C.E. Johnson: The Democracy Machine

C.E. Johnson is a multi-disciplinary visual artist working and living in Alabama.
Johnson’s work The Democracy Machine is currently on exhibit in the Contemporary Arts Center of New Orleans. The work is inspired the Athenian kleroterion. It

can be used as an object of meditation for healing in a time of disillusionment with Alabama-based politics. It is an artifact from an alternate history of the state where elections were given up to pure chance and a monument to the ideals of democracy in its authentic form.

Samarajiva: Sortition, How Could It Be Worse?

Indi Samarajiva, a writer living in Colombo, Sri Lanka, writes:

Abolish Politicians — Why We Should Just Put Random People In Office

Even the Athenians had elections for certain positions, like generals, jobs requiring expertise. Then the question is, doesn’t being a modern legislator require expertise? Look, it certainly wouldn’t hurt, but look around. Are we ruled by experts? This hypothetical is really not how things have worked out, and we’ve tried it for decades.

Today we elect the children of past rulers, which is straight feudal, and the people that scream the loudest, which is straight demagoguery, and people who simple have enough money to run, which is straight oligarchy. The only people that get there by pure merit are hard-working criminals and a few excellent speakers and true leaders. We act like the latter is the rule, when in fact it is the exception. We’re literally sending our worst.

The arguments against sortition are that we need educated, experienced people in Parliament, but these are fundamentally classist notions.

The whole idea of ‘education’ or qualification is based on the idea that a third-generation Harvard fuckboi is a better person than a plumber. It’s based on the idea that rich criminals must be doing something right, so why not run for office? It’s the idea that stay-at-home moms are dumber than lawyers, or that a poor person cannot possibly contribute to our democracy. The ancients would say yes to a lot of this, but they would do it at the citizenship level. Because they weren’t hypocrites. We need to drop the hypocrisy and look at our actual values, and if we’re living up to them.
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Wang Shaoguang and Yves Sintomer on sortition

A 2019 hour-long discussion on sortition at Shandong University with Wang Shaoguang and Yves Sintomer was recently published by its moderator, Daniel A. Bell.

This is a rather wide ranging discussion, and its lack of focus is somewhat of a flaw, in my opinion. Ideas on various matters are expressed. Many of those are well-hashed ideas, and the discussants are content to simply repeat them rather than examine them critically.

One idea that I think is relatively novel is briefly offered by Sintomer toward the end when Bell asks for proposals for applying sortition:

I would give the power to citizen juries randomly selected to judge politicians, when they are accused of misbehavior. Because I don’t trust other politicians to do this, as in Brazil or in the USA, where the impeachment is voted by the Congress. I think it’s a bad setting. And I don’t trust judges for judging politicians. Because judges are a very specific, professional body, and very often, a highly conservative body. I trust more randomly selected citizens to judge politicians when they are accused of misbehavior.

Varoufakis on democracy

An excerpt from a 2019 discussion between Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek economist and politician, leader of the MeRA25 party, and Caroline Lucas, the only Green Party UK MP.

CL: Your country is seen as the birthplace of democracy. In your opinion has there ever been a really good democracy we can look at and say, ‘That was when it was working well’?

YV: Democracy is always unfinished business. It is imperfect by design, especially in societies with vested interests vying for domination. But the merits of studying ancient Athenian democracy, which only lasted a few decades, is that it was the first and last time the poor controlled the government. Which is, interestingly, Aristotle’s definition of democracy. It was a remarkably radical idea that control over the instruments of the state should be independent of wealth.

CL: How did it work?

YV: Back in the times of the grand debates at the Pnyx, which was the parliamentary space in ancient Athens, there were two opposing parties: the Aristocrats and the Democrats. The Aristocrats hated democracy with a passion – but all the great philosophers we now eulogise like Aristotle and Plato were on the side of the Aristocrats. Nevertheless, the Aristocrats, who hated democracy, supported elections. And the Democrats did not.

CL: That sounds very paradoxical.

YV: The argument was that the Aristocrats could afford to buy influence in an election, so elections were an enemy of democracy. Democrats supported a lottery – sortition, as it is called today. Every official position in Athenian democracy was elected by lottery, including judges. Their terms were confined to six months. The only posts not sorted by lottery were the general, who had to know how to conduct a war, and bankers. The officials responsible for minting the money and for quality control of products like wine were slaves. Why? Because citizens had the right not to be beaten. Slaves did not. The idea was that bankers had to fear that they would be beaten up if they messed up the finances of the city. I think this is a splendid proposal for the City of London!
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Rothchild: “Ancient wisdom” in MI’s new redistricting process

John Rothchild, Professor of Law at Wayne State University, writes approvingly in The Conversation about Michigan’s new allotted electoral redistricting commission. Rather naively, Rothchild seems to believe that democratic redistricting could result in the selection of “representatives who truly reflect [citizens’] political preferences”. Alas, this is more than mere redistricting can deliver, however well done.

How, then, should Michigan’s decision to assign unskilled members of the public the job of drawing nonpartisan election districts be evaluated?

Redistricting is a complex task. Michigan’s Constitution says that the districts must be drawn in compliance with federal law. That includes a requirement that voting districts have roughly the same population. It also requires that the districts “reflect the state’s diverse population and communities of interest,” and “not provide a disproportionate advantage to any political party.”

Dividing the map to meet all of these criteria is not likely to be within the capabilities of a group of randomly selected citizens.

