Snell: Countries obsessed with sortation likely to be inward looking and self-obsessed

As they describe themselves, James Snell is a senior advisor at the New Lines Institute, currently writing a book on the war in Afghanistan. The New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy is a nonprofit and non-partisan think tank in Washington D.C. working to enhance U.S. foreign policy based on a deep understanding of the geopolitics of the different regions of the world and their value systems.

Snell has a piece in Politico where he expresses his concern about the dangers of what he consistently calls “sortation”. Snell’s concern has seemingly been triggered by the upcoming posthumous publication of Maurice Pope’s book “The Keys to Democracy”.

[T]he ancient Athenians — so admired by the founders of the United States — were ruled by a boule, or a council, where the positions were filled by lot. The same went for Athens’ courts, and Roman juries after the founding of their republic.

There’s something romantic about this notion of a non-representative democracy, of government formed by citizens rather than their elected delegates — so romantic, in fact, that it’s making a comeback.
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Equality by Lot 2022 statistics

Below are some statistics about the 13th year of Equality-by-Lot. Comparable numbers for last year can be found here.

2022 Page views Posts Comments
Jan 4,070 15 183
Feb 2,557 6 24
Mar 2,772 10 26
Apr 2,942 8 20
May 3,557 8 26
June 2,455 5 48
July 2,333 8 11
Aug 3,797 7 32
Sept 2,960 6 5
Oct 3,278 10 21
Nov 3,110 10 27
Dec (to 23st) 2,263 5 92
Total 36,094 98 515

Note that page views do not include visits by logged-in contributors – the WordPress system does not count those visits.

Posts were made by 16 authors during 2022. (There were, of course, many other authors quoted and linked to.)

This blog currently has 160 email followers, 356 WordPress followers and 511 Twitter followers (@Klerotarian).

Searching for “distribution by lot” (with quotes) using Google returns Equality-by-Lot as the 3rd result (out of “about 77,000 results”). Equality-by-Lot is now on the 12th page of results when searching for “sortition” using the Google search engine (out of “about 339,000 results”).

Happy holidays and a happy new year to Equality-by-Lot readers, commenters and posters. Keep up the good fight for democracy!

New second chamber could be filled using a process of random selection

Andrew Carruthers, a reader of the Scottish The National, writes the following in a letter to the editor:

THE Labour party has again proposed to scrap the House of Lords. This raises the question of what form a replacement House should take, not just in Westminster but also in a potentially independent Scotland.

The obvious answer is some form of democratically elected forum, as indeed Labour suggests. The Lords itself is unrepresentative and not a model to follow. But “democratically elected” systems also have problems. Not least is that most seats in any election do not change party, so most of the individuals “elected” are actually chosen by a small clique of the incumbent party’s faithful. In other words, they are jobs for the boys rather than being democratically responsive in any meaningful way.

A further issue is that the sort of people who put themselves forward as candidates may have laudable ambitions, but are not necessarily the sort of person you and I would actually prefer to be in charge. Clearly not every political hopeful is a self-seeking egomaniac, but the very fact that they are putting themselves forward will always raise a suspicion – just think Boris Johnson (but not for too long).
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Sortition in 2022

Equality-by-Lot’s traditional yearly review post.

The most significant piece of sortition-related news for 2021 had been, in my view, the finding that over a quarter of public in four Western European countries – the UK, France, Italy and Germany – supports using allotted bodies to systematically complement the work of parliament. This year, the most significant piece of sortition-related news was the findings of a wider-coverage poll, this time conducted in 15 Western European countries. According to this poll, in all those countries there is fairly strong popular support (~4 in a scale of 0 to 10 on average) for having “a group of randomly-selected citizens make decisions instead of politicians”.

But while popular support for sortition is strong, and while (well justified) concern in elite circles about the declining popularity of the elections-based system persists, it seems to me that 2022 has continued a down-trend in interest in sortition in elite circles, a down-trend that indicates a recovery from the heights of establishment hysteria about the “Crisis of Democracy” following Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the Gilets Jaunes protest in France. Academics have continued publishing papers and opinions on the pros and cons of sortition (unfortunately often rehashing very well hashed material) but applications of sortition have been fading in prominence since the zenith of the French Citizen Convention for the Climate, and discussion of the idea in mass media has receded as well.

