Luc Rouban on sortition

Luc Rouban, director of research at CNRS, is the author of the book La démocratie représentative est-elle en crise ? (Is representative democracy in crisis?). In an interview with Vie Publique that took place in March he addressed the idea of sortition along with other reform proposals. An excerpt [original in French, my translation]:

There is a lot of talk about sortition as a way to give all the citizens an equal chance of being chosen to participate effectively in politics. The idea is to revive the ancient concept of Greek democracy at the time of Pericles. But it is necessary to recall that in the Athenian model, the electoral body was composed only of active citizens, sufficiently wealthy to buy military equipment, and excluding women, slaves and metics, that is foreigners who lived permanently in the city which were half the the Athenian population. In addition, this model relies on mistophory, that is the remuneration of allotted citizens for carrying out the charges of office, which allowed the less fortunate to participate in democratic life. It is very evident that such a system would be difficult to generalize in modern democracies, except at the local level, for example in the framework of citizen juries such as those being increasingly used recently to give their opinion to the public authorities on matters of planning projects.

In general, sortition – despite the supposed equality which it leads to – poses a philosophical and judicial problem. In fact, if Article 6 of the Decleration of the Rights of Man states that “all citizens are equally eligible to public offices, places and public employments, according to their abilities with no distinction other than their virtues and their talents”, it is proper that the evaluation of abilities, of virtues and talents of candidates are at the heart of representative democracy. Sortition, by definition, annuls this evaluation, which is taking place by the citizens when they vote. At bottom sortition depends on chance assemblies and cannot lead to the selection of the most commendable citizens. In sum, these risks lead to see sortition as no more than useful for consultation on specific projects at the local level when the purview of decision is well circumscribed. But sortition, just like the referendum, cannot provide good results unless it is associated with procedures allowing to clearly describe the objectives of the debate and allowing the involvement of experts or representatives of organizations.

Beppe Grillo proposes sortition

Beppe Grillo, the co-founder of the Italian Five Star Movement, the party that won the second largest share of the votes in the 2018 parliamentary elections, has published a post in his blog where he proposes replacing elections with sortition [Google translation]:

The idea is very simple: we select people by lot and put them in parliament.

It seems absurd, but think about it for a moment. The selections should be fair and representative of the country. 50% would be women. Many would be young, some old, some rich, but most of them would be ordinary people. It would be a microcosm of society.

However, there would be an important side effect: if we replaced the elections with the draw and made our parliament truly representative of society, it would mean the end of politicians and politics as we have always thought about it.

Naturally the proposal drew some media attention.

It seems, by the way, that Grillo learned about sortition through Brett Hennig (presumably his TED talk). Grillo also mentions Democracy in Practice and newDemocracy as examples of ongoing experimentation with sortition.

A fact emerges from all modern examples: if you give people responsibility, they act responsibly. Do not get me wrong, I do not say it’s perfect.

The right question is: does it work better? As far as I’m concerned, it’s YES.

Thanks to Tomas Mancebo for drawing attention to this rather dramatic development.

Henry Jeffrey: sortition in Guyana

In his column in Stabroek News, Dr. Henry Jeffrey, former minister of Labour, Human Services and Social Security in Guyana, suggests using the lottery to resolve a political stand-off in Guyana that has left key positions in government vacant.

It appears to me that in the case of the chancellor and the chief justice [the vacant positions] the court can force those who are being recalcitrant to negotiate under the shadow of a lottery. It could demand that based upon the existing criteria, the leader of the opposition present his nominees for the positions to the president within a particular time period and that a final decision be made on both positions by a given date. If the parties fail to complete the process within the stated period a lottery will be imposed and the positions so filled.

Leading to this rather modest proposal is Jeffery’s summary of the advantages of sortition. He cites The Lottery as a Democratic Institution by Delannoi, Dowlen and Stone (2013) as his source:

1) Much as in scientific opinion polls, sortition ensures that any characteristics appearing in the general population will appear in roughly the same proportions on a randomly-selected decision-making body so long as the decision-making body has a significant number of members and random selection proceeds from a pool consisting of the entire population it is supposed to represent.

2) Sortition can help to prevent corruption and/or domination by ensuring that those entering public have no better chance than others, and random selection that excludes reasons from decision-making could ironically enable more reasoned behaviour untainted by special interests.

3) Though desirable, political competition founders when, (as in Guyana because of ethnic allegiances) elites either compete too little or too much (when they engage in civil war).

4) Randomization can mitigate the possibility of highly motivated small groups with outlier agendas suborning the political process.

5) The difficulty of getting people to do jury duty these days indicates that many people do [not? -YG] covet holding public office but whether or not they do, a lottery is a fair means of distribution.

6) Sortition can aid political participation and reduce apathy by allowing the rotation of offices that could include usually excluded groups.

7) Turnover in offices, i.e. rotating the people in power, could alleviate elite domination.

8) Sortition can be psychologically liberating in that officeholders selected by lot are less likely to feel any special entitlement to office and those who lose out are unlikely to be deferential to the winners.

Selina Thompson Seeks Young Collaborators For Sortition Project

Broadway World writes:

Imagine scrapping elections and instead selecting politicians at random. What would you do if your name was drawn out and you suddenly found yourself in charge? How do you think the country should be run?

Award-winning performer Selina Thompson is sending out a far-reaching call to action for young people from all backgrounds to put their names forward for a new project this Summer.

