Sortition advocacy in South Africa

In an op-ed on the South African website Thought Leader, Bronya Hirschman writes about sortition.

Governance re-imagined: Is politics without parties possible?

Sortition offers inclusiveness and creates a diverse, non-partisan government and it asks citizens to take responsibility for their governance.

In 2021, media outlets (SABC News, IOL and Bloomberg, among others) reported that voter turnout was at an all-time low. Professor Joleen Steyn-Knotze, of the Human Sciences Research Council, attributes this to voter dissatisfaction. Research by The Conversation concurs and puts low voter turnout down to “individual and administrative barriers, followed by complaints about service delivery and corruption, uninterest or disillusionment, and a lack of political alignment”.

But it appears that low voter turnout is a global trend. Elections, as David van Reybrouck explains in Against Elections: The Case for Democracy, were, after all, designed to keep power in the hands of the elite. Thus it would seem we, as a society, have lost faith in the political process. But what does this mean? In effect, we, the people, are just a few people — the rest, a bit busy to be bothered.
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Action ideas

In the discussion following my presentation in the January DWE meeting, one of the participants suggested that a list of actions and activities that sortition activists can engage in in order to promote idea of sortition would be useful. Here is my attempt at a first draft. The possible actions and activities are categorized by the circle of action (internal, personal circle, wider circles). In addition there is a category of activities that are suitable for coordinated action. In some cases it may be worth expanding on the bullet items and giving some details, but I wanted to keep the list brief and manageable, so I intend to do this separately.

Please contribute your ideas in the comments. Hopefully we can create an improved, richer list in future versions.

Changing personal habits of thought and expression

  • Breaking the habit of thinking and referring to countries with elections-based political systems as “democratic” (e.g., “the Western democracies”)
  • Awareness of the oppressive outcomes of the elections-based system
  • Thinking and talking about those outcomes as inherent to the elections-based system, rather than aberrations
  • Rejecting the standard electoralist “fixes” (campaign finance reforms, term limits, the popular initiative process, proportional representation, etc.)

Action within the personal circle
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More sortition on Reddit

Reddit user swiftap offers sortition to the readers of the ukpolitics topic:

I want to replace our current voting system with a system of Sortition for our legislative bodies. Sortition is the system used for selecting jury duty. Its effectively a lottery system for ordinary people to be selected to be the representative for their district.

As our politics becomes more polarised every year, I feel our vote matters less and less. It only matters if you live in a swing district. We even like to think we are electing a representative that matches our views and beliefs, but those elected representatives are under the influence of political parties, and those parties have agendas that are shaped by individuals that assist their campaigns to get into office, typically the rich and powerful.

Speaking of campaigns, we don’t even elect politicians based on how good they are at their job, we elect them at how good they are at campaigning for their job. Campaigning for office, and holding office are two different skillsets.

Many of the commenters respond with some of the standard, easily refutable objections:

Would these people not be completely unaccountable for their decisions? Just get the job, vote for decisions that favour the biggest bidder and go along your merry way.

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Short refutations of common arguments for sortition (part 4/4)

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3.

I conclude this series of posts by refuting three “philosophical” arguments. These arguments purport to provide theoretical bases for the use of sortition.

10. “The Blind break”: The trouble with elections is that it appoints decision makers based on bad reasons – connections, wealth, ambition, etc. Sortition selects decision makers at random, thus for no reasons at all, and in particular for no bad reasons.

Taken at face value, this argument is rather weak. Would having decision makers that were not selected due to bad reasons be enough for producing good policy? Relatedly, this argument provides little guidance for how the decision making body should be set up. For example, what size should be body be? After all, each institutional parameter that would be set would be set due to some reason. Would those reason be good or bad?

