Sortition in Ha’aretz

Ha’aretz is Israel’s elite newspaper. With Israel’s second election day of 2019 coming up in about a month, Ha’aretz published in its latest weekend magazine an article by Hilo Glaser offering readers several reform ideas for the political system. Sortition got top billing. I was interviewed for the article. Below is a translation of some excerpts (original in Hebrew, paywalled).

The method: Sortition (i.e., lottery instead of elections)

The idea: Advocates of sortition note that modern democracy embraces ideas originating from Ancient Greece, but it disposes of the government mechanism that enabled their application. In ancient democracy public offices were appointed by lottery among the entire citizenry. This is how officials, clerics, and even government ministers were appointed.

In 2014, Prof. Irad Malkin published an article in Ha’aretz in which he explained that “the lottery was the most effective tool against the oligarchy of money and government, drawing the citizens into the political activity and allowing them to take part at different levels: in the sovereign assembly, in the high council, and in the courts. This worked well for 200 years.”

Not only historians are calling to revive the lottery mechanism. Yoram Gat, a software engineer and a statistics Ph.D., has recently published an article challenging the mechanism of elections in view of the public frustration with elected institutions and offering sortition as an alternative. He claims that allotment of political office holders will result in optimal representation of the different groups in the population.

How will it work? The Knesset [the Israeli parliament] will comprise 120 citizens that would be drawn randomly. They will serve full time, receiving a full time salary, leaving their regular jobs for the duration. After 4 years they will resume their regular lives and be replaced by a new allotted batch of citizens. Gat says that “the laws of probability guarantee that such a body would reflect the makeup of the population. The number of men and women will be approximately equal, the distribution of ages and education of the members would be identical to the distribution in the citizenry and so would be the proportions of religious and secular members and the Jews and Arabs. Ideologically as well such a Knesset would reflect the ideological diversity of society.”

And what about a situation in which despite the majority that the Right wing has in the population a parliament would be allotted in which the Left wing has a majority? According to Gat, the possibility for such a distortion exists but due to the law of large numbers the chance of significant deviations is minuscule.

With the current system at least I know who the candidates are. What would happen if those who are allotted to represent me are fools or are corrupt?

“If you consider 10% of the people to be fools or corrupt, then you will have about 10% of those in the allotted body. If we consider ourselves as having a democratic mindset then we cannot regard the people as a mindless mob that is prone to stupidity or corruption. The public must decide – with all of its negative and positive characteristics.”

How would the Prime Minister be selected?

“The allotted Knesset would select the Prime Minister in a way that is similar to the existing procedure. The main difference is that the allotted body would consider candidates for Prime Minister that would not be Knesset members themselves. The same would be the case for ministers. The Knesset members would interview experts as candidates for ministers and would be able to fire them if their performance is unsatisfactory. The idea is that the Knesset would consider the executive body as its agent.”

Gat notes that the mechanism of sortition can be initially introduced not as a replacement for the Knesset but in order to constitute allotted citizen juries that would work in parallel to the elected Knesset, in a way that is inspired by successful experimental applications worldwide.

Where is it applied? A limited application is in the court jury system. In recent years there is an increasing number of examples in which the system is applied to the sphere of government. [Examples of applications in the city of Madrid, in the German speaking community in Belgium, in Scotland and in Ireland.]

4 Responses

  1. Sounds like progress. Would be interested in the many comments the proposal would get.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As can be expected with an unfamiliar idea, the dominant attitude in the comments is outright dismissal.

    An alarming number of comments float reform proposals which revolve around “merit” screening of voters, where “merit” is measured by education, tax payments, military service or a score on a civics test.


  3. Just wondering, Yoram, how dominant was the conflation of democracy with electoralism? Were there any who could get past that?


  4. Looking at the comments, it seems to me that the notion that democracy=elections as a matter of definition was not that dominant.

    The resistance to reform proposals seems to be based on a general (and quite justified) suspicion regarding unfamiliar proposals being floated. Who is to say that those are not just schemes for more exploitation?


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