Kleroterion 2.0; Our Once and Future Escape Key

This is the third post in a series on Barbara Goodwin’s classic work on sortition Justice by Lottery, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992. The first post is here and the second post is here.

There are mass demonstrations in cities throughout the United States and around the world against racism, sparked by the murder of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who was recorded being choked to death by a police officer while in custody. Among his last words, “Please, I can’t breathe” are now a slogan repeated and sung around the world, a metaphor for the stifling nature of racialized oppression. Here in Ontario — the Toronto-Niagara Golden Horseshoe region is the most racial and ethnically diverse in the world, a place where immigrants are popular and in Toronto  are actually the majority –there have still been large street demonstrations against deaths-while-in-custody of certain Black and Indigenous people who were suffering from mental illness. Why is it, Toronto activists ask, that money meant to alleviate problems in poor neighbourhoods is directed away from local social workers and towards force, armed police and other arbitrary measures? In the Canadian Parliament, Elizabeth May, leader of the opposition Green Party, summarized a large part of the problem,

She urged an inquiry to weed out white-power groups in Canada and make sure they are not infiltrating police forces. `Because if there is one thing scarier than a white supremacist with a gun, it’s a white supremacist with a gun in uniform.’ (1)

Mr. Floyd’s plea for air resonates so universally because none are guarding the guardians. Clearly, bullies in uniform tasked with enforcing social distancing laws are targeting and persecuting visible minorities, worsening the climate of fear that visible minorities already suffer under. The democratic institutions that depend upon justice, especially but not exclusively the police, to uphold the rule of law are blocking reform and accountability and stifling the very purpose for which they exist, to serve the social good, protect the vulnerable and assure the safety, order and security of everyone, not just the privileged. So, these are the questions of the hour: How can democracies end the perilous insularity of the police? How do we reinstate badly degraded trust in authority? Why is the guardian branch of governance so prone to corruption, bullying and infiltration by sociopaths? How do we end the vicious cycle of escalating violence, reaction and oppression?

This Equality by Lot Blog is dedicated to the proposition that elections are not enough. While science and technology have seen astonishing improvements over the past three centuries, the pillars of democracy are in decline. The party system is too easily hijacked by enemies foreign and domestic, and what technical means democracies have adopted cannot keep up with the enemies, foreign and domestic, who would hack them. Even the ultimate democratic source of accountability, peaceful regime turnover through regular elections, the threat that an unresponsive government could be defeated in the next election, seems a blunt instrument, glacially slow and hopelessly incapable of keeping up with the need to respond rapidly to emergencies of all kinds.

Sortition, the selection of public servants, managers and other workers by lottery, can answer this need for closer, more frequent taking into account. In Ancient Athens, sortition was done with a tool called the kleroterion, a machine for randomly selecting multiple volunteer workers in quick order. The kleroterion was an advanced technology that routinely performed double and triple sortition on each of many volunteers in quick order, with dozens and even hundreds of choices made almost instantly. Indeed, a modernized kleroterion, a Kleroterion 2.0, could take on the function that the escape key or reset button has in modern computers; that is, whenever memory becomes overloaded, or the complex operations of a workplace bog down, cease to perform or lose accountability, the kleroterion can, literally at the push of a button, be invoked to replace key workers, or indeed an entire work force if necessary. For the individual bad actor this is a far more imminent than the threat than losing an election months or years down the line. Our present democracy keeps party rule in line with this looming threat to a tiny number of decision makers in high places, but sortition run by a kleroterion can enforce accountability all the way down the line. Its turnover can work yearly, monthly and even, as it may well have done in Athens, every morning before the workday starts. It is unfortunate that we lost this sortition tool to history – it was literally buried and forgotten until being re-discovered by archeologists in the 20th Century. Today we can only speculate as to how exactly it fit into the direct democracy of the time, but one thing is clear. The kleroterion was just that, clear. It offered complete transparency about who was being randomly selected for the job. The worker placed his personal token, called a pinakion, in a slot and the fall of a coloured marble decided what he would do and (also importantly) where he would sit.

Thus, the kleroterion performed what no computer, no matter how advanced, can ever do: it made a random decision completely in the open. It made an invisible process both plain and dramatic, as the roulette wheel or the bouncing, numbered balls displayed in many monetary lotteries today still do. We now have computer cards that can plug directly into quantum phenomena and make choices that are, even in the strict mathematical sense, truly random. But, they do it invisibly. Many computer scientists believe that a computer can never, for example, reliably count the votes in an election. Why? Because anything done invisibly will always be vulnerable to being hacked or otherwise producing a fake or faked result. Paper ballots can be recounted, but invisible operations will always be suspect. But the genius of the kleroterion goes far beyond its transparency.


