It’s the Economy, (not) stupid!

I’ve never met Paul Wyatt – who describes himself as a self-producing filmmaker and media consultant. I’ve admired his work from a distance though, both as an inspiration for my own efforts to transform myself into a multi-media journalist and also for the subject matter he’s currently focused on.

I’m highlighting his work to Equality by Lot readers as you may be able to help him – right now – to raise some money to promote the cause of random selection and deliberation as it relates to economic policy. The challenge he’s facing is directly relevant to EbL readers. You are people, I assume, who are intent on spreading awareness and best practice of sortition in its different forms.

If Paul gets the money, and completes his film, we’ll all have a tool to help us argue the case for citizens to get a stronger voice in directing economic policy.

That’s why I’m spending some of my time writing this blog post.

Paul is crowdfunding for the money to complete a film on the RSA’s Citizens’ Economic Council.

The RSA programme gave randomly selected British citizens a non-binding say on national economic policy, and influence over the future of the UK economy.

So far, so so, you demanding EbL readers would say. You’d be right, of course, the Council conclusions didn’t oblige any policy maker to do anything with those findings, regardless of how good they might have been. Not at all best practice in sortition land but not catastrophically bad either.

The RSA initiative has had some heavyweight endorsement from the likes of Andrew Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England. Who knows how far its recommendations will make it through the mechanisms of government and public policy? Perhaps its best legacy will be to move the debate and practices forward for others to then pick them up in turn.

Paul secured an RSA commission to document this event – something he did with skill and style in the short film shown below. You can access the kickstarter campaign via this link, and share it far and wide to your networks.

Democracy between sortition and elections

A debate titled “Democracy between sortition and elections” is planned to take place in Namur, Belgium later this month.

In a context where dissatisfaction with the political system is widely shared, the selection of members of legislative assemblies via sortition seems promising in the sense that it allows exchange of citizens’ opinions outside of any framework of careerist political interest. Presentations by Sébastien Laoureux (professor at the Philosophy and Letters department of the University of Namur) and by Philippe Mahoux (surgeon and honorary senator) will be the opportunity to evaluate the link between democracy and elections before exploring new avenues which current democracy can take.

Sortition in the Bulletin of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics

The Bulletin of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics has published a column of mine that deals with the historical and theoretical connections between democracy and statistical sampling:

Democracy and statistical sampling

For about 2,500 years, statistical sampling was closely linked with democracy. “Selection by lot is natural to democracy, as that by choice [i.e., elections] is to aristocracy,” asserted Aristotle in the 4th century BC, following his own first-hand experience at Athens and the conventional wisdom of his time. Montesquieu concurred in the first half of the 18th century. It was only in the last 200 years, as democracy displaced aristocracy as the legitimate organizing principle of politics, that sortition—the delegation of power by statistical sampling—had to be air-brushed out of history and political science. […]

As part of the attempt to dismiss sampling as a political device it is sometimes claimed today that its use in Athens was motivated by the superstition that randomization allowed the gods to make the selection. However, the historical record indicates that the main motivation behind the practice was the law of large numbers. It was expected that sortition would produce a group that would mirror the population in important respects. This was often stated as an expectation of resemblance between the population and the sample in terms of wealth and social status (i.e., that most members would be poor commoners) but it was taken for granted that these characteristics would be correlated with certain interests and beliefs.

Continue reading

Shallit: The Sortition Solution

Mathematician and professor of computer science Jeffrey Shallit has a post on his blog in which he advocates for sortition. Some excerpts:

The US political system is clearly broken. … Proportional representation is often proposed as a solution to some of these problems. … But this doesn’t resolve the corruption and tribalism problems…

My solution is exotic but simple: sortition, or random representation. Of course, it’s not original with me: we use sortition today to form juries. But I would like to extend it to all legislative bodies.

Here is a brief outline of how it would work. Legislators would be chosen uniformly and randomly from a universal, publicly-available list; perhaps a list of all registered voters.

In each election period (say 2-5 years), a random fraction of all representatives would be completely replaced, perhaps 25-50%. This would allow some institutional memory and expertise to be retained, while insuring that incumbents do not have enough time to build up fiefdoms that lead to corruption.

Sortition could be phased in gradually. For the first 10 years, sortition could be combined with a traditional electoral system, in some proportion that starts small and eventually completely replaces the traditional electoral system. This would increase public confidence in the change, as well as avoiding the problem of a “freshman class” that would be completely without experience.
Continue reading

2017 review – sortition-related events

This is the end-of-year summary of notable sortition related events for 2017.

Readers wrote in their opinion that the most important sortition-related event of 2017 was the adoption by law in Mongolia of deliberative polling as part of its constitutional amendment process. The opinions in the exit survey of the deliberation poll “help shape the process of constitutional amendment the government undertakes”.

