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.

Representation: An ideological and legal fiction

I’ve spent the last few days at an international workshop on ‘Representation in Historical and Transcultural Perspectives’ organised by the Centre for Political Thought at Exeter University. On the final day it was suggested that representation was an ‘ideological and legal fiction’ and none of the participants disagreed. Yves Sintomer gave the final presentation and suggested that his fieldwork comparing Chinese and French systems of representation showed little difference between the two and that the lack of effective representation was an existential crisis for democracy. I had a question for Yves, but we ran out of time, so will ask it here (and draw it to his attention):

One system of representation that would clearly be non-fictional is delegates with legally-binding instructions but this was rejected at the time of the American and French revolutions. Trustee representation (with free mandate) may have worked for a time but didn’t long survive the extension of the franchise and is now rejected by the populist uprising in Europe and America. Virtual representation in Burke’s sense was always fictional due to the dissimilarity between voters and the political class. This would suggest that the only form of non-fictional democratic representation would be when final decision power is vested in a statistically-representative minipublic. Concerns might be raised both about the accuracy of the descriptive representation and the epistemic consequences, but such a system would be non-fictional so long as the microcosm retained ongoing descriptive representation vis-a-vis the target population. This would require large juries, quasi-mandatory participation, short-term service, balanced (exogenous) information and advocacy, and silent deliberation and secret voting, but the representation would not be fictional if it could be demonstrated that multiple samples of the same population generated closely-matching decision outputs. Might such a system be the only way of establishing genuine political representation?

Yves Sintomer: Blow the dust off of democracy with an allotted third chamber. Part 1

This is an English version of an interview with Yves Sintomer in the journal Socialter (original in French).

The Gilets Jaunes, who are looking for new democratic experiences, have called for an “assembly of assemblies”. Would it be necessary, in order to resolve the impasse, to radicalize our democracy? Why not re-institutionalize one of the its original components: sortition. A conversation with Yves Sintomer, a political scientist and an expert in democratic procedures.

Philippe Vion-Dury, 17/04/2019
Photos: Cyrille Choupas

The Gilet Jaunes have been first presented at an anti-tax movement and then as a social justice movement. Isn’t it, however, fundamentally, the question of institutions and democracy question which predominates?

What unites the Gilets Jaunes, it seems to me, is not so much the question of institutions in the strict sense as much as denial of recognition to which they respond by protesting against social injustice and against the democratic gap, a sentiment of non-representation. These two components appear to me to be tied together: society does not recognize them both because its fruits are distributed too unequally and because their voice is not being heard.

Popular distrust can be observed in most western democracies, in different forms. Isn’t there a generalized crisis of “representative government” itself?

There is a French particularity: a President with disproportionately concentrated power, little countervailing power, unusually weak political parties… and the revolt of the Gilet Jaunes is a social mobilization to which there is no equivalent in neighboring countries. This particularity has to be put in context, because it works within a much more general crisis of representation which affects not only European democracies but is also the young democracies of Latin America and in the formally democratic countries of Africa and Asia.

Representative governments were created during the English, French and American revolutions as a compromise solution. It involved giving effective decision power to a self-proclaimed elite – from this point of view, there is an aristocratic dimension to representative government. This ruling aristocracy, however, would not longer be one of “blue blood”, of nobility, but an aristocracy determined by the voters.

This institutionalization of representative government has long been opposed to the feudal society of the Ancien Regime, but also against democracy, understood as “government of the people, for the people, by the people” – to quote Abraham Lincoln. The is to limit the power of the people by giving decision making power to an elected aristocracy. That allows us to distance ourselves from the classical liberal conception asserting that “democracy means elections”.
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Loïc Blondiaux: “Nobody believes anymore that the system can reform itself”

An interview with Loïc Blondiaux, professor of political science at the Sorbonne in Paris and a researcher at the European Center for Sociology and Political Science (CESSP) and the Center for Policy Research (CRPS) of the Sorbonne, in International Politics and Society journal:

New instruments of participatory democracy, such as citizen meetings with participants drawn by lot, are sometimes presented as the solution to the crisis of representative democracy. What does that reveal about the current state of French society?

It’s striking about the current democratic crisis in France, but also in the entire Western world, that instruments such as the sortition-based community meetings, where participants are selected at random, are spreading so successfully, and that such democratic innovations are generating high hopes. Who would have thought that political actors would advocate the idea of a third parliamentary chamber, determined wholly or partly by lot, or even the idea of replacing the Senate with a similar process? This interest in sortition attests to the great disrepute that traditional institutions of representative politics have fallen into. The same also applies to the “RIC” (référendum d’initiative citoyenne) promoted by the gilets jaunes, which aims to enable both citizens’ initiatives in constitutional and legal matters and the repeal of laws and the dismissal of elected representatives.

