Sortition in Ha’aretz

Ha’aretz is Israel’s elite newspaper. With Israel’s second election day of 2019 coming up in about a month, Ha’aretz published in its latest weekend magazine an article by Hilo Glaser offering readers several reform ideas for the political system. Sortition got top billing. I was interviewed for the article. Below is a translation of some excerpts (original in Hebrew, paywalled).

The method: Sortition (i.e., lottery instead of elections)

The idea: Advocates of sortition note that modern democracy embraces ideas originating from Ancient Greece, but it disposes of the government mechanism that enabled their application. In ancient democracy public offices were appointed by lottery among the entire citizenry. This is how officials, clerics, and even government ministers were appointed.

In 2014, Prof. Irad Malkin published an article in Ha’aretz in which he explained that “the lottery was the most effective tool against the oligarchy of money and government, drawing the citizens into the political activity and allowing them to take part at different levels: in the sovereign assembly, in the high council, and in the courts. This worked well for 200 years.”

Not only historians are calling to revive the lottery mechanism. Yoram Gat, a software engineer and a statistics Ph.D., has recently published an article challenging the mechanism of elections in view of the public frustration with elected institutions and offering sortition as an alternative. He claims that allotment of political office holders will result in optimal representation of the different groups in the population.
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Paper: No Stratification Without Representation

One fascinating aspect of sortition is that it treats all groups in the population fairly: If a group constitutes x% of the population, the group’s share in the panel will be x% in expectation (that is, on average over many random panels). Furthermore, it is unlikely that, in a random panel, this percentage will deviate much from x%; this event becomes ever less likely the larger the panel is. Unfortunately, there are practical limits to how large sortition panels can get, which means that a certain variance remains. Had the Irish citizens’ assembly been sampled without consideration for gender, for example, a gender imbalance of at most 45 women against at least 54 men would have happened in about 15% of random panels.¹

One way around this problem is stratified sampling. For example, one could fill half of the seats with random women and half of them with random men. As Yoram wrote in an earlier post on this blog, one can still guarantee that every person is selected with equal probability, and thus, that every group will get its fair share of the panel in expectation. Stratification by gender will obviously ensure accurate representation to the genders. But what happens to the representation of other groups?

My collaborators — Gerdus Benadè and Ariel Procaccia — and I studied this question in a paper that we recently presented at the ACM Conference on Economics and Computation. As Mueller, Tollison, and Willett argued as early as 1972,² stratification can greatly reduce the variance in representation for groups that highly correlate with the feature we stratified on. This is good news since correlation is everywhere; for example, stratifying by gender will help to represent opinion groups related to military intervention, gun control, and healthcare.³ We show that there is no real downside to stratification: Even in the worst case, stratification cannot increase the variance of another group by more than a negligible amount. These results hold up to very fine stratifications, where each seat is filled by a random member of a dedicated stratum. This suggests that we should indeed make extensive use of stratification. In a case study on a real-world dataset, we show that stratification can reduce the variance in an opinion group’s representation by a similar amount as an increase of panel size by multiple seats — even if the stratifier does not know the opinion in question!

The main technical difficulty in the paper is working with indivisibilities. For instance, if we split the 99 seats of the Irish citizens’ assembly proportionally by gender, women should get around 50.66 seats. To ensure that every person is still selected with equal probabilities, we need to randomly “round” the seat assignments, giving women sometimes 50 and sometimes 51 seats. This process is somewhat delicate — rounding introduces new variance, which might lead to some unfortunate group becoming much less accurately represented than without stratification. If one uses the rounding procedure suggested in our paper, this is not the case.

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Schulson and Bagg: Sortition needs to become part of mainstream U.S. political discourse

Michael Schulson is a journalist who has written before about sortition. Schulson and Samuel Bagg, a democratic theorist at McGill University, have a new article about sortition in Dissent magazine. Here are some excerpts.

Give Political Power to Ordinary People

To fight elite capture of the state, it’s time to consider sortition, or the assignment of political power through lotteries.

Our broken campaign finance system is a longstanding target of progressive ire. And as Republican state legislatures have made increasingly aggressive moves to entrench minority rule, many people are beginning to see a broader defense of democratic integrity as a crucial part of any left agenda. Yet most of the attention of reformers has been limited to the electoral process—perhaps because we tend to assume that getting “our people” into office will solve the problem.

