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?

How to design a democratic legislative system – order of questions

I think it will help us, and could help many other people, to have a useful order of questions for designing a democratic legislative system. I’m not saying “the right order of questions,” or even “the most useful order” – only “a useful order.” I’m also not suggesting that we should follow this order in our conversations. Instead, I think it could act as a useful reference point for those times when someone says, “Wait a minute – it’s premature to talk about x before we’ve settled y.”

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

  1. Criteria – What criteria should define a “democratic” and “good” legislative system?
  2. Categories of actors – Which broad categories of actors (e.g. all the people, allotted representatives, elected representatives, all-purpose versus limited-purpose representatives, staff) should play important roles in the legislative process? What roles should they play?
  3. Activities – What are the main activities that must (or should?) be carried out in a democratic legislative process, and in what order? In some cases order will matter, in others it won’t.
  4. Bodies and offices – Which specific bodies and offices (e.g. allotted chamber, single issue panels) should carry out each activity, playing what roles?
  5. Processes – What processes should be used for each activity?

What do you think? I look forward to your ideas, and I’m hoping that maybe together we can create a simple structure that will not only help us, but many others as well.

Legislative activities tree diagram

I’m still thinking about the basic legislative activities, and the order of them.

In a previous post, I proposed a set of activities that drew distinctions between choosing issues to address, deciding the objectives and criteria for laws about each issue, and proposing laws. Despite what I said before, I now think this does represent a sequence of activities, but it’s an order of logic, and not meant to dictate the actual order in practice. For example, choosing issues is logically prior to writing bills, but often issues are discovered or clarified through the process of writing bills.

Terry pointed out that while there is value in this logical order, in actual practice advocates are likely to jump immediately into proposing laws, and that the lawmaking process should allow for this. So I wrote, “there ought to be a way to get the benefits of both the top-down and bottom-up kinds of thinking.”
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Strategies to implement sortition?

I’ve been thinking recently about strategies to implement sortition – especially incremental strategies that start with relatively small, feasible steps, and then gradually build up to more ambitious goals. I have a special interest in strategies that could be feasible on a municipal level in or near the city where I live (San Francisco), because I’d like to be part of such a project, but I’m also very interested in any strategies people have suggested that might work in any part of the world.

Harald, you recently proposed two strategies:

  1. Add a small number of allotted members to an existing elected legislature, then increase the number of allotted members
  2. Conduct one-off sortition exercises (with the allotted bodies having some decision making power) on first a few issues, then more

Kevin O’Leary proposed starting by creating an allotted legislative body (the “People’s Assembly”) that would be advisory only, then later giving it legislative authority.

I’ve been thinking about three other strategies:

  1. Conducting a foundation-funded, local government supported experiment with a municipal level second chamber chosen by lot (in US cities, the legislative branch is usually unicameral).
  2. Creating an actual allotted second chamber in a municipality, with legislative authority; then doing the same in a few more municipalities, then replacing one branch of a state legislature with an allotted chamber in a small state or province.
  3. Creating a single purpose allotted legislative body (say, on health care or environmental legislation), then adding more.

What other strategies do you folks know of?