How do you explain the high expectations people have of these participatory instruments?
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Cancio: Sortition and the Allotted Chamber as Institutional Improvements to Democracy

Here [PDF] is an automated translation (with a few touch-ups) of Jorge Cancio’s 2010 paper “Invitación a un Debate: El Sorteo y las Cámaras Sorteadas Como Mejoras Institucionales de la Democracia”.


I start off inviting my readers to exercise their imagination and then explaining a proposal of creating new “sortition chambers” on all administrative levels – from a chamber at the same level as the present-day Spanish Congress and Senate down to sortition chambers for each municipality. They essentially would be an addition to present-day institutions and would partake in the powers which are held today by elected representatives and officials, although the proposal envisages that in the short run they could be out-voted by the elective institutions. They would exercise their powers according to deliberative procedures.

After that introduction I offer a short account of present-day theoretical and practical proposals and implementations of sortition-based systems in the political field – highlighting the fact (following Manin) that mainstream discussions on democracy tend to ignore sortition altogether (including those made by the political left), but also making the point that since Dahl and others (inter alia, Burnheim, Goodwin, Barber; and the more recent works now appearing in Imprint Academic) there seems to be an increasing renaissance of this subject. I also point to the practical experiences of the Planungszelle and the voters’ and citizens’ juries.

Thereafter I try to explain why sortition is mainly ignored nowadays – here I follow again Bernard Manin – identifiying the contractualist bias of the XVII and XVIII century revolutions (which sought to establish a rule of consent for being governed) as the main reason for opting for elections instead of sortition as mechanism for the selection of political office-holders. Afterwards, the emergence of the political parties as oligopolical forces in the political market (here I refer to the work of C.B. Macpherson) and their growing distance from society and increasing autonomy vis-à-vis societal needs have led to a “party democracy” or “cartel party” system (Katz and Mair). The facade of autonomous decision in electing public officials covers, therefore, a system where political offers are very limited, allowing me to speak about an “election-fetish”. Contrasting to this evolution I then underline the paradox of identifiyng democracy with elections (and political parties) when we consider that democracy was linked in Athens with sortition whereas elections were considered aristocratic.
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Radical reform: selecting 5-10% of councillors by lot

Vernon Bogdanor, Research Professor at the Institute for Contemporary British History at King’s College London and Professor of Politics at the New College of the Humanities, advocates bold, radical reforms:

Local government reform

One way that our democratic system can face these challenges is by making local government `Self Government’ once again. […] Local government is the best arena for the next phase of constitutional reform, but something much more radical than elected mayors is needed.

Selection by lot

That more radical innovation might be found in the principle of sortition—selection by lot. That principle was first adopted in fifth‐century Athens, a direct democracy, but it is perfectly feasible to extend participation in a modern democracy.

A small proportion of councillors—say 5 per cent or 10 per cent—could be selected randomly by lot from the electoral register. Participation would be voluntary but most of those selected would probably be willing to do so. That would increase the representation of the young and of members of ethnic minorities, groups markedly under‐represented in most local authorities. These councillors could decide what was best for their communities without being beholden to party.

Delanoi: Sortition does not replace elections, it complements them

Simon Blin interviews Gil Delanoi in the Liberation. Original in French.

Gil Delanoi, a researcher at Sciences-Po, a sortition expert, promotes this procedure as a fundamental improvement of the democratic system, provided that it is used in an ad-hoc fashion. [Editor’s note: This sub-headline seems to be a misrepresentation of Delanoi’s position – see below. – YG.]

Gil Delannoi, professor at Sciences-Po and researcher at Cevipof, has just published a new book Sortition: how should it be used? (Sciences-Po Press). According to him, this procedure, if it is well-established, could improve the representation of the diversity of the electorate.

How can sortition cure the malaise of democratic representation and participation?

As opposed to voting, sortition does not aggregate voices but rather subsamples people from a group in order to delegate a task to them, whether a deliberative, an advisory or a decision-making task. From this perspective, sortition complements voting because it allows breaking out of the legislative logic where only representatives make the law and are concerned with it and where the administration applies it. This way, sortition does not replace elections but completes them. It is certainly possible to combine the two processes.

What form should it take?

Sortition is adaptable. There are at least as many ways to allot as there are to vote. It all depends on the objective that is sought. Sortition can be mandatory or volutary. In the first case it is a duty, in the other it is a right. The size of the sample is also very important. If the allotment aims to construct a mirror of the population, it is preferable to have a large number of people involved in order to create a detailed picture. That said, even if we allot a few people, we already a sample that is more representative than that of a simple vote, particularly in terms of age, gender and profession. We may need allotments of size 10,000 or 1,000 people. Logically, the larger the number the more accurate is the representation. In the case of court juries, where sortition is regularly used in France, it is evident that the group must be able to really have a discussion. Here the optimal size is on the order of 10 to 50 people. The larger the sample, the more difficult this is.
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