Sortition in the New Yorker, again

For the second time in less than a year, sortition is mentioned in the New Yorker. Last time, it was merely an off-handed comment. This time, sortition is front and center. Nathan Heller’s article is built around an interview with Hélène Landemore. Alexander Guerrero also gets quoted.

Landemore’s ideal is participative, but she seems to be working with a rather loose concept for her proposals:

What distinguishes Landemore’s ideal from other lottocratic models, such as Guerrero’s, is the breadth of her funnel: the goal is to involve as much of the public organically in as many decisions as possible. Her open-democratic process also builds in crowdsourced feedback loops and occasional referendums (direct public votes on choices) so that people who aren’t currently governing don’t feel shut out.

As evidence that open democracy can work in large[…,] culturally diverse societies, Landemore points to France’s Great National Debate—a vast undertaking involving a vibrant online forum, twenty-one citizens’ assemblies, and more than ten thousand public meetings, held in the wake of the gilets jaunes protests, in 2019—and, this year, to the country’s Citizens’ Convention on Climate Change.

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Paul Rosenfeld: Criminally Sane

Paul Rosenfeld, a sortition activist who had been jailed for actions related to his activism, has written a book which is a combination of a memoir and a political manifesto. I find that Rosenfeld writes very eloquently. The manifesto part is also available at

In his autobiographical snippet on, Rosenfeld writes:

I guess we all have our issues. I imagine I have the power to save the world and that my book, “Criminally Sane”, will somehow facilitate said miracle. Excluding this glaring pathology I guess I’m otherwise reasonably normal. I have a long suffering spouse, two adorable poodles and a modest home in the suburbs of NY. If you wish to diagnose me fully you need to read my book, this memoir will tell you everything you could possibly want to know and then some. When you’re finished maybe you can even talk me down from my delusion.

Costa Delgado and Moreno Pestaña: Democracy and sortition: Reasons for using randomness

A new book, The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary European Social Movements, has a chapter by Jorge Costa Delgado and José Luis Moreno Pestaña named “Democracy and sortition: Reasons for using randomness”. The authors summarize their chapter as follows:

The use of sortition accompanies the renewal of debates on democracy. In this chapter, following a brief overview of a few general traits pertaining to the political use of sortition, we will study its fundamental contributions on three levels. First of all, we will analyze how random selection can contribute to renewing the debate about the knowledge necessary to participate politically. For that we will develop four logical possibilities following the discussion between Socrates and Protagoras in Plato’s homonymous dialogue, and, subsequently, they will be exemplified through the debate regarding sortition in the Spanish political party Podemos as context for reference. Secondly, we will address the problem of sortition and its double potential to motivate participation and demotivate unwanted behaviour and profiles. In this case, illustrative examples will be taken stemming from the authors’ own ethnographic experience. Lastly, it will be argued that sortition serves to produce a particular moral content within political participation, based on the idea that politics are a civic virtue, essential to the development of human capabilities, that must be stimulated and distributed en masse. This perspective contrasts with logics deeply rooted in activist environments that, often hinder the declared objectives of those who are members of them, specially the alternation, when we think of political participation, between the ideology of the gift and the professional one.

Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections translated to Japanese

Prof. Seiki Okazaki of Kyushu University, Japan, wrote to draw attention to the publication of a translation of David Van Reybrouck’s book Against Elections to Japanese. It seems the book has generated significant interest in Japan. Prof. Okazaki attributes the positive reception to some extent to the fact that sortition-based judicial institutions have been part of the Japanese system for a decade.

The Japanese translation of David Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections (Tegen Verkiezingen) appeared in April 2019 […] Three of the four national newspapers published a book review: the Yomiuri Shimbun on May 19, the Asahi Shimbun on June 1, and the Nikkei on August 10. Many regional newspapers printed a book review transmitted by Kyodo News. Other newspapers and magazines also reviewed the book favourably. Supported by these reviews, the book was reprinted as early as September 2019.

