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.

Sortition advocate arrested for allegedly planning to blow himself up on election day

On October 10th, various news outlets have reported that the FBI has arrested Paul Rosenfeld in NY, USA for allegedly planning to blow himself up with the goal of drawing public attention to the idea of sortition. The New York Daily News writes:

Rockland County man arrested for building 200-pound bomb, plotting to detonate it in DC on election day

A Rockland County man who cops say built a 200-pound bomb he was planning to explode in Washington, D.C., in an Election Day suicide attack was arrested Wednesday.

Paul Rosenfeld, 56, of Tappan, was busted on federal charges of manufacturing an explosive device.

“As alleged, Paul M. Rosenfeld concocted a twisted plan to draw attention to his political ideology by killing himself on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. — risking harm to many others in the process,” U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said.

“Rosenfeld’s alleged plan for an Election Day detonation cut against our democratic principles.”

NBC News write:

New York man wanted to blow himself up on the National Mall on Election Day

Paul Rosenfeld was arrested on charges that he built a bomb and planned to kill himself with it to draw attention to beliefs in ancient election system.

The FBI has arrested an upstate New York man accused of building a bomb that he intended to use to blow himself up on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Election Day, authorities said Wednesday.

Court documents say Paul Rosenfeld, 56, of Tappan, wanted to draw attention to his belief in “sortition,” the ancient practice of randomly selecting legislators out of a pool of eligible voters.

The press release by the U.S. Department of Justice is here.

In 2015 Paul Rosenfeld has published an essay on Equality by Lot titled “The Extinction of Politics“. The article has been linked to by some of the reports of the arrest.

Mencken: A Purge for Legislatures

The book A Mencken Chrestomathy contains a reprint of an article by H.L. Mencken called “A Purge for Legislatures”. The article, originally published in 1926, may be the first modern piece of advocacy for sortition. Thanks to Roger Knights for writing to draw attention to this article.

A MOOD of constructive criticism being upon me, I propose forthwith that the method of choosing legislators now prevailing in the United States be abandoned and that the method used in choosing juries be substituted. That is to say, I propose that the men who make our laws be chosen by chance and against their will, instead of by fraud and against the will of all the rest of us, as now. But isn’t the jury system itself imperfect? Isn’t it occasionally disgraced by gross abuse and scandal? Then so is the system of justice devised and ordained by the Lord God Himself. Didn’t He assume that the Noachian Deluge would be a lasting lesson to sinful humanity — that it would put an end to all manner of crime and wickedness, and convert mankind into a race of Presbyterians? And wasn’t Noah himself, its chief beneficiary, lying drunk, naked and uproarious within a year after the ark landed on Ararat? All I argue for the jury system, invented by man, is that it is measurably better than the scheme invented by God. It has its failures and its absurdities, its abuses and its corruptions, but taking one day with another it manifestly works. It is not the fault of juries that so many murderers go unwhipped of justice, and it is not the fault of juries that so many honest men are harassed by preposterous laws. The juries find the gunmen guilty: it is functionaries higher up, all politicians, who deliver them from the noose, and turn them out to resume their butcheries.
Continue reading

Hugo Bonin: Democracy by lottery

The newspaper Le Journal de Montréal has an article by Jacques Lanctôt about Hugo Bonin’s book, La Democratie Hasardeuse [Original in French, my translation].

Games of chance in politics

“With luck, things will turn out well.” Who has not heard this saying at some point? A chance encounter, a decision taken offhandedly, a delay that turned out for the best, any of those may change our life.

Hugo Bonin believes that luck may be beneficial in politics as well even if it is not a magical solution to all our problems of representation. In a well structured essay, well supported by numerous concrete examples stretching as far back as antiquity (Athens and Rome) and where a future that is almost within our reach is imagined, Bonin aims to show that sortition is a hundred-fold better than the so-called representative elections.

Sortition has its limits but its great merit is that it takes no account of distinctions between races, genders, ages or social classes. John and Jane Doe are worth just as much as the elitist clique of doctors, lawyers and businessmen who have been governing us for too long a time.

More “egalitarian”
In an electoral regime such as the one know here and elsewhere in the West, the voters vote to elect the supposedly better candidate. While in an allotment system, the notion of “better” does not exist because everybody are equally politically qualified. Thus, this is “an egalitarian and a democratic procedure” where all external considerations are excluded.