In my view, one reason democratic governments are so ineffectual recently is neglect of lessons taught by John Amos Comenius (1592-1670). Comenius is known as the father of modern education but he was also — not nearly as well known outside of central Europe – the founding father of global democracy. Whereas modern democracies (as predicted by Aristotle) have slid into blind subservience to an oligarchy determined to exploit an underclass of marginalized workers in their own narrow interest, Comenius proposed the reverse, a global democratic order based on education, the systematic nurturing and development of all human talent to the optimum. To accomplish that, Comenius proposed what is in effect a revival of the dokimasia and the euthuna, the tests of accountability that enabled the sortitioned civil service in Ancient Athens to come about. He proposed a rhythmic renewal of these tests, one taken on the way in to office and the other on the way out, to permit the “breathing room” needed to grow history’s first direct democracy, the purest government of and by the people yet known. To channel this, Comenius suggested an annual assessment holiday.

Then once a year there could be a statutory public ceremony where all office-bearers from the highest to the lowest (e.g. consuls, judges, aediles, chancellors etc.) should give the community an account of their actions, and people should have the right to point out the oversights and errors which they have committed, but in peaceful terms.

“Thanks should be expressed to those whose administration seems commendable, and they should continue in office or be promoted to more responsible posts; but those who are faulted for their conduct should be demoted or dismissed (so that those who did not know how to rule may learn how to accept the rule of others) and their places taken by others who are more suitable.

J.A. Comenius, Panorthosia, or Universal Reform, Ch. 24, para 1, p. 124 (2).

The advantages of ending a term by having everybody taken into account and their next job chosen by the kleroterion, all at the same time, are clear. There would be no loss of face or holding on stubbornly to wrongs or blunders because the same thing would be happening to everyone else at the same time. Only the worst bumbler would attract undue attention. In exposing one’s own mistakes and failures in the past work period to posterity one would be acting as a good teacher whose lesson would edify and enable the next office holder to learn and improve upon the state of your art. If the next person succeeds where you failed, you would get the credit (and even the compensation) of a good teacher or experimental scientist upon whose shoulder others stood to ultimately solve a problem.

Comenius’s idea is not completely new. Such a renewal and turnover day has been an institution for millennia in many cultures. For example, there is the ancient Persian spring holiday of No Ruz, celebrated across much of central Asia, which is thought to be as old as the invention of agriculture when the need arose to plan and plant new crops every spring. In any case, such a periodic accounting, aided by what is called weighted sortition, has the potential to introduce the sort of mixing – and refusal to mix — that the Persian Sufi poet Hafiz called for in his poem,

“You carry all the ingredients to turn your life into a nightmare. Don’t mix them!
You have all the genius to build a swing in your back yard…
You carry all the ingredients to turn your existence into joy. Mix them, mix them!” (3)


(1) “As U.S. boils over, calls for Canadian justice ring out in House of Commons,” Jim Bronskill, Ottawa, Canadian Press, June 2, 2020, The Globe and Mail.

(2) J.A. Comenius, Panorthosia, or Universal Reform, Chapters 19 to 26, Translated by A.M.O. Dobbie, Sheffield Academic Press, 1993, Ch. 24, para 1, p. 124, Google Books.

(3) “To Build a Swing,” The Gift, Poems by Hafez, the Great Sufi Master, Daniel Ladinsky, tr., Penguin Compass, New York, 1999, p. 48

27 Responses

  1. There is a lot to unpack in this post. Let me just say that systemic racism brought me to sortition. When I participated in Nuit Debout in France I mostly saw valid white men leading discussion by acting as moderators. It would be a strong statement to call Nuit Debout a racist event, but worldwide we have to realize that many security forces and politicians behave in a racist way. And sortition and regular power renewal seem to me like a great option to address this problem.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. let’s hope that the first (to my knowledge) initiative in recent history, and not by accident in one of the most democratic countries in the world, may succeed in the first federal judges appointed by sortition https://www.justiz-initiative.ch/

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m a little puzzled as to why a uber-democratic procedure like sortition would be likely to secure the protection of minority rights. I’m no expert on 20th century US politics, but my understanding is that civil rights legislation was imposed by an elite Federal government in the face of opposition from local majority opinion.


  4. I went to see your initiative’s website. 11 white people. 9 men and two women. Does not look like a good picture for “everybody should have the same right”. Please do not tell me that only white men are interested in having rights.


  5. It seems condescending to explain how sortition would lead to minorities accessing positions of power, which would lead to more rights for these minorities. Randomness does not look at the colour of your skin or at your gender.