2019 marked the 10th anniversary of the the lay judge trial system and of the mandatory prosecution through citizen review of non-charge decisions. These are both reforms related to the criminal justice system in Japan enhancing the participation of citizens using sortition in a procedure that was until then exclusive territory of professionals. As the Supreme Court noted, the lay judge system has become well accepted and acquired legitimacy in Japanese society. Japanese citizens have become familiar with sortition in the judicial system and realize how this enhances quality and democracy in the courts. This is probably one of the reasons that Japanese citizens are interested in the central arguments developed in Against Elections and why sortition was not immediately rejected a proposal unfeasible for Japanese society.

However, the most important factor for the book’s success is the wide and deep distrust of party politics. Opinion polls show that about 40 percent of Japanese voters support no political party.

OKAZAKI Seiki, one of the translators of Against Elections, proposed to replace the elected House of Councillors with the sorted House of Citizens. He suggests that the sorted House can exercise veto power over the decisions of the elected House (Okazaki Seiki, “Election and Sortition,” Kenpo-kenkyu (Review of Constitutional Law), No. 5, November 2019, pp. 87-96. Written in Japanese).

2019 review – sortition-related events

As I have done at every end-of-year of the last 9, I am offering my summary of notable sortition-related events that occurred over the last year.

As polls indicate that people continue to believe that governments do not represent them, the idea of the single-issue citizens’ assembly made strides in various European countries in 2019. In France, the Citizens’ Climate Convention is taking place, where 150 allotted people are tasked with selecting ways to address the climate crisis. This body is relatively high profile and received attention by various writers. A similar body is being demanded in the UK by the Extinction Rebellion movement.

Scotland had a citizens’ assembly for “shaping Scotland’s future”.

Participations journal devoted a special issue to sortition. 24 papers dealt with various aspects of the topic. The book Legislature by Lot, with the papers from a workshop by the same name was also published.

A citizens’ assembly on Brexit was widely discussed in the UK.

A permanent allotted body was instituted by the German speaking community in Belgium and by City Hall in Madrid.

The increasing use of allotted citizen bodies resulted in increasing scrutiny of the ways in which they are constituted and run, as well as their institutional role.

Kovner: The Jurga System

A post by Alex Kovner.

In The Jurga System, I outline a complete democracy centered around citizen juries. At its core is a sharp division of democratic policy making into proposing and deciding. While this is conceptually simple, it is surprisingly difficult in practice. Doing so requires liberal use of the “blind break” to ensure that proposers cannot corrupt the decision process, and vice-versa. The book looks at this dynamic in great detail as it applies to all branches of government.

While the scheme outlined here will not be implemented anytime soon, it is a good thought experiment regarding what a complete political system based on citizen panels might look like. It also suggests a different direction from what we see today: instead of open-ended citizen assemblies tasked with generating grandiose proposals, we should prioritize citizen juries with narrower mandates but binding authority to act. Only this way will sortition become a regular, indispensable feature of democracy.

Full text available to download:

The principles of representative government and the French sortitionists

A fun paper paper by Samuel Hayat, “La carrière militante de la référence à Bernard Manin dans les mouvements français pour le tirage au sort”, Participations 2019/HS (Hors Série) [original in French, abstract in English], tells the story of how Bernard Manin’s book The principles of representative government came to play a role in the sortitionist movement in France. The bottom line, according to Hayat’s telling, is that it is all Etienne Chouard’s doing. Hayat also claims that Manin’s book was not the source of the reformists’ interest in sortition but rather that they, and in fact mostly Chouard himself, used the book, with its impeccable academic credentials, as a legitimating force for their position.

Hayat’s paper seems to serve as the starting point for Antoine Chollet (“Les postérités inattendues de Principes du gouvernement représentatif : une discussion avec Bernard Manin” by
Antoine Chollet and Bernard Manin, Participations 2019/1 (N° 23)”, [original in French, abstract in English]) and for his claim that Manin’s book was misunderstood by both activists and scholars as a polemic in favor of sortition, when in fact Manin is pretty happy with elections, which he sees as mixing democratic and aristocratic elements.
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