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 and feminism

Through a pingback to a 2013 post of mine on this subject, I became aware of two pieces on the issue of sortition and feminism. The first is “Random Voting and the Path to Gender Equality”, a recent post by Mariam Nasser on the website of the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut. Here is an excerpt:

We desperately need women in politics. Through sortition, no candidate is at an unfair advantage that usually breeds sexism and/or different forms of discrimination. Women no longer have to fear biased public opinion or the inability to procure campaigning funds due to a lack of bank and corporation backing, with sexist political justifications, of course. The corporations need the candidate to push their agenda, and if the voters are not supporting the female candidate, the corporations lose their money on a failed campaign. Women no longer have to fear misogynistic “she only got there because she slept around” remarks from others. They become free to exercise their political rights in a positive, engaging environment that fosters communication and wants what is best for society as a whole.

Nasser’s post cites a 2015 paper by Arina Antonia Iacob from the National University of Political Science and Public Administration, Bucharest, Romania:

A feminist perspective on political sortition

Abstract: In this paper, I will try to analyze the extent in which feminists might take part in the political comeback of sortition. In the first section I will discuss the political implication of this mechanism and the arguments raised by those in favor of a political lottery. In the second section there will be an emphasis on the importance of descriptive representation in general, focusing on the feminist perspective, while talking about the idea of implementing gender quotas. Also, I will put forward a discussion surrounding various empirical studies that revealed the effects of gender quotas. At last, in the third section, I will try to point out the negative effects of gender quotas and the manner in which these can be avoided by using sortition, by referencing the basic principles of this random mechanism which can be used in association with the feminist principles.

A graphic novel advocating sortition

A new short illustrated fictional work set 5 years into the future follows Tom, an Architecture student in Marseille, who is allotted to sit on the French National Assembly. The work, written (in French) by Béatrice and Salomé Mabilon, is entitled Nous ne sommes pas en démocratie: Plaidoyer pour le tirage au sort (We are not living in a democracy: a plea for sortition) and is available both in print and as an e-book. Béatrice Mabilon is a professor of education and has written in the past in favor of sortition.

Excerpt (my translation):

Julien [Tom’s assistant, who is also a former allotted representative]: “At the beginning when I was allotted it was like a blank page, I felt like anything is possible. But we had a long way to go. In the previous system, power was arrogated by an oligarchy that formed a closed circle. The representative system was in crisis…”
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The psychological effects of competitive selection vs. selection by luck

One hardly needs to rely on psychological mechanisms when asserting that electoral elites can be expected to be self-serving. On the contrary, it is claims that electoral elites would not be self-serving that need to be well-justified, since it is conventional wisdom, that is usually completely uncontroversial, that any group of people is by its nature self-serving – i.e., using whatever power is in its possession to promote group objectives. Nothing makes more sense than for a political elite – electoral or otherwise – to use its privileged position to promote its interests, at the expense of those less privileged if need be.

It is sometimes asserted that this natural tendency toward self-serving behavior is a problem for allotted decision-makers as well. Those allotted decision-makers, it is claimed, having found themselves in a position of power will then use this power to promote their group interests – again, at the expense of the non-allotted if need be. This argument, however, ignores the fact that the situation of the allotted and the situation of the elected (or of the elite of any other political system) is different in very important ways.
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Bootstrapping a democratic system

Setting up a large-scale democratic system presents a bootstrapping problem. It may be hoped that a large-scale democratic system is stable. That is, that once a democratic system is in place then it continues to function democratically and power does not spontaneously become concentrated leading to an oligarchical system. But even if this is the case, it would not imply that there is a realistic way to create a democratic system starting from an oligarchical one. Contrary to Western dogma, it is clear that large-scale democracy is not a spontaneously occurring phenomenon. Not only are some oligarchical system rather stable (with quite a few instances of the Western oligarchical system having survived for over 70 years), but, more importantly, once an oligarchical system destabilizes, often – in fact, historically, almost uniformly – the outcome is another oligarchical regime. The question then is how can the destabilization of an oligarchical regime, a phenomenon that seems to be happening now in various Western countries, become an opportunity for a transition to a democratic system.

Presumably, based on the historical record, some fairly stringent preconditions are necessary. A popular democratic sentiment is of course required. However, such sentiment is far from sufficient since without some theoretical understanding of the mechanisms that are required in order to set up a democratic system, the sentiment cannot be translated into democratic institutional structure. Specifically, when the misconception that an elected constitutional assembly and more generally elections are foundations of a democratic system is widely held, then it is quite unlikely that a democratic system would be created.

But let us assume that the situation is favorable:

1. There is widespread popular support for sortition,
2. Following some systemic upheaval or destabilization, an allotted body was formed with a mandate for putting in place a new institutional political system.
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The End of Elections?

The convergence of advances in technology and research in emotions coupled to the drive to control the outcomes of elections is exposing a major problem in the United States, and possibly elsewhere. In this article I explain the problem and offer a familiar solution: citizens’ assemblies. Although not covered in the article, it indirectly offers a strong reason why our movement is running out of time.

We are moving toward a world where enough personally identifiable emotion data is becoming available to profile and subtly shape the thinking of a wide range of voters, which would give control of the outcomes of elections to those who own our data. This election singularity is almost invisible and, on the individual level, easily dismissed with a claim that “I won’t be influenced in this way.”

UK government as seen by UK citizens

A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in the UK has some new data about the opinions of the UK citizens about their government. The findings, showing low levels of satisfaction and trust in the system, are not surprising, but useful in giving some details and in showing that no significant change in the general negative sentiment has taken place.

