Sortition by elimination

Worries are sometimes expressed about the impossibility of generating a sample of people at random in a way that cannot be manipulated by powerful actors. Sources of physical data are either too predictable to be of use or require machinery that is too arcane or sensitive to be effectively publicly verifiable. Social sources of data – such as the stock market or blockchain transactions – may be influenced powerful forces in society. Many randomizations that rely on explicit and symmetrical inputs from the public as a source of randomness have to utilize aggregation procedures that may allow those with advance knowledge of others’ inputs to manipulate the outcomes. With the prevailing mood of generalized distrust in institutions, a randomization mechanism would have to be completely open and verifiable to have a reasonable chance of inspiring confidence.

My proposal for such a mechanism is a simple elimination procedure which works as follows. At the outset, one candidate is eliminated. This candidate then gets to eliminate another, who then gets to eliminate another, and so on. The selection thus proceeds by sequential elimination of candidates until only one, or however many appointees are desired, remain.

This procedure is easily verifiable by any observer since it is self-contained and does not involve secrets, fancy machinery or fancy calculations. All the decisions involved are made in the open and cannot be foreseen in advance.

In addition to being manipulation resistant, this procedure has the advantage that it involves all interested citizens in the selection procedure and allows them to influence the outcome. By creating a new form of mass political participation, this procedure addresses the oft-heard objection to sortition that it deprives people from having influence over the appointment of decision makers.

In fact, while, like any form of mass participation, the impact made by any single decision-maker is minute, this form of participation is more meaningful than electoral participation because the choice made by each person – who to eliminate – is entirely unrestricted. This is in contrast which the electoral choice which is restricted a-priori by a primaries process in which the field of candidates is drastically narrowed-down. In the proposed procedure, citizens are completely free to make their elimination choices as they see fit, even if it may be seen as a sign of good citizenship to make this choice at random.

A minor technical point: The first candidate to be eliminated, the starting point of the elimination chain, can be chosen arbitrarily – this is not a position of decisive power, but rather the opposite, a position of disadvantage. If no other procedure is found suitable, an election can be used to select this person.

Neil Mackay: Only sortition could save the UK

Neil Mackay writes in The Herald of Scotland (paywalled, but full text available here):

BRITAIN feels wobbly, shaky. The killing of MP David Amess is just the latest event to unmoor us a little more from stability. In truth, the whole of the Western world feels shaky. Democracy seems to quiver wherever you look. The smart money is on Trump returning to Washington. France toys with the far right. The European project looks ready to implode. China looms over the once dominant West, threatening to eclipse America.

How did we get here? Just 20 years ago we were enjoying ‘the Great Holiday from History’ – the end of the 1990s when stability, peace and prosperity (at least in the West) seemed on an ever upward trajectory. Today, only the flagrantly optimistic don’t fear the future.

Perhaps historians – centuries from now, if humanity makes it that far – will call this period ‘the Great Disruption’, when everything was in flux and the world seemed broken.

Here in Britain, though, matters look even more dark and dangerous than in other democracies – aside perhaps from America with Trump waiting in the wings.

We’ve had two MPs assassinated in five years. The country is quite literally coming apart as Scottish independence and Northern Ireland threaten to turn the Union into a failed project. England is utterly divided between remainers and leavers. We’re facing a Winter of Discontent – a breakdown of functioning business. Britain has become a byword for treachery among our closest neighbours. After the Aukus deal, France views Britain with contempt. Dublin warns Britain cannot be trusted following threats to rip up the Northern Ireland protocol – a treaty negotiated by Number 10 but now up for destruction because it no longer suits.

Hate, division and conspiracy isn’t just stoked online – it now comes dished up in our mainstream media, from once reputable papers to broadcasters. Commentators fuel rage and seek scapegoats; the comment sections of newspaper websites drip with venom. In Scotland, the worst elements of unionism and nationalism make you fear how any future referendum – if it ever happens – might be conducted. Politicians – themselves the victims of so much hate – also stoke rage, with loose, dangerous language. Words in parliament profoundly affect the nature of British debate.

We’re an ailing state. What worries the mind is that an ailing state can become a failing state – and failed states turn very dark very quickly.

It’s not that the major forces currently at play in politics are wicked: Euroscepticism, unionism, nationalism – they’re all legitimate positions to hold. It’s how we’ve conducted the debate around these issues which has broken Britain so badly.

We are all better individually than the collective mess we’ve made, and we must all share some portion of responsibility for what’s happened, because we’ve all played our part in one way or another.
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Sortition on Reddit

Reddit user subheight640 is a sortition advocate. He (or she) has been posting about sortition on multiple Reddit forums. His posts – such as this one – have garnered approvals from hundreds of users and has engaged a great number of people in discussions on this topic. This seems like a fairly effective way to get sortition more widely known and considered.

Shadi Hamid on sortition

Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and a contributing writer to The Atlantic. He seems to have recently discovered sortition through the writings of Hélène Landemore and he is quite excited. (He still seems quite confused in his terminology about what should be called “democratic”, but ideas die hard.)

Mueller on Landemore

Jan-Werner Mueller, Professor of Politics at Princeton University and author of the recent book “Democracy Rules”, wrote an article in which he reviews Hélène Landemore’s book Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the Twenty-First Century (along with a couple of other books that he devotes less space to).

Luckily Mueller’s review focuses on the better points made by Landemore (e.g., that elitism is inherent to elections) rather than on the less convincing parts of the book. (For a detailed review of the strengths and weaknesses of Open Democracy see my series of posts devoted to this book.)

