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.

Khoban: A Feminist Defense of Randomly Selected Political Representatives

In a recent paper in Critical Policy Studies, Swedish researcher Zohreh Khoban argues that feminism and sortition are naturally allied.

Politics of Emancipation: A Feminist Defense of Randomly Selected Political Representatives
Zohreh Khoban


The presence of women in elected assemblies has been argued to transform the political agenda so that it better addresses the needs and interests of women. In this article, I reflect on women’s political representation by starting from democratic theories that point to the inadequacy of electoral democracy. I argue that, compared to including women in the political elite, dissolving the division of political labor between professional politicians and ‘ordinary’ citizens has a greater potential to challenge status quo gender relations. I suggest that political assemblies consisting of randomly selected citizens would better serve women’s self-determination and emancipation for three reasons: 1) allotted representatives would be more willing and able than elected representatives to critique social norms and practices, 2) the idea of allotted representatives better supports the idea that knowledge is situated, and 3) it better accommodates the notion that political merit is a gendered, racialized and class-based concept.

A sortition proposal in Sri Lanka

Over the last few years, Sri Lanka has been experiencing a prolonged economic crisis which has come to a head in 2022 leading to a political crisis. The following recent piece by Chandre Dharmawardana, a prominent Sri Lankan retired physicist, published in several Sri Lankan websites, offers sortition as a way to resolve the political crisis.

Using sortition to prevent electing of same crooks to parliament

The terrorism of the LTTE ended in May 2009, and most Sri Lankans looked forward to a dawn of peace, reconciliation and progress. Even Poongkothai Chandrahasan, the granddaughter of SJV Chelvanayagam could state that ‘what touched me the most that day was that these were poor people with no agenda wearing their feelings on their sleeves. Every single person I spoke to said to me, “The war is over, we are so happy”. They were not celebrating the defeat of the Tamils. They were celebrating the fact that now there would be peace in Sri Lanka’ (The Island, 23rd August 2009).

The dilemma faced by SL

Unfortunately, instead of peace, prosperity and reconciliation, a corrupt oligarchy made up of politicians from the two main parties of the period, namely the UNP, the SLFP, the JVP, their associated business tycoons and NGO bosses have evolved into a cabal of the rich who have hogged the power of parliament among themselves. The party names “UNP, SLFP, JVP” etc., have morphed into other forms, while the leaders concerned have changed adherence to the parties or made alliances with the ease of changing cutlery at a sumptuous banquet.

Periods of civil strife are also periods when corrupt cutthroats thrive, with illegal arms and money in the hands of those on both sides of the conflict who made a career out of the war.
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Hugh Pope reports on the French citizens’ assembly on assisted dying

Hugh Pope writes in buergerrat.de on his impressions of the French citizens’ assembly on assisted dying. Below are some excerpts from the piece, with a few of my comments.

On 9 December, France embarked on [an attempt] to find answers to fraught questions around its ban on assisted suicide. As the centre of a national debate on the issue, it convened 185 people, randomly selected from all over the country and its overseas territories, to research, discuss and propose answers to the question: “Is the framework for end-of-life support suited to all situations or should changes be introduced?”

The assembly will convene for nine 3-day weekends over 4 months.

“You are here in a place in which new forms of democracy are being invented and developed … and of them the Citizen Convention is without doubt the most ambitious, the most demanding and the most engaging,” participants were told by [the president of CESE, the convening body], Thierry Beaudet. “It’s impossible to do this [deliberation] on the scale of a country, so you’re going to do it for us, for the whole of society … This is the basis of both your legitimacy and our trust in you.”

The randomly selected audience hardly looked revolutionary. Participants had only some of the youth and diversity of, say, the crowds travelling in the nearby Paris metro; they also had very few of the confident smiles and neat, conservative clothes that are the hallmark of elected politicians. At the same time, every element of society and France’s geography seemed present: a cheese farmer from the Alps, a professor of Greek and a retired teacher from Lille were joined by an immigrant from Niger, people of Algerian and Moroccan heritage and women in Muslim headscarves.

True mirror of a country’s whole population

It was unique to see a true mirror of a country’s whole population in one place: France came across as predominantly middle-aged, paler-skinned, polite, attentive and – after some initial shyness – articulate, collaborative and ready to challenge authority.
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Snell: Countries obsessed with sortation likely to be inward looking and self-obsessed

As they describe themselves, James Snell is a senior advisor at the New Lines Institute, currently writing a book on the war in Afghanistan. The New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy is a nonprofit and non-partisan think tank in Washington D.C. working to enhance U.S. foreign policy based on a deep understanding of the geopolitics of the different regions of the world and their value systems.

Snell has a piece in Politico where he expresses his concern about the dangers of what he consistently calls “sortation”. Snell’s concern has seemingly been triggered by the upcoming posthumous publication of Maurice Pope’s book “The Keys to Democracy”.

[T]he ancient Athenians — so admired by the founders of the United States — were ruled by a boule, or a council, where the positions were filled by lot. The same went for Athens’ courts, and Roman juries after the founding of their republic.

There’s something romantic about this notion of a non-representative democracy, of government formed by citizens rather than their elected delegates — so romantic, in fact, that it’s making a comeback.
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Equality by Lot 2022 statistics

Below are some statistics about the 13th year of Equality-by-Lot. Comparable numbers for last year can be found here.

2022 Page views Posts Comments
Jan 4,070 15 183
Feb 2,557 6 24
Mar 2,772 10 26
Apr 2,942 8 20
May 3,557 8 26
June 2,455 5 48
July 2,333 8 11
Aug 3,797 7 32
Sept 2,960 6 5
Oct 3,278 10 21
Nov 3,110 10 27
Dec (to 23st) 2,263 5 92
Total 36,094 98 515

Note that page views do not include visits by logged-in contributors – the WordPress system does not count those visits.

