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.

Snell: Countries obsessed with sortation likely to be inward looking and self-obsessed

As they describe themselves, James Snell is a senior advisor at the New Lines Institute, currently writing a book on the war in Afghanistan. The New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy is a nonprofit and non-partisan think tank in Washington D.C. working to enhance U.S. foreign policy based on a deep understanding of the geopolitics of the different regions of the world and their value systems.

Snell has a piece in Politico where he expresses his concern about the dangers of what he consistently calls “sortation”. Snell’s concern has seemingly been triggered by the upcoming posthumous publication of Maurice Pope’s book “The Keys to Democracy”.

[T]he ancient Athenians — so admired by the founders of the United States — were ruled by a boule, or a council, where the positions were filled by lot. The same went for Athens’ courts, and Roman juries after the founding of their republic.

There’s something romantic about this notion of a non-representative democracy, of government formed by citizens rather than their elected delegates — so romantic, in fact, that it’s making a comeback.
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Kline: An incorruptible democracy of and for the people

Victor Kline, a barrister from Sydney, is apparently a somewhat well-known person in Australia. In 2019 he founded “The New Liberals” party.

Kline has just published an article calling for replacing elections with sortition.

Winston Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government — except for all the others that have been tried.”

For many of us, this “least worst” argument is getting pretty threadbare, particularly as we watch our democracy sliding further from its defining principles every year.

We know this is due to the rise of the professional politician, whose aim is to promote their own advancement to the exclusion of all else. And to achieve that personal advancement, they have to promote the interests of, essentially, a cadre of multinationals plus Rupert Murdoch. And a few other second-division players like big oil, the unions, lesser Murdoch “lookalikes” and a handful of assorted billionaires.
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Hansen: ancient and modern democracy

In a recent article Dr. Polyvia Parara made reference to a 2005 book by Mogens Herman Hansen, The Tradition of Ancient Greek Democracy and its Importance for Modern Democracy. It turns out this book is available online.

As always, Hansen is a very useful source of information about democracy in the ancient Greek world. In this book, Hansen focuses less on ancient Greece and more on the connections between ancient Greek democracy and “modern democracy”. Hansen rightly points out that, contrary to what some would have us believe (he cites and quotes Hannah Arendt), there is very little evidence for either institutional or ideological continuity between the two periods.

Hansen focuses first on the ideology.

The classical example that inspired the American and French revolutionaries as well as the English radicals was Rome rather than Greece. Thus, the Founding Fathers who met in Philadelphia in 1787, did not set up a Council of the Areopagos, but a Senate, that, eventually, met on the Capitol. And the French constitution of 1799, designed by Sieyès, had no board of strategoi but a triumvirate of consuls.

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Parara: Democracy and the modifiers of modernity

Dr. Polyvia Parara teaches Classics and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Maryland College Park. In a recent article in the English edition of the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, Parara argues that modern Western-system states, conventionally known as “democracies”, are in fact a distortion of the original meaning of democracy, since they do not implement “Isopoliteia” – political equality.

Compared to the original meaning of democracy, it is deduced that modern western societies constitute liberal parliamentary republics protecting individual freedoms and granting rights. They are governed by elected representatives, professional politicians that draw legitimacy by the popular vote. Yet, the citizenry remains limited in the private sphere, not constituting a governing body.

Parara references work of interest by two authors. Continue reading

DemocracyNext

Update: demnext.org now has a video of the launch event. There is also a link to an article by Hélène Landemore and Claudia Chwalisz offering sortition as an alternative to the way that the failed Chilean constitutional proposal was generated (and a tweet-thread with a summary in English.)

DemocracyNext is a new organization featuring a “Who’s Who” of the sortition circles. DemocracyNext‘s press release announcing its launch is here. Some excerpts:

DemocracyNext, a new non-profit, non-partisan research and action institute, which announces its foundation this International Democracy Day, 15 September 2022 – aims to actively help this new democratic paradigm take shape and take hold.

“We believe that another democratic future is possible. We want to design and build new institutions where citizens can hold real decision making power,” said Claudia Chwalisz, chief executive of DemocracyNext. “Our point of departure is that the current electoral system is broken beyond repair. An entirely new framework must be based on full participation, citizen representation by lot, and real deliberation.”
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Nathan Jack: Let’s end elections

Nathan Jack, an attorney in Salt Lake City, is a sortition advocate blogging at democracyplus.substack.com. He has recently written the following article in The Salt Lake Tribune.

