

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  3. The difference is that in the electoral example every voter has the opportunity to express a preference, whereas sortive representation is purely statistical and 57 is insufficiently fine-grained (whereas in the former case a choice between two candidates could, in principle, suffice). The two principles have nothing in common and should not be conflated — there is no such creature as an individual “statistical” representative (hence the incoherence of the policy of having 57 of each).

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  4. How would one determine the number that is sufficiently fine-grained?

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  5. Keith,

    While I agree that a sample of 57 runs the risk of every few decades having a fairly un-representative group (so larger is better), it seems safe to say it would almost certainly be more representative IN ALMOST EVERY WAY than an elected body of 57. The notion that because a voter had one vote out of a vast number go into the ballot box somehow magically makes the elected body representative is mythology at best. The narrow sliver of citizens who choose to run in elections, rational ignorance, media manipulation, money, tribal loyalties, etc. assure that the electoral process will never generate an accurately representative body.

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  6. Here are the numbers:

    Margin of error Decision threshold Sample size
    2% 52/48 6,766
    5% 55/45 1,083
    10% 60/40 271

    And the confidence level (for the sample to match the target population) will mean some additional — and very demanding — constraints (quasi-mandatory participation, balanced advocacy, no formal communication between jury members etc). But that’s what the statistical mandate requires — if some other justification is offered for the sortition, then it should be made explicit, as what we are seeing in this case is aleatory voluntocracy, not democracy.

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  7. Terry,

    The elected body is representative in the sense that it reflects the free choices of voters, not in the sense that the persons in the legislature have any likeness to the people that have chosen them. The two principles are orthogonal, and picking the same number (57) for each category conflates these two principles. Notwithstanding your repetition of the standard laundry list of extenuating factors (that we are all fully aware of), people chose between Trump and Clinton as they thought, rightly or wrongly, that one candidate represented their interests better than the other one.

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