Maurice Pope’s The Keys to Democracy is now available

Hugh Pope writes:

I’m writing to share details about the publication of the book that has been my special project over the past 18 months: The Keys to Democracy: Sortition as a New Model for Citizen Power, by my late father, the classicist Maurice Pope.

The back story: my dad wrote the book in the 1980s, but, perhaps because it was ahead of its time, his usual publishers wouldn’t take it. We had thought the work was lost well before he passed away in 2019. But two years ago, while sorting through his library, my mother found the typescript.

As my brother Quentin and I edited the text, we consulted several experts and were urged on by messages back telling us that the book was “masterful”, “bold”, “visionary” and more (you can see all their endorsements here). Dr. Hélène Landemore of Yale University and Cambridge classicist Dr. Paul Cartledge generously wrote a preface and an introduction. With many such helping hands, we found a publisher at UK philosophy specialists Imprint Academic. The book went on sale on 7 March.

Back in the 1980s, few others proposed that randomly selected citizens could, after proper information and deliberation, reach better decisions than elected politicians. This open field is perhaps one reason for the book’s unique and accessible combination of the history, mathematics, philosophy and future of sortition. My dad’s ideal – in which random selection could be the decision-making heart of all branches of government – also makes him more radical than most other thinkers writing today.
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Sintomer: The Government of Chance

French political scientist Yves Sintomer has published a new book dealing with sortition called The Government of Chance: Sortition and Democracy from Athens to the Present.

The publisher, Cambridge University Press, provides a(n apparently auto-translated) book description:

Electoral democracies are struggling. Sintomer, in this instructive book, argues for democratic innovations. One such innovation is using random selection to create citizen bodies with advisory or decisional political power. ‘Sortition’ has a long political history. Coupled with elections, it has represented an important yet often neglected dimension of Republican and democratic government, and has been reintroduced in the Global North, China and Mexico. The Government of Chance explores why sortation is returning, how it is coupled with deliberation, and why randomly selected ‘minipublics’ and citizens’ assemblies are flourishing. Relying on a growing international and interdisciplinary literature, Sintomer provides the first systematic and theoretical reconstruction of the government of chance from Athens to the present. At what conditions can it be rational? What lessons can be drawn from history? The Government of Chance therefore clarifies the democratic imaginaries at stake: deliberative, antipolitical, and radical, making a plaidoyer for the latter.

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Reflections on the representativeness of citizens assemblies and similar innovations

A blog post by Tiago C. Peixoto and Paolo Spada.


For proponents of deliberative democracy, the last couple of years could not have been better. Propelled by the recent diffusion of citizens’ assemblies, deliberative democracy has definitely gained popularity beyond small circles of scholars and advocates. From CNN to the New York Times, the Hindustan Times (India), Folha de São Paulo (Brazil), and Expresso (Portugal), it is now almost difficult to keep up with all the interest in democratic models that promote the random selection of participants who engage in informed deliberation. A new “deliberative wave” is definitely here.

But with popularity comes scrutiny. And whether the deliberative wave will power new energy or crash onto the beach, is an open question. As is the case with any democratic innovation (institutions designed to improve or deepen our existing democratic systems), critically examining assumptions is what allows for management of expectations and, most importantly, gradual improvements.
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Bailly: The democratic quality of European Citizens’ panels

“The democratic quality of European Citizens’ panels” is an interesting study of the citizen panels convened within the framework of the Conference on the Future of Europe which took place in 2021. The study by Jessy Bailly involved interviews with dozens of participants in the panels.

The study highlights some of the problems of the lack of an acceptable design, resulting in biased outcomes. Examples of problematic aspects of the design are the use of volunteers, the way the experts are appointed, the overrepresentation of a stratum of their choice (youth in this case), and the lack of transparency of the sortition method.

Some excerpts:

When I surveyed the citizens, many praised the “diversity of people” within the panels. Others emphasised the lack of representativeness of the citizens’ panels, with at least 5 of the 31 citizens interviewed insisting on it. One of them was a German citizen in her 30s: “You should pay attention to a greater diversity of people and not only people who are pro-Europe. There should be a greater selection of different people, different social classes and also religions.” It is worth noting that the “social class” criterion had to be respected (through the prism of occupation). However, no ethnic or religious criteria were considered.

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Ovadya: Controlling AI via allotted bodies

Hélène Landemore has recently proposed using AI to manage the deliberation of allotted bodies. Aviv Ovadya proposes the opposite:

Technologist and researcher Aviv Ovadya isn’t sure that generative AI can be governed, but he thinks the most plausible means of keeping it in check might just be entrusting those who will be impacted by AI to collectively decide on the ways to curb it.

That means you; it means me. It’s the power of large networks of individuals to problem-solve faster and more equitably than a small group of individuals might do alone (including, say, in Washington). This is not naively relying on the wisdom of the crowds — which has been shown to be problematic — but the use of so-called deliberative democracy, an approach that involves selecting people through sortition to be representative (such that everyone in the population being impacted has an equal chance of being chosen), and providing them with an environment that enables them to deliberate effectively and make wise decisions. This means compensation for their time, access to experts and stakeholders, and neutral facilitation.

Either way, Ovadya is busily trying to persuade all the major AI players that collective intelligence is the way to quickly create boundaries around AI while also giving them needed credibility. Take OpenAI, says Ovadya. “It’s getting some flack right now from everyone,” including over its perceived liberal bias. “It would be helpful [for the company] to have a really concrete answer” about how it establishes its future policies.

Oligarchical intents

A piece by Eva Talmadge in The Guardian presents its audience with idea of sortition. To what extent such an article covers new ground for the reader would be interesting to try and find out. The article itself links to a 2018 Guardian article proposing a Brexit citizen assembly.

