The Trouble with Elections: with Terry Bouricius

This interview for the first edition of the Democracy Creative TV series is an hour and twenty minutes long. The focus is why elections are a poor tool for running a democracy and why civic lotteries would be better. This isn’t the ideal outreach piece because the introduction highlights my leftist political background. But the bulk of the interview is useful analysis for anybody.

Ismael Serageldin: Transparency and Trust in Trying Times

Ismael Serageldin is the Director of the Library of Alexandria, and one of the most well-connected people in the world. In September he delivered a lecture in Latvia (where he was receiving his 38th honorary doctorate) titled “Transparency and Trust in Trying Times” in which he proposes allotting the legislature (PDF). Serageldin developed his enthusiasm for sortition reform after reading David Van Reybrouck’s book Against Elections: The Case for Democracy and Terrill Bouricius’s paper “Democracy Through Multi-Body Sortition: Athenian Lessons for the Modern Day”. This lecture discusses a range of topics revolving around the deficit of democracy, and the portion about his proposal for a legislature through sortition begins on page 18.


We could try to salvage representative democracy – at least for the legislative branch – by adopting a system of sortition.

The problems we see with legislative or parliamentary elections – a backbone of parliamentary representative democracy – can be summed up as:

  • The polarization that leads to paralysis or blockage, as happens in the US congress and as seen in Belgium staying over 500 days without a government.
  • The interference of money in the electoral process which leads to undue influence of the rich, resulting in a generalized feeling of the voters not trusting the parliamentarians or congressmen that they elected.
  • The gerrymandering of individual districts to suit particular interests with a very large preponderance of particular parties wining particular seats
  • The disparity between the shares that different parties get of the actual votes cast and the shares of the seats taken in the parliament
  • The enormous power of incumbency that results in individual deputies being almost invulnerable, with probability of reelection in certain districts exceeding 95%.

Sortition would replace conventional elections. The kind of elections that we have come to take as a given, with political parties vying for power, and entrenched political incumbents getting reelected and a feeling among the public that the elected parliament still does not really represent them, and that in reality things are governed by the elite because money and politics have become too intertwined.

Sortition can respond – at least partially – to these challenges to representative democracy.

Interview with John Gastil on Legislature by Lot

3.3 Legislature by Lot with Professor John Gastil

Above is the link to a podcast interview by Real Democracy Now! John Gastil is a Professor in the Communication Arts and Sciences and Political Science at the Pennsylvania State University as well as a Senior Scholar in the McCourtney Institute for Democracy. He studies political deliberation and group decision making across a range of contexts.

In September 2017 John and Erik Olin Wright, as part of the Real Utopias project, held a three-day workshop called Legislature by Lot. Participants included several contributors to this  site, Equality by Lot.  John was interviewed shortly after this workshop to learn more about what was discussed.

John described this workshop as ‘a deliberation about deliberation’.

John spoke about

  • the origins of the Legislature by Lot workshop [1:32]
  • the different ways to implement sortition (random selection) [3:54]
  • some of the arguments in favour of a legislature selected by lot [5:44]
  • different models of sortition [7:40]
  • responding to criticisms of legislature by lot [10:11]
  • how to design an oversight body to support a legislature selected by lot [14:10]
  • the prospect of institutional change and transition strategies [18:34]
  • moving the agenda of using sortition forward [23:43]
  • how much work is happening around the world to test and promote the use of sortition [28:35]
  • what representation and accountability means for bodies selected by sortition [30:29]
  • deliberation, consensus, contention and voting [34:35 and 38:50]
  • what the workshop agreed on [43:18]
  • what might happen after the workshop: building links between researchers and practitioners [45:34]
  • responses to critiques of empowered mini-publics [49:35]
  • when the book arising from the workshop will be published [53:07]

The U.S. Constitutional Convention Considered a Lottery to Select The Electoral College

convention-debatesWith Donald Trump winning a majority in the Electoral College and Hillary Clinton receiving the plurality of the popular vote, the role of the Electoral College is once again in the news.

For those interested in the history of the use and consideration of lotteries in political decisions making, here is an interesting little tid bit. During the debate at the Constitutional Convention about how the President should be selected, there was a lot of discussion of the pros and cons of various schemes for selecting the Chief Executive. Possibilities included allowing a national popular vote, having Congress elect (as in a parliamentary system), having the state legislatures elect, or having one-time electors (an Electoral College), choose the president of the United States.

According to James Madison’s notes, James Wilson, one of the most important and influential delegates to the Constitutional Convention, proposed that the electors for the Electoral College be chosen by lot from among the members of Congress.

Tuesday, July 24, 1787 notes by James Madison

Mr. WILSON then moved, that the Executive be chosen every — years by — Electors, to be taken by lot from the National Legislature, who shall proceed immediately to the choice of the Executive, and not separate until it be made.

Mr. CARROLL seconds the motion.

Mr. GERRY. This is committing too much to chance. If the lot should fall on a set of unworthy men, an unworthy Executive must be saddled on the country. He thought it had been demonstrated that no possible mode of electing by the Legislature could be a good one.

Mr. KING. The lot might fall on a majority from the same State, which would insure the election of a man from that State. We ought to be governed by reason, not by chance. As nobody seemed to be satisfied, he wished the matter to be postponed.

Mr. WILSON did not move this as the best mode. His opinion remained unshaken, that we ought to resort to the people for the election. He seconded the postponement.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS observed, that the chances were almost infinite against a majority of Electors from the same State.

On a question whether the last motion was in order, it was determined in the affirmative, — ayes, 7; noes, 4.

On the question of postponement, it was agreed to, nem. con.

