“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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