Elections and consent

It has been claimed, notably by Bernard Manin (The principles of representative government pp. 79-93), that the reason that sortition of representatives was never considered, and in fact hardly ever mentioned, by the founding fathers of the Western system was because it conflicted with their commitment to the notion that a just system must be based on consent. The argument is that only elections, which institutionalize the act of explicit selection, are compatible with this principle and thus sortition was ruled out a-priori to such an extent that it was never part of the set of ideas being discussed.

While the commitment of the founding fathers to the principle of consent cannot be realistically disputed, the notion that they saw a strong link between elections and consent is much less convincing. This link is far from obvious since, as Manin notes, the principle of consent long predates the modern era. Such a link would therefore not have been taken for granted by the founders, and presuming that it were important to them it would surely have merited a central place in their rhetoric. In fact, however, Manin cites no primary source which argues that elections are a mechanism of consent. He quotes, for example, John Locke as saying:

And thus that, which begins and actually constitutes any Political Society, is nothing but the consent of any number of Freemen capable of a majority to unite and incorporate themselves into such a Society.

But this, of course, makes no mention of elections. Quite the contrary – it is the consent to the incorporation itself, rather than any particular procedures of the newly formed body, that is crucial.
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Zaremberg and Welp: Beyond utopian and dystopian approaches to democratic innovation

A 2018 paper by Gisela Zaremberg and Yanina Welp has the following abstract:

This paper discusses the myths regarding both the conceptualization and the expected effects that are implicitly or explicitly presented in analyses of the so-called ‘democratic innovations’, that is, the new institutions that aim to increase public participation beyond regular elections. It is argued that these myths, together with the (fictitious) confrontation between direct and indirect politics, have generated false oppositions and reductionisms that mask the debate and limit empirical approximations to democratic innovation. A research agenda based on the concept of ‘participatory ecologies’ is suggested as a way to gain an understanding of the mechanisms of participation in a systematic way.

I found these excerpts of particular interest to the Equality-by-Lot blog:

In a participatory ecology there is no single mechanism that is able to deliver all the virtuous democratic effects. Empirical evidence supports this proposition. For example, a positive balance of participatory mechanisms was observed in Ireland with the combination of a citizen’s assembly selected by sortition, which opened an informed debate about abortion, and a referendum, as a fair mechanism to make legitimate decisions. A negative balance is exemplified by the experience with recall referendums in Japan, where recall is activated more against policies than against authorities; however, as the first is binding and easier than the activation of initiative, it is used more frequently.

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“Putting the practice of sortition on firmer foundations”

An article in Nature by Bailey Flanigan, Paul Gölz, Anupam Gupta, Brett Hennig and Ariel D. Procaccia proposes a sampling algorithm which produces samples with specified quotas for given subgroups of the population. Since the quotas do not match the proportions of the groups in the population, the probability of selection of each person in the population is not the same. However, the algorithm aims to make those probabilities as equal as possible.

The authors propose the use of their algorithm for selecting citizen assemblies from groups of volunteers. In existing practice, the group of volunteers for a citizen assembly is usually very unrepresentative of the population as a whole and the quotas are used to supposedly compensate for this unrepresentativity and make sure that the selected assembly is descriptive of the population as a whole. The authors claim that “[b]y contributing a fairer, more principled and deployable algorithm [than the previous algorithm used], our work puts the practice of sortition on firmer foundations. Moreover, our work establishes citizens’ assemblies as a domain in which insights from the field of fair division can lead to high-impact applications”.

In my view, while this work may be of theoretical interest in the field of sampling, and while the authors may have the most commendable intentions of promoting democratic decision making, the notion that this work in any way improves the political application of sortition is not only unjustified, but may actually be the opposite of reality.

First, it is obvious that unless absurdly arbitrary and drastic assumptions are made, quotas can in no way compensate for the unrepresentativity of a volunteer sampling group. For quotas to be able to compensate for the unrepresentativity of the volunteer sampling group, it must happen that within each quota group the probability of volunteering is uncorrelated with (informed and considered) opinions on the matters at hand. One would have to have a horribly mechanistic and reductionist notion of what determines individual opinions in order to make such an assumption. Thus, the entire endeavor of quota-adjusted sampling is no more than cosmetics over the reality of bias introduced by low volunteer rates in existing applications of sortition in politics.
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Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality

There’s a report out on the recent Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality. The report, by Jane Suiter, Kirsty Park, Yvonne Galligan, and David M. Farrell, focuses on “the quality of the deliberative process and the attitudes of the members towards the process”. The report can be found at:


Victor Bruzzone on sortition

Victor Bruzzone is a doctoral student at the University of Toronto. In a segment on a podcast he makes an argument for a selecting the legislative chamber of government by sortition (starting about 1 hour into the recording). The segment mentions a chapter Bruzzone wrote in a soon-to-be-published book, Liberalism and Socialism: Mortal Enemies or Embittered Kin?, which presumably argues for the same idea.

A Call to Arms

Dear Fellow Sortitionist: I urge you to join me in a letter writing campaign intended to raise public awareness here in the U.S.

I’ve written to the director of the Metropolitan Museum (in New York), requesting that the Greek wing host an exhibition on the subject of Athenian democracy. The letter is heartfelt but I am an unknown individual possessing no social or institutional connections – neither a donor, a scholar, or a socialite – I doubt very much that my missive will ever even make it past his secretary. But what if the director were to receive a dozen (or a hundred) similar letters? I think then his assistant would undoubtedly take notice and the director would most certainly give the idea serious consideration. Hence, my plea to the sortition community for a joint assault on the director’s inbox

To directly challenge someone’s mainstream political views (as sortitionists are wont to do) is usually an exercise in futility. But to question them indirectly, by contemplating the example of an exotic, ancient system of government, may just leave some wiggle room for the adjustment of hard held habitual beliefs. That’s the hope anyhow. The museum patron enters the exhibit as a die hard supporter of the 21’st Century “Democratic” status quo and exits harboring some well informed doubts. A sortition partisan in the making… This is what I would hope for anyhow, and so long as sortition remains unknown here in the U.S. activist projects such as this will remain the main focus of my energy.
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