Posts were made by 16 authors during 2022. (There were, of course, many other authors quoted and linked to.)

This blog currently has 160 email followers, 356 WordPress followers and 511 Twitter followers (@Klerotarian).

Searching for “distribution by lot” (with quotes) using Google returns Equality-by-Lot as the 3rd result (out of “about 77,000 results”). Equality-by-Lot is now on the 12th page of results when searching for “sortition” using the Google search engine (out of “about 339,000 results”).

Happy holidays and a happy new year to Equality-by-Lot readers, commenters and posters. Keep up the good fight for democracy!

New second chamber could be filled using a process of random selection

Andrew Carruthers, a reader of the Scottish The National, writes the following in a letter to the editor:

THE Labour party has again proposed to scrap the House of Lords. This raises the question of what form a replacement House should take, not just in Westminster but also in a potentially independent Scotland.

The obvious answer is some form of democratically elected forum, as indeed Labour suggests. The Lords itself is unrepresentative and not a model to follow. But “democratically elected” systems also have problems. Not least is that most seats in any election do not change party, so most of the individuals “elected” are actually chosen by a small clique of the incumbent party’s faithful. In other words, they are jobs for the boys rather than being democratically responsive in any meaningful way.

A further issue is that the sort of people who put themselves forward as candidates may have laudable ambitions, but are not necessarily the sort of person you and I would actually prefer to be in charge. Clearly not every political hopeful is a self-seeking egomaniac, but the very fact that they are putting themselves forward will always raise a suspicion – just think Boris Johnson (but not for too long).
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Sortition in 2022

Equality-by-Lot’s traditional yearly review post.

The most significant piece of sortition-related news for 2021 had been, in my view, the finding that over a quarter of public in four Western European countries – the UK, France, Italy and Germany – supports using allotted bodies to systematically complement the work of parliament. This year, the most significant piece of sortition-related news was the findings of a wider-coverage poll, this time conducted in 15 Western European countries. According to this poll, in all those countries there is fairly strong popular support (~4 in a scale of 0 to 10 on average) for having “a group of randomly-selected citizens make decisions instead of politicians”.

But while popular support for sortition is strong, and while (well justified) concern in elite circles about the declining popularity of the elections-based system persists, it seems to me that 2022 has continued a down-trend in interest in sortition in elite circles, a down-trend that indicates a recovery from the heights of establishment hysteria about the “Crisis of Democracy” following Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the Gilets Jaunes protest in France. Academics have continued publishing papers and opinions on the pros and cons of sortition (unfortunately often rehashing very well hashed material) but applications of sortition have been fading in prominence since the zenith of the French Citizen Convention for the Climate, and discussion of the idea in mass media has receded as well.

That said, there were certainly many notable pieces of news and opinion written about sortition over the last year. Pieces advocating for sortition and discussions of the subject that were mentioned this year on Equality-by-Lot included items from South Africa, the UK: 1, 2, the US: 1, 2 3, 4, 5, 6, Australia, Malaysia, Texas, US, France, Ireland, Utah, US, California, US, Pakistan, Pennsylvania, US, and Massachusetts, US.

Also this year, an allotted council on climate change in Herefordshire, UK generated a discussion about its cost as well as other aspects. A fairly prominent Australia politician,
Vicotr Kline, wrote a strident article advocating replacing elections with sortition, and an independent candidate for governor of Minnesota, US ran on a sortition-based platform. In the city of Petaluma, California, an allotted Citizens’ Assembly was convened to determine how to use a piece of public property, an assembly to discuss food policy was set up in Switzerland, and in the province of Trento, Italy, a bill was discussed for constituting a citizen assembly for reviewing municipal regulations.

Finally, this year saw the passing of citizen assembly pioneer, Ned Crosby.

Call for 2022 review input

This is the yearly call for input for the year’s end review. As in previous years, I would like to have a post or two summarizing the ongoings here at Equality-by-Lot and notable sortition-related events over the passing year. Any input about what should be included is welcome – either through comments below or via email. You are invited to refresh your memory about the events of the passing year by browsing Equality-by-Lot’s archives.

For previous years’ summaries see: 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010.

The experts making sure that the disadvantaged get heard

Annabelle Lever, researcher at Cevipof and professor of political philosophy at Sciences Po, writes in The Conversation about the lengths into which the organizers of allotted bodies have to go in order to overcome “cultural imperialism” and give the disadvantaged a voice.

Creating a citizens’ assembly that truly reflects society as a whole isn’t so simple, however. In particular, only a very small percentage of those invited to participate actually agree to do so.

To create an assembly that is more descriptively representative of the population – or one that looks more like us – several approaches are used. One is to have an initial phase of unweighted selection followed by a second phase that uses weighted lotteries. Another is to use stratified sampling or forms of stratification from the beginning.

Because citizen assemblies are very small compared to the population as a whole – France’s Convention for the Climate was made up of just 150 people – the descriptively representative character of the assembly can occur on only a few dimensions. Organisers must therefore decide what population characteristics the assembly should embody and in what proportion. Randomisation thus does not preclude difficult moral, political and scientific choices about the assembly to be constructed, any more than it precludes voluntariness or self-selection.

The use of weighted lotteries means that individuals will not have a formally equal chance to be selected to it – nor, of course, a substantively equal one. Assemblies created by stratified random selection offer a much wider set of opportunities to serve than is typical of other deliberative bodies. It is thus important to remember that even when a randomly selected assembly “looks like us”, everyone will not have had the same chance to be selected to it, nor to take up the invitation if they want to.

[D]emocratic equality does not require that deliberative bodies be composed of social groups in proportion to their share of the population.
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