Time to replace elections with Democracy+

Picking our leaders at random would be better than hard-fought elections.

Congress is broken. With few legislative accomplishments, we shouldn’t be surprised at its abysmal 16% approval rating. But with midterms approaching, all five Utah incumbents up for election won their primary. And all five are projected to keep their seats.

In states and districts across the country, incumbents easily win reelection. Despite our dissatisfaction with Congress, nothing changes.

This problem lacks an easy solution. Many look to term limits. Sen. Mike Lee himself has long advocated for senators to serve two six-year terms (although he seems unwilling to apply that rule to himself). Others look to campaign finance reform, as fundraising is one of the biggest advantages that incumbents gain. But these measures only treat the symptoms. We need to rid our government of the disease.

The disease? Elections.
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Marcel Monin: What about sortition?

Marcel Monin is a doctor of law. He writes the following in the French website AgoraVox.

What about sortition?

The substance and the goals of decisions made – which elude the people, and the conduct of the elites with regards to the people, especially over the last 5 years, lead sometime to doubt that we are still living in a democracy. Who wants government of the people, by the people, for the people, when those same elites are those standing for election?

The considerations made 2,500 years ago regarding the respective merits of sortition and elections and regarding their practice are again in vogue. Some advocate replacing elections with sortition.

Sortition, it appears, has advantages.

From a technical point of view:

  • It eliminates professionalism and thus the the submission of the elected to the internal rules of attaining and maintaining office (with its implications on the elected-electors relationship).
  • It eliminates the dependence before the elections in groups of financial backers who finance the electoral campaigns and which manipulate the voters through the media they own. (See the ideal-type example of this phenomenon with the candidate Macron.)
  • It overcomes the obstable of campaign cost which keeps the poor away from being candidates, somewhat similar to how things were when only the rich had the vote. The presidential elections show this effect in accentuated to an absurd degree.
  • Statistically, humble people would have less of a chance of being under-represented.

However, still from a technical point of view there are disadvantages. Among them are:
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Sortition on VSauce

VSauce is a popular YouTube channel. The channel, which has millions of subscribers, deals with “scientific, psychological, mathematical, and philosophical topics, as well as gaming, technology, popular culture, and other general interest subjects”.

In April 2021 the channel uploaded a 30-minute video called “The Future Of Reasoning”. The video is a bit of grab bag of ideas and topics, but the main message seems to be that in order to deal with global warming the human race (or the West, or the US) needs to improve the way in which it makes decisions, and that this improvement could involve relying on sortition. “Lottocracy” is presented and argued for starting about 26 minutes into the video and Aristotle is quoted about 28 minutes in. According to YouTube, the video has been watched 6.5 million times – quite a nice exposure to the idea of sortition.

The classical unities

According to Wikipedia, it was Italian Renaissance philosopher Gian Giorgio Trissino who came up with the “classical unities” as a prescriptive theory of dramatic tragedy. The three unities are:

  • Unity of action: a tragedy should have one principal action.
  • Unity of time: the action in a tragedy should occur over a period of no more than 24 hours.
  • Unity of place: a tragedy should exist in a single physical location.

When considering how sortition (and elections) can be conducted in a way that would be resistant to manipulation, such unities are crucial, argues Trent Clark in an article in the Idaho State Journal.

Ancient Athens was home to one of the world’s first democracies. The Greek orator and reformer Cleisthenes initiated citizen “voting” in 508 BC. His solution: Give every voter one black stone and one white stone. On each decision, whether to go to war, accept a treaty, send trade delegations, etc., the citizens would cast a stone (white for “yes,” black for “no”) into a jar. The contents of the jar determined the policy of the city. As many as 6,000 Athenians would participate.

In early Athens, serving in government was a civic obligation, like jury duty today. Military assignments were based on skill with weapons and history as a soldier. But other posts were randomly drawn, a process called “sortition.” Tokens with a citizen’s name, or pinakia, were arranged across a large flat tablet or kleroterion. Multi-colored dice were used to select rows and columns, pointing to a random name for each open position.

Cleisthenes found it essential that all this occur at a known location, at a designated time, in public. Citizens needed to see that the process was not rigged or “fixed” by the city’s tribal bosses.