Fishkin: Random Assemblies for Lawmaking? Prospects and Limits

James Fishkin’s contribution to the September 2017 workshop “Legislature by Lot” was titled “Random Assemblies for Lawmaking? Prospects and Limits”:

A randomly selected microcosm of the people can usefully play an official role in the lawmaking process. However, there are serious issues to be confronted if such a random sample were to take on the role of a full-scale, full-time second chamber. Some skeptical considerations are detailed. There are also advantages to short convenings of such a sample to take on some of the roles of a second chamber. This article provides a response to the skeptical considerations. Precedents from ancient Athens show how such short-term convenings of a deliberating microcosm can be positioned before, during, or after other elements of the lawmaking process. The article draws on experience from Deliberative Polling to show how this is both practical and productive for the lawmaking process.

Athens, corruption, Deliberative Polling, elections, minipublics, nomothetai, representative democracy, sortition

In arguing for short term “Delibertive Polls”, Fishkin offers three problems with long-term allotted chambers: (1) lack of technical expertise, (2) potential for corruption, and (3) not maintaining what he calls “the conditions for deliberation”.
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Southall: A proposal for using sortition in South Africa

A 2017 paper by Roger Southall in Politikon, the South African Journal of Political Studies, proposes applying sortition in South Africa.

The Case for Sortition: Tackling the Limitations of Democracy in South Africa

Roger Southall, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa and the Department of Political Studies, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa


This article considers how the erosion of democracy in South Africa since 1994 might be addressed through sortition, the random selection of citizens to perform public tasks. Drawing upon the recent essay outlining the case Against Elections by David Van Reybrouck [(2016). Against Elections: The Case for Democracy. London: Bodley Head], which paints liberal democracy as facilitating rule by elites, it argues for the appointment of sortition panels to consider reform of the electoral system. Sortition in South Africa could draw upon streams of participatory democracy experienced during the struggle against apartheid, and lead towards a more deliberative democracy.

Dan Hind: The Cooperative State

Dan Hind proposes using sortition to achieve a “cooperative state”.

Rather refreshingly Hind rejects the “modernization” argument:

I do not propose far-reaching constitutional change in Britain or the United States because the current arrangements are irrational or anachronistic. On the contrary, these arrangements are, for the most part, rational and frighteningly up-to-date.

Hind’s proposal is an elections-sortition hybrid:

The idea is not to do away with elections. Some offices require technical abilities or experience and election does not seem like a terrible way of filling them, even if at times it is hard to imagine a worse person for an elected office than the person holding it. But it does not follow that public office should be monopolised by those who, for whatever reason, manage to win an election. Indeed, if representation is to retain its authority, it will have to be supplemented by more properly democratic institutional forms.

Hind seems to fall into an obvious fallacy: the simple point that not every position should be filled by lot does very little to advance the argument that some positions should be filled by election.

That said, Hind does propose to invest allotted bodies with some real powers of oversight:
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Upcoming event: Selina Thompson in conversation about sortition with Maddy Costa

An upcoming event in the Arnolfini arts house in Bristol.

Sortition: Selina Thompson in conversation with Maddy Costa
Saturday 03 November 2018, 18:30 to 20:00

Following a year of research and exploration, this is your chance to hear from artist Selina Thompson about the thoughts and ideas behind the development of the project Sortition.

The research included the hosting of a week-long Sortition boot camp with twelve young people from across the country here at Arnolfini, and an investigation into what Sortition might look like in both a gallery and theatrical context.

At this new event which is part of 14-18 NOW and its series Represent reflecting on the centenary of the first women gaining the right to vote, Selina Thompson takes some time with critical thinker Maddy Costa to reflect together on the future of democracy, and what the role of artists and the participatory contexts that they create might play in this.

Hannah Arendt Center’s Bard Institute for the Revival of Democracy Through Sortition

The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College is introducing the Bard Institute for the Revival of Democracy through Sortition:

Introducing the Bard Institute for the Revival of Democracy through Sortition

True Democracy as Practiced by the Ancient Greeks

“The appointment of magistrates by lot is thought to be democratic and the election of them oligarchic.” —Aristotle, Ancient

Sortition (noun) – The action of selecting or determining something by the casting or drawing of lots.