Random selection is already practiced here in Québec and elsewhere. We need only consider jury selection in a criminal trial. Made of lay people rather than experts, following the British law, this jury is called upon to analyze the evidence and render a decision after deliberation.
Continue reading

Wafawarova on sortition

Reason Wafawarova, columnist in The Herald of Zimbabwe, concludes a column in which he decries the disfunction of the the electoral system in Zimbabwe with the following:

Imagine having to develop a system today that would express the will of the people. Would it really be a good idea to have them all queue up at polling stations every five years with a bit of card in their hands and go into a dark booth to put a mark next to names on a list, names of people about whom restless reporting had been going on for months in a commercial environment that profits from restlessness?

We care deeply about our community, and we as people want to be heard. Maybe we can return to the central principle of Athenian democracy; drafting by lot, or sortition. In that era the majority of public functions were assigned by lot.

Renaissance states such as Venice and Florence worked on the same basis and experienced centuries of political stability. With sortition, you do not ask everyone to vote on an issue few people really understand, but you draft a random sample of the population and make sure they come to grips with the subject matter in order to take a sensible decision.

A cross-section of society that is informed can act more coherently than an entire society that is uninformed.

This perhaps brought about the idea of representative democracy or parliamentary democracy, but do our parliamentarians always act in our best interest?

“When I was allotted, I was honored to participate in the process. But I was very quickly disillusioned.”

These are excerpts from an interview with an allotted member of the electoral committee of La France insoumise which appeared in Liberation in July [original in French, my translation].

The list of La France Insoumise for the European elections: “Everything was fixed by the directorate to favor little deals between friends”

By Maïté Darnault, reporter in Lyon

An activist in Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s movement, who participated in the debates of the electoral committee for appointing the candidates for the upcoming European elections, says she witnessed “scandalous” appointment methods and calls on activists to reject the list presented this Wednesday.

Lilian Guefli, an activist in La France insoumise (LFI), a member of the electoral committee which has just presented the movement’s list for the European elections, denounces “unhealthy procedures”, an atmosphere “of suspicion” within the committee, and says that Manuel Bompard (national secretary of the Left Party and campaign director for Jean-Luc Mélenchon) and his associates dominate the eligible positions.

You were on the electoral committee of LFI. What was your role?

I was allotted in April to participate in the electoral committee. For the European elections list we examined more than 600 candidates. 70 names were eventually selected. After a phase of comment by activists – we received more than 800 comments – we proceeded to the decide on the ordering. This ranking is the most important part because the European elections use proportional representation, and the ranking therefore determines who may realistically be elected.

What is it that you protest?

A deliberate, orchestrated manipulation. When I was allotted, I was honored to participate in the process. But I was very quickly disillusioned when I saw that in fact everything was already fixed by the directorate to favor little deals between friends and cliques which have already divided up the top positions on the list in advance. A list of names of members of the Left Party that are to be promoted was given to us by a member of the directorate. One candidate was installed in a top position without debate, so that she did not appear on the list of 70. I protest that Manuel Bompard, the “head” of the movement who has no real legitimacy with the base, is a member of the electoral committee and controls it. Being himself a candidate, he is at the same time judge and judged. That poses a real problem of independence for the committee.
Continue reading

Are “citizen” parties for real?

The following op-ed by Yves Patte, sociologist and community organizer, was published in August on the Belgian website La Libre (original in French, my translation).

Are “citizen” parties for real?

A few months before the elections, have you noticed how at some point all the parties seem to be “citizen” parties? In their name (“citizen list”, “citizen party”), as well as in their platforms (“re-empower the citizens”).

Naturally, we are not going to complain. It would be grouchy to be too particular now that the political world is attending to the wish for citizen participation. However, we must remain careful and ask ourselves whether this sudden mass conversion to the faith of citizen participation is sincere. After “greenwashing”, are we witnessing a case of “citizenwashing”? So, how, as citizens, can we assess the sincerity of a list or a party that calls itself a “citizen” list or party? Of course, merely printing “citizen” on its campaign posters is not enough, nor is inserting this word into its platform.

Drawing ideas from citizen movements does not legitimate declaring a party to be a citizen party either. It is not because a party promotes local agriculture, short supply chains, social connections or “zero waste” that it would be “a citizen party”.

What is the citizen?

We know that democracy, since its origins, gave a central place to the “citizen” in managing the city-state. It is he (and today fortunately, her) who had political rights and duties, who participates “in the power to judge and to order” (Aristotle). There is a link between democratic organization (that is to say when power resides with the “demos”) and the citizens being able to take on the functions of the democratic organization.
Continue reading