Sortition and 21st Century Democracy

Sortition and 21st Century Democracy

David Schecter’s presentation at the “Democracy for the 21st Century” conference, Library of Alexandria, Egypt, December 11, 2015

This conference began with a quote from John Kennedy – “the great enemy of truth is not the lie, but the myth.” I believe that the great enemy of truth about democracy is the myth that there is only one democratic way to choose representatives — through elections.

As Dr. Ismail Serageldin suggested, we have been confusing one means of choosing — elections — with democracy itself. And as Dr. George Ishak said, “In the 21st century, we should find new ways to select representatives.” Sortition is one of those ways. Actually, it is not a new way, it’s a very old way. It was used more than elections in ancient Athens, and people wrote about it here in Alexandria 2,000 years ago.

My colleagues, Terrill Bouricius and Oliver Dowlen, have described specific proposals for incorporating sortition into political system design. I would to talk about a whole set of proposals, and a menu of options.

I have been researching proposals like these, and I have also co-authored one. I have found 18 such proposals so far, and I have had the pleasure of corresponding with the authors. They come from Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, South Africa, the U.K., and the U.S. Together, they represent many new possibilities for democracy.

My talk will have three parts. First, I am going to review the rationale for the use of sortition and “mini-publics” – that is, representative samples of the public. I am also going to respond to some common objections to this idea. Second, I am going to describe a menu of options for incorporating mini-publics into political systems. Third, I am going to pose some important questions that have not yet been addressed within these proposals.
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Should we talk about “mini-publics” instead of sortition?

I’ve had many conversations with people about sortition over the last several years, and I’ve never been happy with the term “sortition.” However, I’ve never found a satisfactory alternative. I suspect other people on this blog have also struggled with this problem.

I know of four terms, in English, to describe the selection process we’re talking about. Here are the problems I’ve encountered with each one:

Sortition – doesn’t have an immediate association with anything that people know about (for example, it’s not clearly related to the verb “to sort,” or to the noun “sort”). Also, it sounds like the word “sordid.”

Random selection – the people I’ve talked to intuitively dislike the idea of “random” anything (except random sampling in statistics) – let alone anything “random” connected to democracy (although, ironically, they do like random selection of jurors).

Selection by lot – sounds archaic, even Biblical.

Lottery (and related terms like Alex Guerrero’s “lottocracy”) – has negative connotations because it’s associated with gambling, and (in the United States) with educational lotteries (a few lucky families win, most lose).

What would be a better alternative? At the moment, I think it would be helpful to talk about “mini-publics.”
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Sortition proposals in Spanish?

Does anyone here know of a list of sortition proposals in Spanish?

¿Sabe alguien donde podría encontrar una lista de propuestas sobre el sorteo en español?

Paper about sortition and the executive branch

Earlier this year I began a discussion thread about what changes to the executive branch would complement an allotted legislature, since the sortition literature I know of seems to say so little about the executive branch. At the time, Terry Bouricius and I were working on a paper on that subject for an online publication called the Systems Thinking World Journal. The paper was recently published, and is available online at this address –

Here is the part of the paper that summarizes the proposal (note: we are assuming that the legislative branch is organized according to Terry’s “multibody sortition” design).

Chief Executive, Department Heads, and Hiring Panels

The Chief Executive. The President, Prime Minister, Governor, Mayor, etc. — would have substantially less power than she or he usually does today. The Chief Executive of a jurisdiction would be primarily an administrator and a policy advisor, not a policy maker – similar to the role of City Manager or City Administrator, used in many U.S. municipalities. The legislative branch would make most policy decisions. The primary tasks of the Chief Executive, and executive branch department heads, would be to manage implementation of policies, to advise about policies from the perspective of implementation, and to propose policy options at the request of the legislative branch. In actual practice the distinction between policy and administration would often be “fuzzy” and contested, but the decisions would be made based on the principle of separating policy from administration.

The Chief Executive would have no power to veto legislation, or to enact “quasi-legislation” (as Presidents do in the U.S. through executive orders, for example). In the same way, department heads could not make policy by unilaterally writing regulations – the legislative branch would be the final decision-maker, unless this power was expressly delegated for a specific purpose and for a defined period, and allowed by the Rules Council. However, the Chief Executive and department heads would play important roles in advising the legislative branch about legislation, and in making proposals for legislation or regulations at the request of the legislative branch.

While Chief Executives and department heads could be removed from office at any time (as described below), there would be no need for term limits. Good executives might serve for decades.
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Two sortition papers published in Systems Thinking World Journal

Terry Bouricius and I have published two papers about sortition in an online publication called the Systems Thinking World journal. The first paper (published last year) is about Terry’s model of lawmaking by multiple bodies of randomly selected citizens. The second one (published today) is about a sortition-based model we developed together for accountability of the executive branch. I think both papers would interest people on this blog, and we would welcome comments.

Here are the abstracts of the two papers:

An Idealized Design for the Legislative Branch of Government

This paper presents an idealized design for a legislative system. The concept of idealized design is explained. The paper critiques two critical (and often taken for granted) features of the legislative branches of most contemporary democratic governments: legislators are chosen by election, and the same bodies perform all legislative and meta-legislative functions, for all laws. Seven problems with these two features are described. A new model of lawmaking is proposed, based on three concepts from ancient Athenian democracy — random selection, dividing legislative functions among multiple bodies, and the use of temporary bodies (like contemporary juries) for final decision making. The benefits of the model are laid out, and likely objections are addressed.

An Idealized Design for Government, Part 2: Executive Branch Accountability

In this paper, the authors continue to build on their proposed model for incorporating randomly selected citizens into the decision-making processes of government. The first article presented a case for the benefits of random selection; proposed a lawmaking process that replaces elected, all-purpose legislatures with multiple, limited-function bodies composed of randomly selected citizens; and identified possible objections to the model (see An Idealized Design for the Legislative Branch of Government, In the current article, the authors extend the model to the executive branch, discussing how redesigning the executive branch could improve accountability to the legislature and to the people. The potential for current executive branch designs to negatively affect performance and accountability is used to propose a new model that reduces the power of the executive branch, increases accountability, and has the potential to reduce corruption. The benefits of the model are outlined, and possible objections are addressed.

If the legislature is (at least partly) chosen by lot – how to restructure the executive branch?

Terry Bouricius and I are working on some ideas for reforms to the executive branch that would be compatible with an allotted legislature. We have a paper in peer review on some aspects of this, and we’re working on a second paper that would be more comprehensive.

The sortition literature that we’ve read is mostly limited to the legislative branch. The two main exceptions we know of are Keith’s book “A People’s Parliament,” and John Burnheim’s book “Is Democracy Possible.”  Does anyone here know of other books or papers that deal with the question of “what to change in the executive branch, assuming that the legislature is at least partially selected by lot?”

Criteria for a “good” legislative system?

I’d like to pose a question to everyone in this forum – what are your preferred criteria for a “good” legislative system?