  6. *** I don’t know about the skin color of kleroterians, but from the names it seems males are overrepresented.
    *** No voluntary group will mirror the Community along every parameter. Only a mandatory allotted group is able.to do it.
    *** If a group where males are overrepresented works toward a system where the sovereign political body will be at least half female, that may have two meanings. Either the members act along a non-sexist line.Or they are very clever and the system will be a very smart way of dominating women – I am sure some critics will elaborate that if a democracy-through-minipopulus is near.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. > the pillars of democracy are in decline

    Was it there ever a time at which those pillars were steady and upright? The only time in modern history that could possibly be portrayed as such a golden age are the “trente glorieuses” – the 30 years following WWII. This, unlike any other time before or since, was a time of relatively widespread prosperity in the West.

    And yet, if we are talking about oppressing minorities, that was of course a time of rampant racism, sexism and homophobia.

    So what decline are thinking of here? There is no fall from grace because there was no grace to fall from. The West never was a democracy. And how could there have been? The Western system was explicitly designed to be “republican” (i.e., aristocratic), anti-democratic. To believe that despite aiming for an aristocracy, the founding fathers somehow managed to create a democracy by accident, we must believe they were profoundly stupid (and in the occurrence of miracles as well).

    Liked by 2 people

  8. My question is simply why would a random sample be any less racist than the population that it “describes”. If it were, then there would be something wrong with the sampling process.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Yoram:> The Western system was explicitly designed to be “republican” (i.e., aristocratic), anti-democratic.

    Quite. That’s why it took an initiative from the “aristocratic” Federal government to overturn the racism that was endemic in southern states. There are no reasons to believe that sortition would do a better job unless it were voluntary and thereby privileged the minority of activists who campaign on Twitter and in the public sphere.


  10. to Yoram, ‘the West was never a democracy’ depends on your definition of democracy of course. It seems to me that you exclude the ‘referendum at citizens initiatif in your definition. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/288427223_Direct_Democracy_Worldwide
    When I state that ‘Switserland is to day the most democratic counry’ (and I believe Switserland belongs to the West) I refer to the classification of David Altman https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2701164 I must admit that I don’t have his book and I did not study his classification system, I am only a user. What I notice in the paper is that the states with direct democracy in the US are not in the list. But maybe they are in the book.

    to Keith: ‘why would a random sample be any less racist than the population that it “describes”. A random sample, if performed correctly (SRS) can’t be ‘racist’ by definition. ( https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/racism a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race)
    But when ‘specialists’ are starting to ‘improve’ the random selection with what they believe is a ‘better represetaion’ accordingly to their personal knowlegdge then the ‘sample’ become racist and far from any ‘mirror of society’.


  11. Paul:> A random sample, if performed correctly (SRS) can’t be ‘racist’ by definition

    I don’t understand. If racism (or any other attitude) is prevalent in any population, then a large, mandatory, random sample will, by definition, mirror these attitudes.


  12. Keith : yes, of course the results can be ‘racist’. I was making a distinction between the instrument and the results.


  13. In a society composed of a majority of racist white males, a random sample is going to yield a sample made by a majority of racist white males, on that we fully agree. But racist white males are a minority (in France, men are 32 million and women 34 million https://fr.statista.com/statistiques/472123/nombre-femme-population-france/), thus a random sample would be composed by a minority of racist white male, this would make the racist in minority in the sample.


  14. Hmm, does that suggest that white males are inherently racist? My general points I think stand — 1) an accurate statistical sample is just “what it says on the box” and 2) any dismantling of racism in the US has been a consequence of the actions of elite Federal politicians.


  15. I don’t think society is inherently racist, you do. 1) What’s in the box is women and non-white people (a majority), again you are the person thinking that what’s in the box is inherently racist 2) I firmly disagree, as many historians do (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_rights_movement) the civil right movement came from black-American, not a white elite.


  16. I may be wrong about US civil rights history and take no substantive view on whether a particular society is “racist” or not. My point is only that a sortition-based sampling procedure will simply reflect the qualities of the society that is being (statistically) “described”, so I don’t see it’s potential for enhancing or protecting the rights and interests of minorities (unless the sample included the likes of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy).


  17. Romain,

    > I may be wrong about US civil rights history and take no substantive view

    … but surely such trivialities will not stop Sutherland from once again regurgitating his nauseating bigoted and elitist lies.

    Unrepentant habitual liars like Sutherland should be exposed and treated as such. They should not be engaged with in good faith, since they have none.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. to Keith: there seems to be however a difference in voting in public or secret voting, and I presume this is also the case for people selected by lot. I don’t know (or remember :-) ) that this is discussed here)
    One argument against secret ballots is that such procedures lead to more selfish voting behavior and that public voting can increase prosocial voting and the likelihood of prosocial outcomes when voters are not subject to intimidation and coercion from outside interests. We investigate this supposition as well as voter preferences over observability in voting in this context. We find that voters are significantly more likely to choose unselfishly when voting is public. These differences in behavior advantage prosocial choices in elections (by 27%) when voting is public. Moreover, voters appear to recognize these differences and a substantial minority of voters whose selfish preference is not the prosocial choice willingly choose public voting even though the likely outcome will be costly to themselves.


