Cancio: Sortition and the Allotted Chamber as Institutional Improvements to Democracy

Here [PDF] is an automated translation (with a few touch-ups) of Jorge Cancio’s 2010 paper “Invitación a un Debate: El Sorteo y las Cámaras Sorteadas Como Mejoras Institucionales de la Democracia”.


I start off inviting my readers to exercise their imagination and then explaining a proposal of creating new “sortition chambers” on all administrative levels – from a chamber at the same level as the present-day Spanish Congress and Senate down to sortition chambers for each municipality. They essentially would be an addition to present-day institutions and would partake in the powers which are held today by elected representatives and officials, although the proposal envisages that in the short run they could be out-voted by the elective institutions. They would exercise their powers according to deliberative procedures.

After that introduction I offer a short account of present-day theoretical and practical proposals and implementations of sortition-based systems in the political field – highlighting the fact (following Manin) that mainstream discussions on democracy tend to ignore sortition altogether (including those made by the political left), but also making the point that since Dahl and others (inter alia, Burnheim, Goodwin, Barber; and the more recent works now appearing in Imprint Academic) there seems to be an increasing renaissance of this subject. I also point to the practical experiences of the Planungszelle and the voters’ and citizens’ juries.

Thereafter I try to explain why sortition is mainly ignored nowadays – here I follow again Bernard Manin – identifiying the contractualist bias of the XVII and XVIII century revolutions (which sought to establish a rule of consent for being governed) as the main reason for opting for elections instead of sortition as mechanism for the selection of political office-holders. Afterwards, the emergence of the political parties as oligopolical forces in the political market (here I refer to the work of C.B. Macpherson) and their growing distance from society and increasing autonomy vis-à-vis societal needs have led to a “party democracy” or “cartel party” system (Katz and Mair). The facade of autonomous decision in electing public officials covers, therefore, a system where political offers are very limited, allowing me to speak about an “election-fetish”. Contrasting to this evolution I then underline the paradox of identifiyng democracy with elections (and political parties) when we consider that democracy was linked in Athens with sortition whereas elections were considered aristocratic.

The final part of this short essay is dedicated to consider the pros and cons of sortition chambers. I don’t consider them as the ultimate response to all flaws of democracy, but as an interesting tool to improve its quality, understanding democracy as a never ending process. Among the pros I see gains in the following democratic vectors: direct/participatory (thousands or tens of thousands of citizens would take part in these chambers every year; this would act as a school of democracy; and have widespread effects on the attitude of the citizenship; TV coverage would be needed to achieve this goal), representative (creating a new source of democratic legitimacy; representing non-organized interests; and thanks to its independent source, it would be able to countervail and check the power held by elected institutions – controlled by political parties-; it would contribute to solve the old problem of “quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”) and deliberative (as debates would be more free, less bound to party instructions; and would help to open the agenda setting function now controlled by parties and established power structures).

I also compare sortition favorably to other participative and direct democracy mechanisms (more prone to manipulation by established power structures and/or exposed to scale problems) and to internal democracy efforts by political parties (mostly doomed to failure due to the nature of political competition in elections).

Then I analyse the possible problems: first the classical objections made to direct or pure democracies (arguments of capacity and scale). Regarding capacity I consider that, first, education levels in our democracies are quite high; second, that the expertise of the politician (i.e., surviving in the political game) is not really needed by the members of sortition chambers. Then I discuss the -in my opinion- more relevant problems of negative controls and positive incentives which the members of such sortition chambers would (need to) have in order to develop a satisfactory job. The starting point is that the incentives applicable to political professionals (career perspectives, re-election, etc) don’t apply in general to sortition chamber members (as they won’t, in principle, start political careers after their terms). As possible negative controls I believe that the experience of judicial juries may be useful, i.e. some minimal requirements ex-ante and minimal levels of duty could be established and controlled by specific allotted bodies or by the judiciary. As positive incentives, I see the following: first, their salary for being part of the chambers. Second, their political influence which probably – as in other institutions- would create a healthy “mission creep” dynamic. Third, personal ambitions of some “natural” leaders within these chambers, which nonetheless would be checked by the characteristics of annual terms, rotation, collegiality, etc. Finally I shortly discuss the problem of excessive influence by experts on these sortition chambers and the constitutional and legal hurdles such a proposal would need to take in a country as Spain.

Keywords: sorteo, democracia, innovaciones institucionales, sortition, democracy

2 Responses

  1. Hi Jorge,

    Great expositionary paper. Very useful references to the often ignored non-English literature.

    In particular, I like the section titled “Notes on possible causes of the lack of proposals of this type”. I think that contrary to your description in the abstract, you actually make a better argument for the suppression of sortition than Manin’s ‘contractualist bias’:

    The oblivion into which the lottery fell would therefore be linked to a line of thought, maintained from Plato by the critics of the people, that it is better to delegate public affairs to successive ruling elites and to distrust our fellow citizens for that function.

    And also in the same section – and continuing the same line of thought – the paragraph about the election fetish is brilliant:

    At the end of this historical development we can say that elections, as a mechanism of selection of political personnel, has become a fetish [Ref. Bourdieu, La délégation et le fétichisme politique] that gives the appearance of autonomous decision by the citizen, when in reality it is circumscribed to a very limited spectrum of offers determined by others – in the same way as in a market of imperfect competition [Ref. C. B. Macpherson, The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy]. This cult of the election fetish probably leads to the quasi-instinctive “disgust” generated by sortition. Perhaps this repugnance or this fear of thinking the “unthinkable” may explain why even those who raise the possibility of reconsidering the use of the lottery do not generally go beyond timid notes or sketches.


  2. I am eager to read this paper, but don’t read Spanish. I will contact a couple of Spanish-speaking sortition colleagues of mine to see if there is any willingness to do a rough (but better than computerized google) translation.


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