Sortition Introduction for 21st Century Democracy Conference in Alexandria, Egypt

The Way Forward – by Terry Bouricius

This is the original full draft of an introductory presentation intended to prepare participants of the 21st Century Democracy conference hosted by the Library of Alexandria for the subsequent day’s sessions largely focused on sortition. Due to earlier panels running overtime, this full speech was never presented, and only a few key points were made in an introduction the next day. Note that some underlining and ALL CAPS appear as emphasis aids for reading the speech aloud.

Discussions about the problems of democracy tend to focus on the problems of the elections.

A fundamental point that needs to be understood is that elections are not the same thing as democracy, and are at best one tool for approaching the democratic ideal. Clearly, a system of free and fair elections is a vast improvement over a dictatorship or one-party state. But the ideal of democracy goes far deeper.

The democratic ideal can be summed up as government of, by and for the people. But modern democracies all have government BY a political class that is distinctly different than the people (mostly male, older, wealthier, better educated, etc.)… and whether that government is truly FOR the people is always a matter of debate.

John Adams, one of the founders of the United States wrote in 1776 that a legislature “should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason and act like them.”

The ideal of democracy is that the government should make the same decisions that the people as a whole would make IF they could all have the time, motivation, information, attention, expert advice, access to conflicting points of view, fact-checking of faulty assumptions, and good facilitation. Obviously it is impossible to have all of the people do this on even one issue, let alone the vast number of public policy decisions made every year. But we know exactly how to achieve this ideal by combining the principles of scientific sampling to select a statistically accurate representative mini-public, with good decision-making procedures. The random selection of public officials like this is known as “sortition.”

This would be government BY the ordinary people, rather than by a political class with only the CONSENT of the people.
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21st Century Democracy Conference in Alexandria Egypt

I have been working with a number of sortition academics to organize the sortition element of an international conference being hosted by the Library of Alexandria in Egypt starting December 9, 2015. Presenters will include many names familiar to sortition activists including John Gastil (U.S.A.), David van Reybrouck (Belgium) and Janette Hartz-Karp (Australia). The first two days of the conference will be addressing the “deficit of democracy” in the modern world and introduce participants to such alternative democratic reforms as sortition, participatory budgeting and varieties of direct democracy. The third day will be largely devoted to sortition and mini-publics. The Library anticipates having around 200 attendees (about half from the Arab world), and can accommodate a small number of additional people who have special interest in sortition. If you would like to attend the conference (paying your own way) please get in contact with me, so I can forward your information to the Library staff. Email me at terrybour(at)

English translation of part of David Van Reybrouck’s book Against Elections

A section of Belgian author David Van Reybrouck’s sortition book, Against Elections has been translated into English and posted online:

Representative democracy is in crisis. Low voter turnout, abstention, falling party membership, and the phenomenal rise of populist parties – these are the symptoms of Democratic Fatigue Syndrome. Considering democratic innovation from classical Athens to present day, it becomes apparent that our democratic institutions haven’t been updated since the late 18th century. How to renew the centralised, hierarchical party system to reflect the horizontal power relationships of the hyper-connected, interactive society of the 21st century? A bi-representative system, combining elections with the democratic principle of sortition, or drawing of lots, could steer democracy into smoother waters.
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Accountability and Sortition

In some sense, sortition side-steps the entire issue of “accountability,” in that none of the “legislators” on an allotted jury have any constituents to hold them accountable. For legislators, “accountability” assumes a division of interests or preferences between constituents and legislators, typically with elections (and the threat of removal) being used like a leash to keep the legislators in line, and prevent them from straying too far.

Jane Mansbridge of Harvard, who became president of the American Political Science Association in 2012 and authored the book “Beyond Adversary Democracy,” points out two approaches to accountability. The first is the “sanction” model of accountability (the dog leash). The other is selection of representatives who naturally, without external incentives, seek to represent the interests of constituents because they are congruous with their own.

Sortition expressly seeks to prevent “accountability” of legislators to the rationally ignorant, ill-informed, and fleeting preferences of the general population, while also preventing accountability to political and monied elites. I want my legislators to act as I would act if well informed, not as my current superficial understanding may suggest. So, with regards to legislative performance, sortition needs a different term than “accountability,” as a measure of its performance.

However, I think accountability absolutely IS the appropriate term for discussing the performance of the executive functions of government. But the accountability should be to allotted juries that are well-informed, rather than merely to an ill-informed and media-manipulated citizenry. Here sortition can play an important role in constituting juries for constantly monitoring the performance of government, with the job of hiring and firing executives.

Sortition Essay in Journal of Public Deliberation

An essay I wrote entitled: “Democracy Through Multi-Body Sortition: Athenian Lessons for the Modern Day” was just published in the new issue of JPD. I’m rather proud of it, and think it will be of interest to many readers of this Blog. Here is the link:

Terry Bouricius

Role for Sortition in Selecting the Executive?

Most of the discussion on this site has understandably been focused on the legislative function. What about the executive branch, whether a single president, or full executive branch?

In ancient Athens, we know, the executive magistrates (typically operating in boards of ten) were selected by lot, as was the Athenian president (though this office was primarily symbolic and rotated daily.) We also know that sortition was used as a step in a convoluted process of selecting executives in several medieval Italian City Republics.

Is there a beneficial role for sortition in selecting government executives in a modern democracy?

Some of the ideas that I have come across include:

1. Having an allotted body interview, hire, and fire the state executive, similar to the way that many city councils appoint a city manager.

2. Having a pool of voters selected by lot elect the executive, as a way of overcoming rational voter ignorance in  a mass election.

3. Selecting an executive by lot from among a pool of candidates who achieve a given threshold in a popular election.