Finally, even the claim that selecting at random is selection that excludes reasons is hardly convincing. Having an equal-probability lottery is not a natural default. It is itself a procedural choice which is made for some reason – the very convincing reason that all group members are political equals. If one rejects this reason, one could very well argue that sortition should be rejected.
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The classical unities

According to Wikipedia, it was Italian Renaissance philosopher Gian Giorgio Trissino who came up with the “classical unities” as a prescriptive theory of dramatic tragedy. The three unities are:

  • Unity of action: a tragedy should have one principal action.
  • Unity of time: the action in a tragedy should occur over a period of no more than 24 hours.
  • Unity of place: a tragedy should exist in a single physical location.

When considering how sortition (and elections) can be conducted in a way that would be resistant to manipulation, such unities are crucial, argues Trent Clark in an article in the Idaho State Journal.

Ancient Athens was home to one of the world’s first democracies. The Greek orator and reformer Cleisthenes initiated citizen “voting” in 508 BC. His solution: Give every voter one black stone and one white stone. On each decision, whether to go to war, accept a treaty, send trade delegations, etc., the citizens would cast a stone (white for “yes,” black for “no”) into a jar. The contents of the jar determined the policy of the city. As many as 6,000 Athenians would participate.

In early Athens, serving in government was a civic obligation, like jury duty today. Military assignments were based on skill with weapons and history as a soldier. But other posts were randomly drawn, a process called “sortition.” Tokens with a citizen’s name, or pinakia, were arranged across a large flat tablet or kleroterion. Multi-colored dice were used to select rows and columns, pointing to a random name for each open position.

Cleisthenes found it essential that all this occur at a known location, at a designated time, in public. Citizens needed to see that the process was not rigged or “fixed” by the city’s tribal bosses.

Ostracism and EbL

The launch of Jeff Miller’s Democracy in Crisis: Lessons from Ancient Athens was marked with discussion threads on and Equality by Lot (EbL). Whilst the debate on the former was (on the whole) polite and informative, the latter quickly degenerated into claims that the author was “mistaken”, “confused” and “self-contradictory”, before going off on a tangent. Although EbL (launched in 2009) was the first blog dedicated to sortition, we are currently languishing on the ninth page of a Google search for the term and are struggling to find new posters, commentators and readers (of the 8,423 “followers”, most are on twitter and very few have signed up to the WordPress site). We clearly need to take a long hard look at why this blog is, frankly, a catastrophic failure.

EbL was launched on 14 December 2009 by Conall Boyle, Peter Stone and Yoram Gat, the blog being intended for

  • Academic papers, especially in draft, pre-published form for discussion.
  • ‘Think-pieces’ by group members, preferably which have been published elsewhere.
  • News items about the use of randomness (lottery) in both governance and distribution

But there was also another (paranthetical) goal, namely a “a ‘shop-window’ for our ideas”, which has increasingly been viewed as a consciousness-raising opportunity for sortition activists to encourage the masses to revolt against “electoralism” (which is denied any democratic provenance). This is compounded by an antipathy to academic expertise as just another example of “elitism”, even when the sub-discipline (democratic theory) is of direct relevance. This being the case, most academics (including two of the aforementioned founders) have little or no truck with EbL. What makes matters worse is that differences of opinion have degenerated into vituperative personal attacks, and this is extremely off-putting for new participants.

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Presentation at Democracy Without Elections meeting

On Sunday I presented the presentation above at a meeting of Democracy Without Elections. The presentation was followed by a lively discussion. There was some interest in the “call to action” I make in the next-to-last slide (namely, resisting the oppressive convention of calling countries where the political system is elections-based “democracies”). A proposal was made that we – sortition activists – draw up a list of possible actions that we could engage in, as individuals or in groups, to promote sortition. I had to admit that I have made no such list, and that as far as I know no such list exists. I’ll draw up a list of ideas I have (it may unfortunately be a rather short one) and share it in a future post, and we could collectively extend and improve it.

It was great to meet this group of enthusiastic sortition activists. I thank those who participated and in particular Owen Shaffer for inviting me, and I warmly congratulate all those involved. It is great to see such activity which I think was unimaginable on a decade ago.

Sortition in Vox

In another manifestation of sortition making progress in the English-speaking world, the U.S. news website Vox has an article about this idea. The author is Dylan Matthews.

