Ephraim David on sortition

Prof. Ephraim David is a historian of Classical Greece at the Haifa University in Israel. In a 2021 paper, published in the journal Advances in Historical Studies, David discusses sortition in Ancient Athens in the context of recent interest in sortition as a mechanism which can complement or replace elections in modern political systems.

The abstract of the paper is as follows:

Though considered the most democratic method of allocating citizens to office in Classical Greece, sortition (selection by lot) has never been adopted on a large scale by modern democracies (except for juries) and has fallen into oblivion. Recently, however, some political theorists, motivated by deep disappointment with current electoral practices, have been advocating a return to sortition without being sufficiently aware of the complexities involved in their ancient Athenian model. This study tries to explain the roots and ideology of sortition, the ways in which it operated in Athens and the causes of its functional success there for almost two centuries. Proposals of returning to a similar system should pay due attention to the significant role played by elections alongside the lottery in Classical Athens and the precautions taken there to prevent possible harm. In my view, the optimal formula for reform would be a political compromise combining, in one way or another, elections with sortition among volunteering candidates from various quarters of the civic society, selected in due proportions so as to be statistically representative of the demos. Selection by lottery should apply only to groups of people (e.g., committees and councils)—never to individual magistrates.

As the abstract indicates, David is somewhat conservative, emphasizing various aspects of the Athenian system that, as he presents things, guaranteed that “[d]espite the widespread use of sortition, Athenian democracy was far from being a dogmatic ‘lottocracy'”: election of generals and reliance on other forms of expertise, age qualifications, the voluntaristic way in which the allotment pool was created, the dokimasia and retrospective accountability for political decisions.

Nevertheless, it is clear that, unlike most academics dealing with sortition, including those that are considered as being advocates for sortition, David recognizes that reform of the existing system is an urgent need, due to the severe dysfunction of the electoral system as a means for representing public values and interests:

The adoption of sortition among volunteers (in one way or another) for the legislative, in addition to elections, is liable to galvanize participatory democracy and significantly reduce (or, at least, balance) the extent of the ills involved in an exclusively elective system, particularly the manipulation of party elites, the extensive cheating of voters by deceptive electoral propaganda, the manipulation of populist politicians and the over-influence of wealthy oligarchs and tycoons in politics—the blatantly plutocratic aspect of most modern democracies. The optimal ways of reaching
those aims remain to be further explored not only for macro-politics but also with respect to other forms of administration.

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