Fishkin: Random Assemblies for Lawmaking? Prospects and Limits

James Fishkin’s contribution to the September 2017 workshop “Legislature by Lot” was titled “Random Assemblies for Lawmaking? Prospects and Limits”:

A randomly selected microcosm of the people can usefully play an official role in the lawmaking process. However, there are serious issues to be confronted if such a random sample were to take on the role of a full-scale, full-time second chamber. Some skeptical considerations are detailed. There are also advantages to short convenings of such a sample to take on some of the roles of a second chamber. This article provides a response to the skeptical considerations. Precedents from ancient Athens show how such short-term convenings of a deliberating microcosm can be positioned before, during, or after other elements of the lawmaking process. The article draws on experience from Deliberative Polling to show how this is both practical and productive for the lawmaking process.

Athens, corruption, Deliberative Polling, elections, minipublics, nomothetai, representative democracy, sortition

In arguing for short term “Delibertive Polls”, Fishkin offers three problems with long-term allotted chambers: (1) lack of technical expertise, (2) potential for corruption, and (3) not maintaining what he calls “the conditions for deliberation”.
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Dan Hind: The Cooperative State

Dan Hind proposes using sortition to achieve a “cooperative state”.

Rather refreshingly Hind rejects the “modernization” argument:

I do not propose far-reaching constitutional change in Britain or the United States because the current arrangements are irrational or anachronistic. On the contrary, these arrangements are, for the most part, rational and frighteningly up-to-date.

Hind’s proposal is an elections-sortition hybrid:

The idea is not to do away with elections. Some offices require technical abilities or experience and election does not seem like a terrible way of filling them, even if at times it is hard to imagine a worse person for an elected office than the person holding it. But it does not follow that public office should be monopolised by those who, for whatever reason, manage to win an election. Indeed, if representation is to retain its authority, it will have to be supplemented by more properly democratic institutional forms.

Hind seems to fall into an obvious fallacy: the simple point that not every position should be filled by lot does very little to advance the argument that some positions should be filled by election.

That said, Hind does propose to invest allotted bodies with some real powers of oversight:
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Venice and Why Sortition is Not Enough

Without much commentary, given the high level of knowledge and debate on this blog, I share an important document about elections in Ancient Venice. As most here will know, I hold it that ‘pure’ sortition is a suitable and necessary tool for democracy. However, it is also an insufficient one, as has been criticised already at the time of sortition’s outset, with the powerful “Socratic Objection” as documented by Xenophon. Today, I describe the missing element specifically for appointments to positions of power.

As most here will know, the Ancient Venetians combined sortition with elections in multiple iterations to determine their leadership, the Doge. Their success with this add-on innovation was superior to the Athenians, as evidenced by the significantly longer duration of their system. Now, there clearly were flaws, room for improvement, as their system ended by reversal to today’s unfortunate party system but that’s for another day.

So far, most scientific papers on this topic have been descriptive. Now Miranda Mowbray, and Dieter Gollmann of the Enterprise Systems and Storage Laboratory at
HP Bristol expand the debate with this paper on the mathematical properties of the Venetian method in avoiding usurpation of power while still finding the best leadership. The authors have their mind on applications in distributed computing security, but for us here, the advantages for a more mundane topic such as democracy may be good enough to give it some thought.


As an aside, the statutes of G!LT in Austria therefore employ the Venetian model for all executive leadership elections. My rationale is that the party system with its unholy alliance with mass media rewards showmanship and superficiality, as evidenced by the high proportion of TV Actors and Reality Show Stars in top jobs. Instead G!LT’s protocol ensures a reasonably self-experienced, direct, personal knowledge of a candidate’s ability and suitability for an executive position. For those who read German, here to the Statutes of G!LT. For those who don’t there is Google Translate.

Tim Dunlop: It’s time to replace voting with sortition

In 2014 Tim Dunlop had just been introduced to the idea of sortition by David Van Reybrouck. He was “not completely convinced by his [Van Reybrouck’s] argument, but [was] sufficiently incensed by our current parliamentary democracy and its many failures to at least consider what he suggests.”

Four years later, Dunlop has written a book advocating sortition, and has an article in the Guardian that opens with an unambiguous statement:

If we want to fix the way our governments work, the first thing we should do is replace voting with sortition in at least some of our governing bodies.

Like many feel-good reformists, Dunlop puts much emphasis on the potential for fostering deliberation, trust and respect amongst the members of the allotted chamber and by extension, in the population at large. However, bucking the norm among such reformists (including Van Reybrouck), Dunlop’s message is very clearly democratic in the most fundamental sense (i.e., making power representative) and his rejection of elections and its elitist implications is uncompromising.

