Sortition in the Harvard CS department

Prof. Ariel Procaccia is giving a course at the Harvard Computer Science department titled “Optimized Democracy”. Procaccia has been writing about sortition for a while and sortition plays an important part in this course’s syllabus:

Students in the course explore the mathematical bedrock of democracy itself, and then build upon those foundations by applying computer science theory to some of the most vexing problems facing modern policymakers.

For instance, one topic covered in Procaccia’s course, sortition, dates back to the very first democracy in ancient Athens. Citizens seeking a position on the Athenian governing committee would self-select into a pool of candidates, intended to be generally representative of the city population, and then magistrates would be chosen by lot.

Fast forward 2,500 years and this method is still being used to form citizens’ assemblies. These assemblies have been used most prominently in Ireland to discuss constitutional reform and in France and the U.K. to debate environmental issues.

But there’s a problem.

“There is this tension between giving everyone a fair chance to participate in the citizens’ assembly, and this idea that we want to represent the population at large. The people who volunteer have a large self-selection bias,” he said. “That leads to very compelling algorithmic questions of how to balance these issues.”