“Sortition Academy” and the Revitalizing Democracy Conference

The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College in NY is holding a (pandemic-delayed) hybrid in-person / webinar conference on sorition in a couple of weeks. The center is also home to the BIRDS, “Bard Institute for the Revival of Democracy through Sortition,” which has existed for a couple of years but has mostly held online events until now. Registration is still open for the webinar portion of the conference, and I believe in-person attendance is limited to a small number.

REVITALIZING DEMOCRACY:
Sortition, Citizen Power, and Spaces of Freedom

The conference website is called sortition.academy and features three short video introductions to the topic of sorition, averaging 10 minutes each–“What is sortition?” “Greek democracy” and “The story of sortition”–all presented by the Hannah Arendt’s center director Roger Berkowitz. I found these videos quite good for a general audience. Especially intersting was the last video that ends with two segments, “The erasure of sorition,” and “The return of sortition.” Readers of this blog will already know what he is refering to.

Speakers at the conference include many familiar faces in the world of Sortinistas–Van Reybrouck, Landemore, Suiter–but also some surprising old faces and many new faces including young activits and academics. I have registered to attend.

I am curious what Kleroterians and Sortinistas think of the videos and Berkowitz’s take on the role sorition can play under the anti-institutionalism anti-elitism of our time.

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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Yuval Harari on sortition?

“If you want power, at some point you will have to spread fictions. If you want to know the truth about the world, at some point you will have to renounce power.” Yuval Harari in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

Citizens’ assemblies are much more about truth, and not power. Harari seems to present a lot of reasons why we need CAs, but never mentions them. Has there ever been a connection between him and sortition / CAs?

Interview with Hélène Landemore about Lottocracy

The Nation Magazine just ran an interview with Hélène Landemore, author of Open Democracy, dealing with the state of democracy today, with a particular focus upon the promise of lottocracy. It can be found here.

Elections and consent

It has been claimed, notably by Bernard Manin (The principles of representative government pp. 79-93), that the reason that sortition of representatives was never considered, and in fact hardly ever mentioned, by the founding fathers of the Western system was because it conflicted with their commitment to the notion that a just system must be based on consent. The argument is that only elections, which institutionalize the act of explicit selection, are compatible with this principle and thus sortition was ruled out a-priori to such an extent that it was never part of the set of ideas being discussed.

While the commitment of the founding fathers to the principle of consent cannot be realistically disputed, the notion that they saw a strong link between elections and consent is much less convincing. This link is far from obvious since, as Manin notes, the principle of consent long predates the modern era. Such a link would therefore not have been taken for granted by the founders, and presuming that it were important to them it would surely have merited a central place in their rhetoric. In fact, however, Manin cites no primary source which argues that elections are a mechanism of consent. He quotes, for example, John Locke as saying:

And thus that, which begins and actually constitutes any Political Society, is nothing but the consent of any number of Freemen capable of a majority to unite and incorporate themselves into such a Society.

But this, of course, makes no mention of elections. Quite the contrary – it is the consent to the incorporation itself, rather than any particular procedures of the newly formed body, that is crucial.
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Zaremberg and Welp: Beyond utopian and dystopian approaches to democratic innovation

A 2018 paper by Gisela Zaremberg and Yanina Welp has the following abstract:

This paper discusses the myths regarding both the conceptualization and the expected effects that are implicitly or explicitly presented in analyses of the so-called ‘democratic innovations’, that is, the new institutions that aim to increase public participation beyond regular elections. It is argued that these myths, together with the (fictitious) confrontation between direct and indirect politics, have generated false oppositions and reductionisms that mask the debate and limit empirical approximations to democratic innovation. A research agenda based on the concept of ‘participatory ecologies’ is suggested as a way to gain an understanding of the mechanisms of participation in a systematic way.

I found these excerpts of particular interest to the Equality-by-Lot blog:

In a participatory ecology there is no single mechanism that is able to deliver all the virtuous democratic effects. Empirical evidence supports this proposition. For example, a positive balance of participatory mechanisms was observed in Ireland with the combination of a citizen’s assembly selected by sortition, which opened an informed debate about abortion, and a referendum, as a fair mechanism to make legitimate decisions. A negative balance is exemplified by the experience with recall referendums in Japan, where recall is activated more against policies than against authorities; however, as the first is binding and easier than the activation of initiative, it is used more frequently.

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“Putting the practice of sortition on firmer foundations”

An article in Nature by Bailey Flanigan, Paul Gölz, Anupam Gupta, Brett Hennig and Ariel D. Procaccia proposes a sampling algorithm which produces samples with specified quotas for given subgroups of the population. Since the quotas do not match the proportions of the groups in the population, the probability of selection of each person in the population is not the same. However, the algorithm aims to make those probabilities as equal as possible.

The authors propose the use of their algorithm for selecting citizen assemblies from groups of volunteers. In existing practice, the group of volunteers for a citizen assembly is usually very unrepresentative of the population as a whole and the quotas are used to supposedly compensate for this unrepresentativity and make sure that the selected assembly is descriptive of the population as a whole. The authors claim that “[b]y contributing a fairer, more principled and deployable algorithm [than the previous algorithm used], our work puts the practice of sortition on firmer foundations. Moreover, our work establishes citizens’ assemblies as a domain in which insights from the field of fair division can lead to high-impact applications”.

In my view, while this work may be of theoretical interest in the field of sampling, and while the authors may have the most commendable intentions of promoting democratic decision making, the notion that this work in any way improves the political application of sortition is not only unjustified, but may actually be the opposite of reality.

First, it is obvious that unless absurdly arbitrary and drastic assumptions are made, quotas can in no way compensate for the unrepresentativity of a volunteer sampling group. For quotas to be able to compensate for the unrepresentativity of the volunteer sampling group, it must happen that within each quota group the probability of volunteering is uncorrelated with (informed and considered) opinions on the matters at hand. One would have to have a horribly mechanistic and reductionist notion of what determines individual opinions in order to make such an assumption. Thus, the entire endeavor of quota-adjusted sampling is no more than cosmetics over the reality of bias introduced by low volunteer rates in existing applications of sortition in politics.
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Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality

There’s a report out on the recent Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality. The report, by Jane Suiter, Kirsty Park, Yvonne Galligan, and David M. Farrell, focuses on “the quality of the deliberative process and the attitudes of the members towards the process”. The report can be found at:

https://arrow.tudublin.ie/aaschsslrep/39/

Victor Bruzzone on sortition

Victor Bruzzone is a doctoral student at the University of Toronto. In a segment on a podcast he makes an argument for a selecting the legislative chamber of government by sortition (starting about 1 hour into the recording). The segment mentions a chapter Bruzzone wrote in a soon-to-be-published book, Liberalism and Socialism: Mortal Enemies or Embittered Kin?, which presumably argues for the same idea.