  19. Dear Yoram,
    I’ll follow your advice, I have been absent for a while, but his response always brought me to the same conclusion.
    I’ll now spend time bringing more diversity to this great blog instead of writing unheard responses. I wish you all the best!!

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Yoram,

    A friend of mine used to publish extracts from negative reviews of his books on his own website, his pride and joy being a book described as “a brainless slab of leftist bigotry” (in fact he is a liberal conservative). I’m tempted to do that with your libellous (ad) homina homina homina, but it would be boring because you always repeat the same thing! I suppose I should be glad that in your role of site moderator you haven’t no platformed me, but your advice to commentators not to engage with me is skating pretty close.


  21. Paul:> We find that voters are significantly more likely to choose unselfishly when voting is public.

    OK, but will the target population (that allotted deciders represent vicariously) accept the legitimacy of the proxy vote? And, on controversial issues, will publicly-identifiable proxies be prepared to risk the ire of their friends and neighbours (and go against political correctness)? Anonymity also has its virtues (and renders voters immune to intimidation and bribery — that was the reason for the introduction of the secret ballot in the first place).


  22. Keith: > these are the key questions with sortition as Cristina Lafont
    https://equalitybylot.com/2020/04/15/lafont-democracy-without-shortcuts/ mentions in her book. Democracy is evaluated mainly by two criteria: the ‘acceptability’ of the system and the ‘acceptability’ of the results. Even when an ‘enlightened’ and descriptive representative panel appointed by sortition, in respect with the best practices, impose a decision (suppose it has the right to do so) this may be ‘unacceptable’ for a vast majority of the citizens affected. And this will prove to be unsustainable in the long run. That is often the ‘missing link’ with sortition experiments (BC). It is of no use to create a ‘new enlightened elite’ to replace the ‘electorale aristocratic’ system.
    https://participedia.net/case/1 Analysis and Lessons Learned:
    … In the end, the referendum, although supported by a substantial majority of the population, did not pass. Perhaps it did not deserve to pass. Despite its potential problems, there is little doubt that the deliberations of the Assembly were rich and serious. The larger public debate about the STV proposal was anemic by comparison. Although the government provided Assembly members with ample opportunities to become experts in electoral systems, it did not make a comparable investment to educate the general public before the referendum. For the most part, political parties and politicians did not engage this quasi-constitutional question. Despite this deafening silence, the majority of citizens voted against the very system that elected their government. After that popular rebuke, one observer remarked, “the real deliberation will begin.”


  23. Paul,

    I completely agree with Lafont and yourself. That’s why we need to demonstrate empirically that it makes no difference which citizens get to deliberate, the result will be the same. I for one (as a democrat) would accept the verdict of such a jury, but only once it can be demonstrated that it is immune to randomness (in the pejorative sense) and partisan and elite influences that are not corrected by electoral choices. (By “corrected” I’m referring to a dialectical exchange in the public domain). None of the existing sortition experiments fulfil that criterion.

    PS thanks for engaging with me, despite the exhortations from the moderator of this forum!


  24. :-) we all have the right not to be ‘perfect’.


  25. *** In France the majority of sex crimes come from male persons. The majority of recent terrorist acts came from people belonging to the Moslem Sunni tradition. I don’t think these differences come only from unequal law enforcement. Generally speaking, many kinds of crime come from different classes of the French society with a statistical difference, often a big one. We can think these differences will be rarer and smaller in a well-governed society, but even here some may appear.
    *** Let’s consider a general case : for a kind of crime, perpetrators come more often from the class Y than from the non-Y population. Such a discrepancy creates a risk of generating among the repressive apparatus – elected magistrates, professional magistrates, civil servants, voluntary helps – bias against the Y people, easily suspected, more often controlled, having to prove their innocence with doubt playing against them. If the repressive apparatus appears anti-Y, it will attract people with anti-Y feelings, conscious or unconscious. And furthermore, group think inside the apparatus will heighten the anti-Y attitude.
    *** To lessen these effects, an (ortho-)democracy may give a big role in the repressive apparatus to allotted magistrates, with a limited time tenure, to limit and control the risk of anti-Y drift.
    *** If there is presence in the civic body of anti-Y feelings, conscious or not, the allotted temporary magistrates will have the same level of anti-Y feelings, yes, but not an higher level.
    *** We have here another case of superiority of sortition over selection : selection, even if it may give better technical efficiency, creates a risk of drift from the common sensitivities.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. […] This is the 4th post in a series on Barbara Goodwin’s classic work on sortition Justice by Lottery, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992. Previous posts in the series: 1, 2, 3. […]


  27. […] Justice by Lottery, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992. Previously published parts: 1, 2, 3, […]


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