Mueller’s objections to allotted chambers are the following:

  1. Alotted “bodies also can end up favoring the privileged, either because those who feel unqualified will abstain or because more educated and eloquent participants will dominate the debate.”
  2. A sortition-based system “promises inclusion and openness, but it ultimately excludes all who have not been chosen in the process of random selection. In large countries, many people will never get a turn (indeed, serving would amount to winning the lottery).”
  3. A “lottocracy might fail to fulfill one of the functions that elections reliably serve: the peaceful resolution of conflict through vote counting. If one accepts political realists’ argument that elections are always essentially conducted in the shadow of civil war, the counting process serves to demonstrate the relative strength of each conflicting party.”

Mueller concludes:

In any case, one need not go as far as abolishing elections to see that sortition chambers could play a useful role in situations where highly fraught moral issues need to be debated (as in Ireland’s abortion decision), or where conflicting parties need to set the terms of competition. That could apply to the shape of election districts, salaries for legislators, the overall size of parliaments, or any other issue where professional politicians have a conflict of interest.

Abizadeh: Representation, Bicameralism, Political Equality, and Sortition

A paper by Arash Abizadeh.

Representation, Bicameralism, Political Equality, and Sortition: Reconstituting the Second Chamber as a Randomly Selected Assembly

Perspectives on Politics, 2020

Abstract

The two traditional justifications for bicameralism are that a second legislative chamber serves a legislative-review function (enhancing the quality of legislation) and a balancing function (checking concentrated power and protecting minorities). I furnish here a third justification for bicameralism, with one elected chamber and the second selected by lot, as an institutional compromise between contradictory imperatives facing representative democracy: elections are a mechanism of people’s political agency and of accountability, but run counter to political equality and impartiality, and are insufficient for satisfactory responsiveness; sortition is a mechanism for equality and impartiality, and of enhancing responsiveness, but not of people’s political agency or of holding representatives accountable. Whereas the two traditional justifications initially grew out of anti-egalitarian premises (about the need for elite wisdom and to protect the elite few against the many), the justification advanced here is grounded in egalitarian premises about the need to protect state institutions from capture by the powerful few and to treat all subjects as political equals. Reflecting the “political” turn in political theory, I embed this general argument within the institutional context of Canadian parliamentary federalism, arguing that Canada’s Senate ought to be reconstituted as a randomly selected citizen assembly.

James Kierstead on sortition as a Western idea

James Kierstead is a Senior Lecturer in Classics at the Victoria University of Wellington with an interest in sortition, ancient and modern. He has written a review of the 2020 book Sortition and Democracy: History, Tools, Theories edited by Lilian Lopez-Rabatel and Yves Sintomer soon to be published in Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek and Roman Political Thought.

Kierstead also wrote some related points in a post on his blog. The post is largely a discussion of a claim made by Lopez-Rabatel and Sintomer in their introduction to the book:

While the practice of divinatory sortition was used in a wide variety of civilizations, the political use of random selection was largely (though not exclusively) developed in the West, where it became particularly widespread and increasingly rationalized. (p. 6)

Kierstead examines the historical evidence in the book – looking at both Western and non-Western history – and tries to assess the validity of the claim.

The politics of sortition: Raisons politiques

The French language journal Raisons politiques has a new issue with a section devoted to sortition. The section comprises of an eponymous editorial by Lionel Cordier, Marie Montagnon, and Théophile Pénigaud as well as 6 papers by Dimitri Courant, Nabila Abbas and Yves Sintomer, Théophile Pénigaud, Nadia Urbinati, Lionel Cordier, and Pierre-Étienne Vandamme.

I have not yet read any of the texts, but the topic seems very interesting: what kind of political visions are being associated with sortition? Examining such questions critically, the French-language discussion of sortition is, as always, ahead of the English-language discussion. Like much of the Anglophone political science, the English-language discussion of sortition is impoverished by its business-orientation and the implied attitude that critical reflection is not necessary because we all know where we are going and we all agree on the important issues and there are only some technical details that have to be taken care of.

If anyone reads any of the articles, a post with an English-language summary and a critical evaluation would be most useful.

A proposal of sortition for a student body

In May 2020 Orion Smedley was running for president of the UCLA Undergraduate Student Association. One of the items on his platform was to select USAC councillors using sortition:

Orion Smedley for USAC President

The only way to get a truly representative sample of a population is random sampling (ask a statistician). And presumably we all want a representative government. Enter: Sortition. Sortition is like jury duty, only for legislatures as well. Imagine if your Congress members were ordinary people like you and me instead of career politicians.

Would it work in practice? It worked in Ancient Greece (britannica.com/topic/sortition). But how would it work here?

For starters, we could add a sortition based senate to USAC. While USAC could be the one generating proposals, the sortition senate could be in charge of choosing the proposals. As long as the senate is large enough (by the Central Limit Theorem, at least 30 people) and randomly selected, it would be as though all of UCLA’s undergraduates came together to voice their opinions. It’s the same way that a random spoonful from a well-mixed pot of soup tells us how the entire soup is, no matter how big the pot is; the way USAC is currently selected is closer to not mixing the pot at all and taking spoonfuls from the same spot over and over again, and then being surprised we get the same result every time.
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Sortition on the Democracy Nerd podcast

The “Democracy Nerd” podcast has an episode devoted to sortition. The guests are Linn Davis from Healthy Democracy and Madeline McCarren from Democracy Without Elections.