The provocative new work, Sortition, will bring together a randomly selected team of young people under 30 from Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland who don’t vote, feel like voting doesn’t work and that politics as usual doesn’t represent them. Sortition is co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary, supported by Jerwood Charitable Foundation, and will go on to be premiered this September at Arnolfini in Bristol.

Thompson herself is presenting her project in a video on

Frey and Tridimas on sortition

George Tridimas wrote to draw attention to the recent issue of the journal Homo Oeconomicus which has a set of comments (including one of his own) on a 2017 paper by the Swiss political economist Bruno Frey titled “Proposals for a Democracy of the Future” (PDF).

In the paper, Frey has a section called “True  Democracy  by  Random  Decisions?”. Some excerpts from that section:

The major advantage of random procedures in politics is to guarantee equal chance and therewith fairness, given the underlying body (e.g. Stone 2007). Each and every one in the underlying population has an equal chance of getting elected. It is therefore not necessary to introduce special quotas e.g. for the share of women. Interestingly, random procedures even take into account dimensions not yet discussed or even beyond imagination. Most importantly, the body politic is opened to new ideas and otherwise disregarded views. This also holds for preferences not yet even known but which may be important in the future.

The disadvantage of random decisions in politics is that capabilities, education and the intensity of desires are disregarded. This is the main reason why random choices in politics are rarely, if ever, taken from the population as a whole. The advantage of equality and fairness must be compared to the disadvantage of lower competencies. There are a great many possibilities to combine the two – a worthy subject for future research.

In addition to proposing combining sortition with elections, Frey also proposes deciding the outcome of referenda at random with the probabilities of the outcomes given by the vote shares.

Tridimas’s comment contains a review of the use of sortition in Athens. He concludes with a section called “Why Sortition may not Work”:

Clearly, the Athenian democracy was fundamentally different from the present representative democracy. Assembly deliberation, the rule of simple majority, absence of political parties, citizen participation through the courts, and sortition were a joint constitutional package, inexorably linked and mutually reinforcing. Therefore, an institution like sortition that served the direct democracy well may not be easily transferable to a representative democracy without the rest of the institutional structures. Cutting and pasting sortition from Athens to today is not the same thing as grafting it to the current institutional structure, and may fail to deliver ‘‘a better democracy’’.

Fintan O’Toole: If only Brexit had been run like Ireland’s referendum

Fintan O’Toole has a glowing account in the Guardian about Ireland’s constitutional referendum. It advertises the allotted chamber process as the antidote to what troubles the establishment with electoral politics.

As O’Toole’s sees things, the trouble with electoral politics is “tribalism and fake ‘facts’”. With some careful management, the public can come to see sense and vote accordingly.

In all the excitement of what happened in Ireland’s referendum on abortion, we should not lose sight of what did not happen. A vote on an emotive subject was not subverted. The tactics that have been so successful for the right and the far right in the UK, the US, Hungary and elsewhere did not work. A democracy navigated its way through some very rough terrain and came home not just alive but more alive than it was before. In the world we inhabit, these things are worth celebrating but also worth learning from. Political circumstances are never quite the same twice, but some of what happened and did not happen in Ireland surely contains more general lessons.

Sortition in Jacobin magazine

Tom Malleson, assistant professor of social justice and peace studies at King’s University College at Western University, Canada, writes in Jacobin magazine that “we need a legislature by lot”.

Some excerpts make the following points. Electoralist regimes are not democratic:

[There is] widespread disillusionment that many of the world’s people feel towards their purportedly democratic systems. [T]he truth, widely known yet rarely acknowledged, is that the American political system is increasingly run not by the people, but by the rich. Plutocracy. Leading scholars of American politics Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page conclude their recent study with the observation that “the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose.”

The standard reform proposals show little promise to fundamentally improve the situation:

What, then, is to be done? There has long been a conventional answer on the center-left: proportional representation and campaign finance reform — the former to enhance the representativeness of elections and the latter to reduce the distorting effects of money. This intuitive belief that the answer to our democratic problems is enhanced elections runs so deep that it is like an article of faith.

Yet should reformed electoral democracy really be the ultimate aim of our democratic hopes and dreams? Consider some of the places that are much closer to achieving an equitable electoral system, such as Canada, the UK, and particularly Western Europe. Such systems tend to function much more democratically than the US, but they run into the same basic problems with elections.

Money continues to play an important role, biasing elections towards the wealthy. Governments continue to be incredibly unrepresentative of the population — almost always composed of rich, white, middle-aged men. Even in Sweden, the young, the less educated, and the working class continue to be dramatically underrepresented (for instance, blue-collar workers make up about 9 percent of members of parliament despite comprising 41 percent of the electorate).

[T]he electoral process is inherently biased in favor of the rich — thereby undermining the cherished democratic ideal of political equality — because the precondition to winning an election is having the time and resources to communicate with the public and mobilize support, and that will always be done more effectively by those who have more money. This means that electoral democracy, regardless of campaign finance rules, will always be somewhat tilted towards the affluent.

Democracy and elections are incompatible:

If you lived in any previous historical era and told your neighbor that you believed in democracy, they would have understood what you meant. Yet if you had said that you believed in democracy and elections, they would have thought you’d lost your marbles.

For more than two thousand years, it was common knowledge that the only people who wanted elections were the rich and the powerful, since they were the ones who invariably benefitted from them. Those who genuinely believed in democracy, on the other hand, believed that political power must be kept in the hands of regular people and typically advocated the selecting of political positions by lot.

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