Contrary to the supposed polarization, there exist a wide consensus regarding the oligarchical nature of the system. UK citizens across the political spectrum see the voters as having little influence compared to party donors, business, media and lobbyists. There is also a widespread agreement that politicians “do not understand the lives” of typical people and that “democracy in Britain does not serve [their] interests”.

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Landa and Pevnick invoke the magic of electoral accountability

A 2021 article by Dimitri Landa and Ryan Pevnick of New York University titled “Is Random Selection a Cure for the Ills of Electoral Representation?” is another indication that sortition may be slowly becoming a political option that needs to be fended off, even in the conservative Anglophone political science academia. The short answer of the paper to its own title is of course a resounding “No!”.

The second paragraph of the paper starts by saying the following:

Our goal in what follows is to develop considerations that have been largely overlooked in conversation regarding the merits of sortition-based proposals, and that should inform our assessment of the viability of those proposals as corrections and alternatives to electoral mechanisms. At the core of those considerations is the analysis of incentives facing citizens and public officials under different institutional schemes.

It turns out that this is a long winded way of saying that sortition is deficient because, unlike elections, it does not provide decision makers with counter-incentives to the inevitable tendency for corruption – i.e., using their political power for their personal benefit. Over and over, in various guises, the article makes the same argument: election provide some mechanism for motivating officials to please the population (namely, their wish to be re-elected), even if in reality this mechanism does not seem to function very well. Sortition on the other hand just lets officials do as they please. The supposed shortcomings of sortition are accentuated by the assertion that empowering an allotted body to make decisions reflects an ideology of “deference” toward that body, which certainly sounds like an anti-democratic, even authoritarian, mindset. In contrast, elections, the authors say, is based on a principle of “accountability” – which, is obviously as democratic as apple pie.
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Pek: Sortition as the remedy for organizational degeneration in worker-owned firms

It is undebatable that in Western societies private firms are oligarchical institutions in which power is concentrated in the hands of the few. It is therefore not surprising that it is frequently argued that a major front in the struggle for democratization of Western society is the workplace. It is further argued that the democratic alternative to private firms are worker-owned firms. Such an argument, however, usually focuses solely on the formal issue of “ownership” and ignores the inherent oligarchizing tendencies of large organizations. A paper by Simon Pek in the Journal of Management Inquiry tackles the latter, crucial issue.

Drawing Out Democracy: The Role of Sortition in Preventing and Overcoming Organizational Degeneration in Worker-Owned Firms

Simon Pek


Fostering sustainable worker ownership and control of their organizations has long been an aspiration for many. Yet, the growth of worker-owned firms (WOFs) is often accompanied by organizational degeneration: the tendency for a small oligarchy of unrepresentative workers to control democratic structures at the expense of the participation of everyday workers. Prior research suggests that organizational degeneration occurs naturally as WOFs become larger and more complex. Building on and departing from this work, I argue in this essay that an important cause is likely to be current practice around how worker representatives are selected—specifically, the near-universal reliance on elections. As an alternative, I argue that the application of sortition—the use of lotteries—to select worker representatives in major decision-making bodies such as boards of directors and councils could help prevent and overcome organizational degeneration, while also offering additional social and business benefits for workers and their organizations.

Bagg: Citizen oversight juries

Samuel Bagg is a democratic theorist, soon to be at the University of South Carolina. In 2019 he co-wrote with Michael Schulson an article about sortition in Dissent magazine. In a paper just published in the American Journal of Political Science Bagg elaborates on the ideas in Dissent magazine. The elitist notions that were hinted at in the 2019 article (and that are unfortunately standard among academics who discuss sortition) are now full fledged as Bagg offers a proposal for a strictly curtailed role for allotted bodies. The proposal seems very much along the lines the proposal made by Ethan Leib almost 20 years ago (of which Bagg seems unaware), but with a more limited range of application.

The paper’s abstract is as follows:

Sortition as Anti-Corruption: Popular Oversight against Elite Capture

Random selection for political office—or “sortition”—is increasingly seen as a promising tool for democratic renewal. Critics worry, however, that replacing elected and appointed officials with randomly selected citizens would only exacerbate elite manipulation of political processes. This article argues that sortition can contribute to democratic renewal, but that its genuine promise is obscured by the excessive ambition and misplaced focus of prevailing models. Casting random selection as a route to accurate representation of the popular will, most contemporary proposals require randomly selected citizens to perform legislative tasks, whose open-endedness grants substantial discretion to elite agenda setters and facilitators. The real democratic promise of sortition-based reforms, I argue, lies in obstructing elite capture at critical junctures: a narrower task of oversight that creates fewer opportunities for elite manipulation. In such contexts, the benefits of empowering ordinary people—resulting from their immunity to certain distorting influences on career officials—plausibly outweigh the risks.

The notion of oversight is rather broad and could imply bodies with wide anti-corruption purview that could create a real source of independent political power by drawing and enforcing radical rules about the connections decision makers (and in particular, elected officials) may or may not have with the powerful bodies in society and politics. However, this is not at all what Bagg has in mind.

COJs [Citizen Oversight Juries] would be convened over the course of a few days or weeks at most, and participants drawn randomly from the population would be required to serve for the entire process, so as to minimize the distortions of self-selection. As in civil and criminal trials, crucially, the role of jurors would be to make a judgment about a narrow, binary question, whose parameters are fixed in advance, after hearing arguments from designated adversarial representatives on both sides.

Thus, just like Leib’s proposal, Bagg’s proposal is for ad-hoc, short-term bodies, whose rules, agenda and information are dictated by elite bodies. It is only within the framework of these restrictions that Bagg feels that “citizen oversight bodies could plausibly make use of those advantages [of sortition] without incurring excessive risks”.