The article quotes some of the usual sortition suspects – Claudia Chwalisz, Peter MacLeod, and Peter Stone, and presents the standard deliberative rhetoric around citizen assemblies about how people are more informed and reasonable when they deliberate and about the potential of citizen assemblies “to help fractured societies not only work on complicated problems, but learn how to live with one another”.

Sandwiched in, however, Chwalisz does contribute a quite subversive idea:

As the ancient Greeks and others recognized, elections are a way of constituting an oligarchy. When the French and American revolutions led to the establishment of the institutions that today we call democratic, the word ‘democracy’ was never used – the intent was for them to be oligarchic, concentrating power in the hands of the few.

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Ephraim David on sortition

Prof. Ephraim David is a historian of Classical Greece at the Haifa University in Israel. In a 2021 paper, published in the journal Advances in Historical Studies, David discusses sortition in Ancient Athens in the context of recent interest in sortition as a mechanism which can complement or replace elections in modern political systems.

The abstract of the paper is as follows:

Though considered the most democratic method of allocating citizens to office in Classical Greece, sortition (selection by lot) has never been adopted on a large scale by modern democracies (except for juries) and has fallen into oblivion. Recently, however, some political theorists, motivated by deep disappointment with current electoral practices, have been advocating a return to sortition without being sufficiently aware of the complexities involved in their ancient Athenian model. This study tries to explain the roots and ideology of sortition, the ways in which it operated in Athens and the causes of its functional success there for almost two centuries. Proposals of returning to a similar system should pay due attention to the significant role played by elections alongside the lottery in Classical Athens and the precautions taken there to prevent possible harm. In my view, the optimal formula for reform would be a political compromise combining, in one way or another, elections with sortition among volunteering candidates from various quarters of the civic society, selected in due proportions so as to be statistically representative of the demos. Selection by lottery should apply only to groups of people (e.g., committees and councils)—never to individual magistrates.

As the abstract indicates, David is somewhat conservative, emphasizing various aspects of the Athenian system that, as he presents things, guaranteed that “[d]espite the widespread use of sortition, Athenian democracy was far from being a dogmatic ‘lottocracy'”: election of generals and reliance on other forms of expertise, age qualifications, the voluntaristic way in which the allotment pool was created, the dokimasia and retrospective accountability for political decisions.

Nevertheless, it is clear that, unlike most academics dealing with sortition, including those that are considered as being advocates for sortition, David recognizes that reform of the existing system is an urgent need, due to the severe dysfunction of the electoral system as a means for representing public values and interests:

The adoption of sortition among volunteers (in one way or another) for the legislative, in addition to elections, is liable to galvanize participatory democracy and significantly reduce (or, at least, balance) the extent of the ills involved in an exclusively elective system, particularly the manipulation of party elites, the extensive cheating of voters by deceptive electoral propaganda, the manipulation of populist politicians and the over-influence of wealthy oligarchs and tycoons in politics—the blatantly plutocratic aspect of most modern democracies. The optimal ways of reaching
those aims remain to be further explored not only for macro-politics but also with respect to other forms of administration.

Doing Democracy Differently: Teaching Deliberative Democracy in the Secondary Classroom – March 11-12, 2023

On March 11 & 12, 2023, the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College (New York) and Democracy Without Elections (DWE), a member-run nonprofit organization in the US that promotes the use of randomly selected deliberative bodies, are offering a course to teachers for recertification credit called Doing Democracy Differently: Teaching Deliberative Democracy in the Secondary Classroom.

This college level training course for high school educators to be held in New York City will encourage teachers to include the study of randomly selected bodies and other democratic reform initiatives in their secondary school civics curriculum. The hope is that the course will both raise awareness in high schoolers of new democratic tools and fuel their active participation in future democratic reform.

The DWE Education Group has for the last year been exploring ways to initiate young people into the movement advocating for deliberative democracy, citizens’ assemblies, democratic lotteries, and other randomly selected deliberative bodies. Recently, the committee received a $10,000 grant earmarked for tuition support for teachers enrolling in this training course. They also have been searching for partners and reached out to Stanford University, Bard College, and Colorado State University, who all have strong connections to the democratic reform movement. The goal was to find an academic host for the training course who could offer college credit to interested teachers as well as connections to large numbers of potential participants.
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Khoban: A Feminist Defense of Randomly Selected Political Representatives

In a recent paper in Critical Policy Studies, Swedish researcher Zohreh Khoban argues that feminism and sortition are naturally allied.

Politics of Emancipation: A Feminist Defense of Randomly Selected Political Representatives
Zohreh Khoban


The presence of women in elected assemblies has been argued to transform the political agenda so that it better addresses the needs and interests of women. In this article, I reflect on women’s political representation by starting from democratic theories that point to the inadequacy of electoral democracy. I argue that, compared to including women in the political elite, dissolving the division of political labor between professional politicians and ‘ordinary’ citizens has a greater potential to challenge status quo gender relations. I suggest that political assemblies consisting of randomly selected citizens would better serve women’s self-determination and emancipation for three reasons: 1) allotted representatives would be more willing and able than elected representatives to critique social norms and practices, 2) the idea of allotted representatives better supports the idea that knowledge is situated, and 3) it better accommodates the notion that political merit is a gendered, racialized and class-based concept.

Promoting Citizens’ Assemblies

Democracy Without Elections and Healthy Democracy have teamed up to provide a new seminar titled “Building Political Will for Lottery-Selected Panels in Your Community – A How-To Guide.”

The seminar will be led by Linn Davis on Zoom over two Saturdays: 11 and 25 February. Click here to reserve your spot.