Non-Partisan Sortition Activism: Real Or Imagined?

I’ve recently been urging legislators in my home state of California to write a bill to implement the CIR (Citizens’ Initiative Review) process to make our ballot proposition system more democratic. We have two parties in our state, and generally, one (the majority) has been more receptive to such a bill than the other. This reflects the national situation where one major political party seems at least overtly supportive of democratic reform, whereas the other, not so much. This state of affairs contrasts with polls that show the idea of democratic lotteries to be popular with both conservatives and progressives. Of course we need to be building a cross-ideological grassroots coalition to give democratic lotteries a place in government. But what about the existing political parties holding power? Currently they make the laws. Do we try to work with them or do we ignore them?

Suppose I continue to have no luck with minority party legislators and we get a CIR bill in my state, and suppose it’s entirely supported by the majority party and not the minority party. This is not a hypothetical. There is a real possibility that such a bill could pass the legislature and become law. But is it worth it? Or will a CIR law supported by only one party, even if the majority party, paint the sortition movement as partisan? Is a one-party supported CIR worse than no CIR? Should we not be working with the legislature at all, but rather using the initiative process in our attempts to make change?

8 Responses

  1. Exactly the right question to ask. I am strongly in favour of working with politicians to show them that deliberative reforms are complementary and practical – they “help leaders lead”.

    And yes, I think this needs to be bi-partisan as the alternative means the measure is dumped the next time the other party gets the chance. In my experience this is achievable. If you want to follow up you can email me (

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  2. The American situation is a little unusual in that your two-party system involves one extremely broad centrist party and another that is really a bad actor, increasingly open about its hostility to even electoral (never mind sortitional) democracy. Under such conditions, I wouldn’t worry about bipartisan support among the parties, and would focus instead on ensuring that the grassroots support base backing your proposal is a fairly representative mix of the population. If the Republican party as it is today achieves power in California, it will not only be sortitional-democratic institutions that are under threat. Better to entrench sortitional institutions while you can.

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  3. Oliver:> The American situation is a little unusual in that your two-party system involves one extremely broad centrist party and another that is really a bad actor.

    That strikes me as an overtly partisan verdict, especially when you consider that the “bad actor” is supported by nearly half of all citizens. I think the measured language that Wayne uses is more appropriate as there is a real danger that sortition will become indelibly associated with what Americans (wrongly) call “liberalism”.

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  4. Oligarchical power should be exploited when possible, ignored when possible, destroyed when possible. But never befriended.

    > paint the sortition movement as partisan

    If the policy you are promoting is popular among Republican voters, that is what matters, not what the Republican elite thinks. But if you have some data showing that Republican voters support your proposal you should definitely show that to Republican politicians. They may reconsider. Would they want when they run for reelection to face attack ads reminding voters that they were against empowering ordinary citizens?

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  5. I appreciate everyone’s responses. One of the things I like about the sortition space is meeting people from all over the world. I do get the sense that the US as a society is more politically polarized than many other countries. I have not seen any European Parliaments recently sacked as the US Capitol was on January 6th. My neighbor, who is a friend and voted for the former president, is also a believer in sortition. I think the real opposition to democratic lottery is from entrenched political power irrespective of party. We must take the case to ordinary people, for which we’ll need to point to working examples of lottery-based decision making–hence the effort to bring CIR to California. If CIR was enacted by one party, and then overturned by another (neither is likely in my estimation), that would certainly heighten awareness of it.

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  6. Wayne, I think CIR is a good idea. However, I also think two more fundamental democratic lottery reforms of the initiative are very much needed.

    One, instead of citizens having to meet an onerous signature requirement to qualify a measure for the ballot, give them the option of seeking to have it qualified by a civic jury. The citizens proposing a measure would present the case for the measure to this jury face-to-face. Those opposed would present the case against it to. The jurors would then decide by majority vote whether to qualify the measure for the ballot. The civic jury could be a fairly large microcosm of the people of California, and the jurors could be randomly sampled into groups of 10 or so for deliberation before the jury votes. (In this way, which measures get on the ballot are decided by the informed judgement of a representative cross-section of the people of California after a fair hearing on a level playing field, not by who can afford the one to three $million or so that a successful signature drive costs in California.)

    Two, if citizens get their measure qualified, whether by jury or by signatures, allow them to apply to a civic jury to have their measure decided by a legislative jury rather than by the popular vote of the initiative. The civic jury would decide by majority vote whether or not to refer the proposed law to a legislative jury for a decision. (Through legislative juries laws can be decided by the informed judgement of representative cross-sections of the public after a fair hearing on a level playing field. In sharp contrast to this, deciding initiatives by popular vote is a method of laws being decided in a poorly informed way by an unrepresentative portion of the public on a heavily skewed playing field. Tens of millions of dollars are sometimes spent supporting or opposing ballot measures in California, which stacks the deck in favour of those who can afford that, and against those who cannot.)

    The initiative is the most promising way to get these reforms, as politicians have an interest in keeping the power to decide laws in their own hands, rather than letting laws be decided by the informed judgement of the people, with the people no longer being largely shut out of lawmaking by the high cost of successful signature drives and effective popular vote initiative campaigns.

    If you google my name you’ll see a series of articles putting forth this view.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Regarding part two of what I just out outlined, I think both proponents and opponents of a qualified ballot measure should be able to refer it to a civic jury with the power decide whether the measure will be decided by a legislative jury rather than by popular vote.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Simon, I agree completely. Our strategy is to push for CIR now. Once it’s established and the people of California become familiar with it and realize the benefits of the panel process, we would move on to step two and three. We also will propose a name change from Citizens’ Initiative Review to Civic Initiative Review for the entire process, retaining the initials CIR.

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