If we are really serious about bottom-up reform of our democratic institutions, then reforming the seat of government itself in this way, a way that installs ordinary people at the heart of power, is essential. Our neoliberal economy and the representative form of government that dominates our societies do everything they can to divide us from and pit us against each other. A People’s House transcends these divisions and brings us together. The basic concept of sortition is pretty straight-forward, and introducing it as a replacement for voting in, say, the Australian Senate, while leaving that body’s other powers intact, represents, at least administratively, fairly minimalist change. But on every other level, the potential effect is explosive. In one fell swoop, you diminish the power of the parties and that of many of the lobbyists who exist to influence their decisions. You transform the way in which the media covers politics. You hand control of at least part of the legislative process to a genuinely representative sample of the population as whole, rather than vesting it in a bunch of elites and their representatives. You empower people in a way that the current system could never hope to do, and you reconnect our chief democratic institution with the life in common.

Nothing is going to change until the main source of power in our society, our seat of government, is populated by people who are genuinely representative of the society at large. We have been taught forever that the way to do that is by voting, but that is simply wrong, and the quicker we unlearn it the better, no matter how counterintuitive it might seem at first. If you want a truly representative government of, by and for the people, then you need to choose it not by voting, but by sortition.

1768: Scheme of a Political Lottery, for the Peace of the Kingdom

The following letter to the Political Register and Impartial Review of New Books, printed in London in 1768, offers sortition of parliament as a way to remedy the corruption of elections. Thanks to Terry Bouricius for drawing attention to this historical piece.

Scheme of a Political Lottery, for the Peace of the Kingdom

It is proposed, on or soon after the breaking up of the present parliament, to open a lottery of 2262 tickets at 1000l. each, three blanks to one prize; which prize shall entitle the possessor to a seat in parliament for the place therein mentioned: by which scheme the noisy and expensive business of electioneering (which puts the whole kingdom in ferment) will be over in two hours, many people have an opportunity of serving their country cheap, and much bribary and corruption be prevented.

The the produce (deducting five per cent. to be set apart for guzzle, and to be equally distributed in every borough) be applied towards paying the national debt. That the lottery be drawn in the court of requests, on the day appointed for the meeting of p——t, and that the members so elected do immediately adjourn to the house of commons, appoint a speaker, &c. and then proceed to business. This will effectually prevent all designs of bad ministers, and more especially if their tools should draw blanks, as no person can have more than one ticket, and that not transferable; lest the courtiers, nabobs, or adventurers, should engrose the whole and buy and sell the nation.

Sortition advocate arrested for allegedly planning to blow himself up on election day

On October 10th, various news outlets have reported that the FBI has arrested Paul Rosenfeld in NY, USA for allegedly planning to blow himself up with the goal of drawing public attention to the idea of sortition. The New York Daily News writes:

Rockland County man arrested for building 200-pound bomb, plotting to detonate it in DC on election day

A Rockland County man who cops say built a 200-pound bomb he was planning to explode in Washington, D.C., in an Election Day suicide attack was arrested Wednesday.

Paul Rosenfeld, 56, of Tappan, was busted on federal charges of manufacturing an explosive device.

“As alleged, Paul M. Rosenfeld concocted a twisted plan to draw attention to his political ideology by killing himself on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. — risking harm to many others in the process,” U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said.

“Rosenfeld’s alleged plan for an Election Day detonation cut against our democratic principles.”

NBC News write:

New York man wanted to blow himself up on the National Mall on Election Day

Paul Rosenfeld was arrested on charges that he built a bomb and planned to kill himself with it to draw attention to beliefs in ancient election system.

The FBI has arrested an upstate New York man accused of building a bomb that he intended to use to blow himself up on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Election Day, authorities said Wednesday.

Court documents say Paul Rosenfeld, 56, of Tappan, wanted to draw attention to his belief in “sortition,” the ancient practice of randomly selecting legislators out of a pool of eligible voters.

The press release by the U.S. Department of Justice is here.

In 2015 Paul Rosenfeld has published an essay on Equality by Lot titled “The Extinction of Politics“. The article has been linked to by some of the reports of the arrest.

Hugo Bonin: Democracy by lottery

The newspaper Le Journal de Montréal has an article by Jacques Lanctôt about Hugo Bonin’s book, La Democratie Hasardeuse [Original in French, my translation].

Games of chance in politics

“With luck, things will turn out well.” Who has not heard this saying at some point? A chance encounter, a decision taken offhandedly, a delay that turned out for the best, any of those may change our life.

Hugo Bonin believes that luck may be beneficial in politics as well even if it is not a magical solution to all our problems of representation. In a well structured essay, well supported by numerous concrete examples stretching as far back as antiquity (Athens and Rome) and where a future that is almost within our reach is imagined, Bonin aims to show that sortition is a hundred-fold better than the so-called representative elections.

Sortition has its limits but its great merit is that it takes no account of distinctions between races, genders, ages or social classes. John and Jane Doe are worth just as much as the elitist clique of doctors, lawyers and businessmen who have been governing us for too long a time.

More “egalitarian”
In an electoral regime such as the one know here and elsewhere in the West, the voters vote to elect the supposedly better candidate. While in an allotment system, the notion of “better” does not exist because everybody are equally politically qualified. Thus, this is “an egalitarian and a democratic procedure” where all external considerations are excluded.

Random selection is already practiced here in Québec and elsewhere. We need only consider jury selection in a criminal trial. Made of lay people rather than experts, following the British law, this jury is called upon to analyze the evidence and render a decision after deliberation.
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