The Bard Institute for the Revival of Democracy through Sortition is conceived as a critical platform to assemble the diverse research and resources that are emerging around deliberative democracy and sortition. We are a project of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, and place much importance in the association with her legacy of thought. We believe sortition satisfies Hannah Arendt’s ideal of political freedom and that it would have figured in her writing, had it not been buried in the history books. As investigators of the practical possibilities of this ancient and reviving model of democratic decision-making, we are based in Germany, the United States, and wherever else our research may take us.

The Institute was cofounded by recent Bard College graduates Jonas Kunz and Hans Kern. Check back with us soon for updated content, links to sortition in the news, and much more. Sign up by email to receive updates on the Institute’s activities.

Tim Dunlop: It’s time to replace voting with sortition

In 2014 Tim Dunlop had just been introduced to the idea of sortition by David Van Reybrouck. He was “not completely convinced by his [Van Reybrouck’s] argument, but [was] sufficiently incensed by our current parliamentary democracy and its many failures to at least consider what he suggests.”

Four years later, Dunlop has written a book advocating sortition, and has an article in the Guardian that opens with an unambiguous statement:

If we want to fix the way our governments work, the first thing we should do is replace voting with sortition in at least some of our governing bodies.

Like many feel-good reformists, Dunlop puts much emphasis on the potential for fostering deliberation, trust and respect amongst the members of the allotted chamber and by extension, in the population at large. However, bucking the norm among such reformists (including Van Reybrouck), Dunlop’s message is very clearly democratic in the most fundamental sense (i.e., making power representative) and his rejection of elections and its elitist implications is uncompromising.

If we are really serious about bottom-up reform of our democratic institutions, then reforming the seat of government itself in this way, a way that installs ordinary people at the heart of power, is essential. Our neoliberal economy and the representative form of government that dominates our societies do everything they can to divide us from and pit us against each other. A People’s House transcends these divisions and brings us together. The basic concept of sortition is pretty straight-forward, and introducing it as a replacement for voting in, say, the Australian Senate, while leaving that body’s other powers intact, represents, at least administratively, fairly minimalist change. But on every other level, the potential effect is explosive. In one fell swoop, you diminish the power of the parties and that of many of the lobbyists who exist to influence their decisions. You transform the way in which the media covers politics. You hand control of at least part of the legislative process to a genuinely representative sample of the population as whole, rather than vesting it in a bunch of elites and their representatives. You empower people in a way that the current system could never hope to do, and you reconnect our chief democratic institution with the life in common.

Nothing is going to change until the main source of power in our society, our seat of government, is populated by people who are genuinely representative of the society at large. We have been taught forever that the way to do that is by voting, but that is simply wrong, and the quicker we unlearn it the better, no matter how counterintuitive it might seem at first. If you want a truly representative government of, by and for the people, then you need to choose it not by voting, but by sortition.

1768: Scheme of a Political Lottery, for the Peace of the Kingdom

The following letter to the Political Register and Impartial Review of New Books, printed in London in 1768, offers sortition of parliament as a way to remedy the corruption of elections. Thanks to Terry Bouricius for drawing attention to this historical piece.

Scheme of a Political Lottery, for the Peace of the Kingdom

It is proposed, on or soon after the breaking up of the present parliament, to open a lottery of 2262 tickets at 1000l. each, three blanks to one prize; which prize shall entitle the possessor to a seat in parliament for the place therein mentioned: by which scheme the noisy and expensive business of electioneering (which puts the whole kingdom in ferment) will be over in two hours, many people have an opportunity of serving their country cheap, and much bribary and corruption be prevented.

The the produce (deducting five per cent. to be set apart for guzzle, and to be equally distributed in every borough) be applied towards paying the national debt. That the lottery be drawn in the court of requests, on the day appointed for the meeting of p——t, and that the members so elected do immediately adjourn to the house of commons, appoint a speaker, &c. and then proceed to business. This will effectually prevent all designs of bad ministers, and more especially if their tools should draw blanks, as no person can have more than one ticket, and that not transferable; lest the courtiers, nabobs, or adventurers, should engrose the whole and buy and sell the nation.