[I]f you want to know what Congress will do in 50 years, seeing what ideas are percolating in the academy can be surprisingly informative.

That’s why I’ve been struck by the growing popularity, among academics, of a radical idea for rethinking democracy: getting rid of elections, and instead picking representatives by lottery, as with jury duty. The idea, sometimes called sortition or “lottocracy,” originates in ancient Athens, where democracy often took the form of assigning positions to citizens by drawing lots.

But lately it’s had a revival in the academy; Rutgers philosopher Alex Guerrero, Yale political theorist Hélène Landemore, and Belgian public intellectual David Van Reybrouck have been among the most vocal advocates in recent years. (If you’re a podcast fan, I recommend Landemore’s appearance on The Ezra Klein Show.) The broad sense that American democracy is in crisis has provoked an interest in bold ideas for repairing it, with lottocracy the boldest among them.

It is worth noting that the article talks explicitly about “getting rid of elections”, rather than “complementing elections”, or employing some other vague phrasing regarding the future use of the electoral mechanism.
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Dikastic Thorubos

All the other powers are naturally in a man’s own control, but the power of speaking is blocked if there is opposition from the audience. Hear him as a scoundrel, bribe-taker, and as one who will say absolutely nothing true. (Dem. 19-340)

Cited in V. Bers, ‘Dikastic Thorubos’ in Crux: Essays Presented to G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, ed. P.A. Cartledge and F.D. Harvey (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 1985)

Recent outbursts of mud-slinging on this forum have implications for the design of sortition-based assemblies, especially if isegoria (equal speech) is the norm. This is the guiding principle of deliberative democracy, as it was in the Athenian democracy (unlike Sparta). However in both the ancient and modern cases only a tiny number of participants exercised the ho boulomenos (anyone who wishes) principle. It took some cojones to address the Athenian assembly and unpopular speakers were shouted down by the other participants (as we saw in the quote from Demosthenes). Whilst such prophylactics can work in direct democracies, large modern states resort to the exchange of insults between political parties, each one hoping to increase its share of the vote in elections. Jaw-jaw is certainly better than war-war, hence the fact that the illocutionary factions in the House of Commons are separated by two swords’ lengths.

The mud-slinging on this forum appears to be primarily between two “camps” — in the one corner Alex Kovner and Keith Sutherland and in the other Yoram Gat and Liam Jones. As Alex recently commented, the two groups appear to be “on different planets”, impervious to the (Habermasian) exchange of reasons.

There is no good reason to believe that a sortition-based assembly would be any different — especially if participation is voluntary, as this would attract those who like the sound of their own voice, which may or may not map to the voices of those in the target population that the randomly-selected group is intended to “describe”. This would suggest that ho boulomenos can do little to support the isegoria rights of the vast majority of citizens who fail to be included in the sortition.

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Does Power Corrupt or are the Corruptible Attracted to Power?

The “Crowded Bookcase” reviews Brian Klaas’s new book Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How it Changes Us. Ryan Boissonneault writes,

It’s a familiar story: A corrupt leader rises to power, is often willingly allowed to do so, and proceeds to leave a trail of destruction in his wake (it’s usually, but not always, a male). We see this time and time again throughout history and across the globe. But we never seem to learn. How can we account for this?

The conventional answer is to blame power itself, as in the proverbial saying “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But as political scientist Brian Klaas explains in his latest book, Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us, things are not so simple. While power can indeed corrupt, more often bad people are drawn to positions of power in the first place, and pursue these positions within systems that actually encourage bad behavior. To ensure that the right people are placed in power, we have to do more than focus only on individuals; we need to fix the underlying systems that allow them to thrive. As Klaas wrote:

“What if power doesn’t make us better or worse? What if power just attracts certain kinds of people—and those are precisely the ones who shouldn’t be in charge? Maybe those who most want power are the least suited to hold it. Perhaps those who crave power are corruptible.”

Check out Boissoneault’s blog for the rest of the review of the book, and spoiler alert – sortition is mentioned as a possible remedy.