That said, there were certainly many notable pieces of news and opinion written about sortition over the last year. Pieces advocating for sortition and discussions of the subject that were mentioned this year on Equality-by-Lot included items from South Africa, the UK: 1, 2, the US: 1, 2 3, 4, 5, 6, Australia, Malaysia, Texas, US, France, Ireland, Utah, US, California, US, Pakistan, Pennsylvania, US, and Massachusetts, US.

Also this year, an allotted council on climate change in Herefordshire, UK generated a discussion about its cost as well as other aspects. A fairly prominent Australia politician,
Vicotr Kline, wrote a strident article advocating replacing elections with sortition, and an independent candidate for governor of Minnesota, US ran on a sortition-based platform. In the city of Petaluma, California, an allotted Citizens’ Assembly was convened to determine how to use a piece of public property, an assembly to discuss food policy was set up in Switzerland, and in the province of Trento, Italy, a bill was discussed for constituting a citizen assembly for reviewing municipal regulations.

Finally, this year saw the passing of citizen assembly pioneer, Ned Crosby.

Call for 2022 review input

This is the yearly call for input for the year’s end review. As in previous years, I would like to have a post or two summarizing the ongoings here at Equality-by-Lot and notable sortition-related events over the passing year. Any input about what should be included is welcome – either through comments below or via email. You are invited to refresh your memory about the events of the passing year by browsing Equality-by-Lot’s archives.

For previous years’ summaries see: 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010.

The experts making sure that the disadvantaged get heard

Annabelle Lever, researcher at Cevipof and professor of political philosophy at Sciences Po, writes in The Conversation about the lengths into which the organizers of allotted bodies have to go in order to overcome “cultural imperialism” and give the disadvantaged a voice.

Creating a citizens’ assembly that truly reflects society as a whole isn’t so simple, however. In particular, only a very small percentage of those invited to participate actually agree to do so.

To create an assembly that is more descriptively representative of the population – or one that looks more like us – several approaches are used. One is to have an initial phase of unweighted selection followed by a second phase that uses weighted lotteries. Another is to use stratified sampling or forms of stratification from the beginning.

Because citizen assemblies are very small compared to the population as a whole – France’s Convention for the Climate was made up of just 150 people – the descriptively representative character of the assembly can occur on only a few dimensions. Organisers must therefore decide what population characteristics the assembly should embody and in what proportion. Randomisation thus does not preclude difficult moral, political and scientific choices about the assembly to be constructed, any more than it precludes voluntariness or self-selection.

The use of weighted lotteries means that individuals will not have a formally equal chance to be selected to it – nor, of course, a substantively equal one. Assemblies created by stratified random selection offer a much wider set of opportunities to serve than is typical of other deliberative bodies. It is thus important to remember that even when a randomly selected assembly “looks like us”, everyone will not have had the same chance to be selected to it, nor to take up the invitation if they want to.

[D]emocratic equality does not require that deliberative bodies be composed of social groups in proportion to their share of the population.
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Authoritarians do sortition just like we do but very differently

SWI interviews Su Yun Woo, who is studying processes for citizen participation in decision making in China. Somewhat confusingly, the interview seems to be asserting two conflicting claims. On the one hand it is pointed out that the “citizen participation” processes in China are essentially the same as those in the West and have the same objectives. At the same time it is explaining that, obviously, things in “democracies” are very different as the authoritarian regimes lack “any overarching democratic conviction”.

SWI: How do these participatory budgeting processes [in China] work?

S.Y.W.: The authorities invite the local population to get involved in decision-making on a part of the budget. A group of citizens will come together to form a panel to discuss how to spend money on a project that serves the community – for instance, a library or a communal garden. Wenling’s participatory budget is well known, whereas the example of Chengdu has been less well studied.

In Wenling, citizens are selected through a lottery system. In Chengdu, the participants are volunteers. This explains why mainly older people took part there, since they have more time. In Wenling, random selection works as the participants get paid – just as they do in Switzerland for projects of this kind. They receive the equivalent of CHF7 ($7) and a free lunch for taking part. In Wenling, participatory processes are now an integral part of local budget policy-making.

SWI: So the participants do not have to be Communist Party members?

S.Y.W.: No, they are ordinary citizens. There is no denying, however, that there can be official interference in participatory projects. I was told about some party officials who were supposed to go door to door and ask people their opinions, but instead they just filled out the forms themselves.

SWI: How would you describe the discussion culture during participatory budget debates?

S.Y.W.: Some participants are very vocal in expressing their opinions, while others stay quiet and prefer to take a back seat.

SWI: This sounds rather like participatory budgeting elsewhere.
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