There are several reasons to think that the redistricting commission will nevertheless prove adequate to the task.
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Cirone: Lotteries in Political Selection

A 2019 paper by Alexandra Cirone, Assistant Professor of Government at Cornell University, is titled “When democracy is broken roll the dice: Lotteries in political selection”.

There is a long tradition in political science and law that analyzes the benefits of lotteries in political selection (Manin 1997; Elster 1989; Engelstad 1989; Dowlen 2009; Duxbury 1999; Ober 1993 among many others). Most readers will be familiar with selection by lottery – also called sortition – where individuals are randomly chosen for political office.

The element of chance in a lottery has always captured our imaginations. Yet from a policy perspective, lotteries are now being proposed in various forms to address democratic deficits. Lottery-based selection of high-ranking politicians have been suggested for the national parliaments of the UK and France, as well as for the supranational institutions of the European Union. Citizens assemblies have been implemented in a wide range of countries, at both the local and national levels (Fishkin 2011).

However, lottery-based political selection is no panacea. There are a number of shortcomings to these processes. First, no matter which selection rule, it is likely that elites can still be disproportionately involved in politics, and lotteries don’t insulate all democratic institutions from partisan or corrupt pressures. Second, politics benefits from investment in expertise and career politicians; the uncertainty inherent in random selection of permanent institutions could disincentivize potential candidates from acquiring skills or experience. Alternatively, problems with recruitment and attrition from selected citizens will always be an issue with lottery-based selection; and randomly chosen officials might lack democratic legitimacy, which could impair their ability to do their job well. Third, even implementing lotteries in the form of temporary citizens assemblies require time, resources, and careful design of the process. Lotteries are also difficult to endogenously implement, particularly at top levels of governance — political parties and other groups are too invested in current systems of selection, so it is unlikely we will see a return to the pure sortition of ancient times.

Still, there is distinct promise to the use of lotteries in political selection, to help include more citizens in the democratic process. By examining unique institutional experimentation in the past, and by adapting democratic initiatives based on more recent instances of lottery-based selection, it may be possible to alleviate current democratic shortcomings.

Knowing your arse from your Albo: how political parties might access the ‘blind break’ to get better leaders

Herewith a brief post I wrote for my (mostly Australian) audience sketching out one possible use of sortition within a political party rather than the political system itself. As those reading this blog with any attentiveness will know, this is part of my own approach to sortition as one of a number of ‘hacks’ that can help unpick some of the pathologies of oligarchies of various kinds both specific and systemic.

A lottery is a defensible way of making a decision when, and to the extent that, it is important that bad reasons be kept out of the decision.
Peter Stone

Left of centre parties have been serving up seriously, obviously bad candidates for years now. That happened at the last election in the US and will happen at the next one. It’s happened at the last two elections in Australia and looks like happening at the next one. This nearly happened to the Liberal Government in Australia when they nearly acquired Peter Dutton as leader.

Why?
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Burnheim and Gruen on the path toward sortition

An exchange between John Burnheim and Nicholas Gruen on the way to introduce sortition into contemporary political systems.

Burnheim:

Scrap attempts to reforming politics as a whole. From a practical point of view attempts to do so by legal constitutional change have no possibility of succeeding from a theoretical point of view, it is folly to assume that if we agree broadly about principle and are motivated to act we will reach a practical agreement. As soon as you analyse the range of possibilities that emerge once one envisages ways of putting all those abstract principles into practice, the more one runs into a host of incompatible proposals.

IIUC, Burnheim argues that the political system either fails to recognize “known and recognised needs” or fails to recognize that established policy does not address those needs. Bodies that are supposed to recognize and address the needs “operate primarily in the interests of those who have power […] rather than the public interest”.

My view is that while it’s no panacea, [there] is likely to be a very effective role for specialised committees of citizens chosen by sortition. I also think that sortition for very specialised tasks is the way forward for many public activities. Don’t concentrate on what juries can’t do, but on instances where they are likely to do something useful.

Gruen:

There are three ‘poles’ of democracy. Direct democracy is one way to do democracy – but it’s both impractical and ill-advised even as an ideal in my view. This leaves representative democracy and I can think of two very different ways of selecting representatives. Competitively through elections and via sortition.

My entire program revolves around finding whatever ways might be possible to inject the latter into a system dominated by the former – whether those ways are large or small.
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Shaw: A transfer of power from the elite to the masses

Ethan Shaw advocates sortition in International Policy Digets:

Voter reform in America aims to increase turnout in elections, however, this focus dismisses the glaring weaknesses of the American democratic process. Congressional approval ratings are abysmally low, and you have probably heard the phrase “Congress is not doing their job” countless times. The problem is not about the accessibility to the ballot box; it is the inconsequentiality of voting that keeps people home on election day. So how does one solve the systemic issues with Congress that promotes voter apathy? By going back to the birthplace of democracy.

A Civic Duty to Legislate

The United States should have mandatory legislative service. Ancient Athenian citizens were randomly selected to serve a 1-year term in a legislative assembly. This process is known as sortition and has been purported by democratic reformists across the globe. In the American political discourse, sortition has never been fully discussed as a viable replacement to the current legislative infrastructure. Many individuals scoff at the idea, worried that random selection will create a legislature full of inept buffoons.

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Wachtel: Let’s Choose Legislators Randomly from the Phone Book

Ted Wachtel is the founder of a political organization called “Building A New Reality“. He is a sortition advocate.