It won’t. Elite capture of the state extends far beyond the influence of large donors on elections.
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Bradatan: Today’s democracy favors the the power-hungry, arrogant, oppressively self-assertive political animal

Costica Bradatan, professor of philosophy at Texas Tech University, has a free-ranging essay about democracy in the New York Times. It is a rather incongruous mass of ideas, some more convincing than others. It does mention (approvingly? hard to tell) sortition as one of the fundamental foundations of Athenian democracy.

The institutions of democracy, its norms and mechanisms, should embody a vision of human beings as deficient, flawed and imperfect.

Ancient Athenian democracy devised two institutions that fleshed out this vision. First, sortition: the appointment of public officials by lot. Given the fundamental equality of rights that all Athenian citizens — that is, free male adults — enjoyed, the most logical means of access to positions of leadership was random selection. Indeed, for the Athenian democrats, elections would have struck at the heart of democracy: They would have allowed some people to assert themselves, arrogantly and unjustly, against the others.

The other fittingly imperfect Athenian institution was ostracization.

Bradatan notes how different is the modern system that self-describes itself as “democracy”:
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Sortition at the University of Lausanne

A short video by Michele Andina on swissinfo.ch featuring Maxime Mellina and Aurèle Dupuis from the University of Lausanne discussing sortition.

Interview with Yves Sintomer, part 2 of 2: With sortition, the scale is immaterial

This is the second part of a translation of an interview with Yves Syntomer. The first part is here, the original in French is here.

Does the end of the 20th century mark the return of a desire to experiment with sortition?

We witnessed in the 1980’s and 1990’s an explosion of experiments applying sortition, a “first wave” where the reference to Athens was very significant. There are however big differences. We aim to obtain a representative sample of the population by allotment, where the Athenians did not have this mathematical notion and resorted to pure luck. The second big difference is that we wish to use sortition to create an Assembly which is going to debate in nearly ideal conditions, following the ideas of ­Jürgen ­Habermas, according to which a decision is not legitimate unless it is preceded by a well-formed discussion.

The third difference is that sortition is introduced at the margins of the political system and that the mini-publics so constituted are merely consultative. This first wave allowed to show that with discussions among ordinary citizens, non-specialists, once they have sufficient information and have the opportunities to examine things, where opportunity to speak has been equally apportioned, in a general assembly or in small groups, high-quality conversation is attained. It is impressive to see that the exchanges between ordinary citizens put to shame those that take place in parliaments.

We are now seeing the emergence of a second wave. Sortition is now invoked by social movements in France, including Nuit Debout and some among the Gilets Jaunes. Ireland has recently offered us a paradigmatic example of this second wave. We had two allotted assemblies (one in its entirety, the other in its majority) convened first to discuss marriage for all and then abortion and to propose constitutional reforms which were then submitted to the people who have ratified those propositions by referenda.

Iceland is another significant example. The country was in a bad state at the moment of the subprime crisis… Two citizen assemblies were allotted (one in its entirety, the other in its majority) in order to propose how to reconstruct the country. That was followed by an election of a constituante committee where professional politicians could not be members, a proposal of a new constitution, a validation of the proposal by a consultative referendum… It was finally buried by an obstruction by a majority in Parliament, which refused to adopt the text.

It may be objected that those are two small countries…

With sortition, the scale is immaterial: it may be used at the level of a city or a country in quite similar ways.
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Sortition and democracy. History, instruments, and theories: a special issue of Participations journal

Participations journal’s latest issue is devoted to sortition. This appears to be a treasure trove. The issue, titled “Sortition and democracy. History, instruments, and theories”, has 24 papers comprising over 500 pages. The French text of all papers seems to be allow unrestricted access.

The papers are organized into 5 sections:

  1. The ancient world
  2. The medieval world and the modern world
  3. The Chinese world
  4. The contemporary world
  5. Postface

The authors include familiar names (Sintomer, Demont, Courant) as well as many that I, at least, am not familiar with.

“The contemporary world” section has some papers that seem particularly interesting, e.g., Samuel Hayat’s “The militant trajectory of the reference to Bernard Manin in French activism for sortition” and Julien Talpin’s “Does random selection make democracies more democratic? How deliberative democracy has depoliticized a radical proposal”.

Another intriguing paper is Alexei Daniel Serafín Castro’s “Political representation and the uses of sortition in Mexico: 1808-1857” which discusses a historical application of sortition that I have never heard of before.