This event seems like a natural part of a decades-long trend of declining confidence in electoral systems and a more recent trend of increasing, if very preliminary and tentative, adoption of sortition-based political devices.

Worldwide, trust in elected government in 2017 remained low and showed no signs of recovery.

As in previous years, French speaking countries showed the most noticeable moves toward seeing sortition as a way to redistribute significant political power. In France, two of the three most successful presidential candidates in the 2017 elections, including the winner, Emmanuel Macron, were politicians who made sortition part of the political agenda. In November, La France insoumise allotted members of its constitutional convention. Sortition was also discussed, again and again in French media. Proposals for using sortition in Belgium and Switzerland received some attention.

Elsewhere in Europe, the allotted Irish Citizens’ Assembly sent its recommendations to the parliament with a referendum to follow. Sortition was also adopted by a branch of Podemos is Spain and was promoted by a party in Austria.

In the English speaking world, academics devoted some attention to sortition in workshops at McGill university and at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Outside of academia, a fairly robust polemic for sortition appeared in the US magazine Current Affairs. A book proposing sortition as an add-on to the electoral system was reviewed in the New York Times.

As another indication of increasing prominence of the idea of sortition in establishment circles, former UN secretary general Kofi Annan mentioned sortition in a speech he gave to the Athens Democracy Forum.

Finally, distribution-by-lot received fairly intense attention in Greece in the context of a debate over the mechanism of selection of flag bearers in schools.

Sortition in Switzerland

The Swiss news website 24heures has a story about sortition in Switzerland. (Original in French, my translation, corrections welcome.)

And if parliament members were allotted?

Democracy A seminar examines the use of sortition in Switzerland, which some citizens want to implement.

By Caroline Zuercher, 25.10.2017

Antoine Chollet, research professor at UNIL. Photo: Marius Affolter

Allotment is useful not only for selecting the winners in lotteries. A group of citizens, Generation Nomination, wants to use it for selecting our people’s representatives in Berne. In time, they place to launch a initiative to this effect. The mechanism is far from being new having already been used in ancient Greece. An international seminar, on Friday and Saturday at the university of Lausanne is examining exactly these experiences in Switzerland and in Europe.

Sortition has been used in various contexts. And it has not always been synonymous with democracy. Antoine Chollet, teaching assistant in the University of Lausanne, gives and example. In the 18th century Berne used it to name bailiffs and other magistrates, but only the members of noble families participated in the allotment. The goal was therefore about all to share power among the powerful.

Switzerland had more democratic experiences as well. Studies supported by the National Swiss fund for scientific research examined cases in Schwytz and in Glaris. “There, the people demanded allotment in order to reduce the corruption of the elites and to enhance the circle of powerful families”, explains the researcher. In Glaris at the end of the 18 century, for example, the deputies were for allotted among the entire body of citizens. With limited success: “Our research shows that it was transformed into a form of lottery. Those who were selected could resell their post: that was the great prize!”
Continue reading

Ismael Serageldin: Transparency and Trust in Trying Times

Ismael Serageldin is the Director of the Library of Alexandria, and one of the most well-connected people in the world. In September he delivered a lecture in Latvia (where he was receiving his 38th honorary doctorate) titled “Transparency and Trust in Trying Times” in which he proposes allotting the legislature (PDF). Serageldin developed his enthusiasm for sortition reform after reading David Van Reybrouck’s book Against Elections: The Case for Democracy and Terrill Bouricius’s paper “Democracy Through Multi-Body Sortition: Athenian Lessons for the Modern Day”. This lecture discusses a range of topics revolving around the deficit of democracy, and the portion about his proposal for a legislature through sortition begins on page 18.


We could try to salvage representative democracy – at least for the legislative branch – by adopting a system of sortition.

The problems we see with legislative or parliamentary elections – a backbone of parliamentary representative democracy – can be summed up as:

  • The polarization that leads to paralysis or blockage, as happens in the US congress and as seen in Belgium staying over 500 days without a government.
  • The interference of money in the electoral process which leads to undue influence of the rich, resulting in a generalized feeling of the voters not trusting the parliamentarians or congressmen that they elected.
  • The gerrymandering of individual districts to suit particular interests with a very large preponderance of particular parties wining particular seats
  • The disparity between the shares that different parties get of the actual votes cast and the shares of the seats taken in the parliament
  • The enormous power of incumbency that results in individual deputies being almost invulnerable, with probability of reelection in certain districts exceeding 95%.

Sortition would replace conventional elections. The kind of elections that we have come to take as a given, with political parties vying for power, and entrenched political incumbents getting reelected and a feeling among the public that the elected parliament still does not really represent them, and that in reality things are governed by the elite because money and politics have become too intertwined.

Sortition can respond – at least partially – to these challenges to representative democracy.