Sortition in the Netherlands

The very useful Dutch sortition-focused blog Tegen Verkiezingen reports about a new bachelor’s thesis at Leiden university in the Netherlands titled “Lottery as a democratic instrument?”. The thesis was written by Max Van Duijn, who is the leader of a local political party in the Katwijk municipality named DURF. DURF, which is the biggest party in the municipal council, advocates the application of sortition at the municipal level.

Tegen Verkiezingen provides the following translation of an excerpt from the thesis:

In essence ‘representative democracy’ is not democratic. It’s something fundamentally different. It would be more justified to label it ‘elective aristocracy’. In that sense the contrast between classical and representative democracy is a false one. In fact what we’re talking about is a contrast between democracy (sortition) and aristocracy (elections).

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

Independent Candidate Hugh McTavish for Governor of Minnesota puts “Jury Democracy” #1 on his political platform

Hugh McTavish is running as an independent for the governor of Minnesota. McTavish’s primary policy position is

Jury Democracy. Have statistically valid juries of 500+ randomly selected citizens make all important decisions of government after hearing full debate and information from all sides on a single issue or proposal.

McTavish elaborates:

What would be the characteristics of an ideal government?  It would produce decisions in this way:

  • Decisions made by every citizen, not just by a single dictator or president and not just by a small number of representatives or the elites of society.
  • Decisions made with full information and after careful consideration of all evidence and arguments and with respectful, open-minded discussion about the decision among the decision makers; not made based on snap emotion or limited and biased information.
  • Decisions made by consensus where possible and not be 51% imposing their will on 49%.

Obviously, our current system falls short of these goals.  But that is necessary, right?  We do not have time for everyone in society to stop their lives to carefully consider all the evidence on every issue that our government has to decide.

Does it have to be this way? Can we achieve a better government?

Yes, we can. The way is a new idea I developed that I call Jury Democracy.

Jury Democracy is a system of government of having large juries (about 500 to 2,000 persons) of randomly selected citizens, where the juries constitute statistically valid samples of the citizenry or voters, make policy decisions for government after seeing full informed debate on the policy, being given full information for and against the policy, and fully deliberating and discussing the decision with equally informed citizens in the same jury.

McTavish is running as an independent and faces an uphill battle. Incumbent Governor Tim Walz has a commanding 18-point lead over his Republican challenger Scott Jensen 51% to 33%. However, I welcome any campaign that can promote the idea of democracy by lottery.

Booij: Sortition as the Solution

Below is the Introduction to a Master’s thesis by G.J. Booij, submitted in 2021 at the Tilburg School of Humanities and Digital Sciences of Tilburg University, the Netherlands, titled “Sortition as the Solution: How randomly sampled citizen assemblies can complement the Dutch democracy”. Booij was advised by Prof. Michael Vlerick, author of the 2020 paper “Towards Global Cooperation: The Case for a Deliberative Global Citizens’ Assembly”.

During World War II, Winston Churchill famously stated that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”. Not only does this indicate that, at least in Churchill’s eyes, the current governmental form is flawed, but also that, remarkably, Churchill sees democracy as being synonymous to the elective representative democracy that was present during his life. If this kind of democracy would indeed be the best way to govern a nation, it is logical that many countries have stuck with it. However, if it is actually flawed, as he also claims, it may be wise to investigate alternative forms of government.

In this thesis, I will do just this by investigating alternative (democratic) governmental systems, since democracy is in fact not synonymous to the elective representative democracy that is still present in many Western countries. In particular, I will scrutinize the democratic system of sortition (democracy through citizen assemblies drawn by lot) and I will argue that this system should be used as a complement to the system currently in play in the Netherlands. By doing this, I will build on existing literature regarding sortition (Fishkin, 2011; van Reybrouck, 2016) by presenting a comparative perspective of several (democratic) systems, focusing specifically on the Dutch context. This kind of critical evaluation of the governmental status quo and democratic renewal is now more important than ever, since political trust dropped drastically over the past years – 70% of the Dutch population has indicated they do not have faith in politics (Erasmus University Rotterdam, 2021; NOS, 2021a).
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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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Urgency and hypocrisy

Content warning: This post contains messages that may be traumatizing to some audiences. Reader discretion is advised.

The attitude expressed, explicitly or implicitly, in much of the political discussion in the West, and in particular in academic discussion, is that the existing political system is essentially, at its core and in its principles, benign. While some room for improvement surely exists, we must not act rashly. The great danger that must be guarded against when considering any changes to our political system is that we might very well end up with fewer of the great benefits that the current system bestows upon us. “Us” in this usage is supposed to cover essentially all of society, rather than just the author and their select audience.

This attitude is deplorable. The situation of the world is dire. It is sometimes said that we are living in the best of times humanity has known thus far. This may or may not be true, but in any case it is irrelevant. Even if previous times were worse, the situation is appalling. The world is full of misery that can be relatively easily alleviated simply by having public policy which is aimed at such a goal, rather than public policy that is aimed at very different goals.

Outraged rhetoric about atrocities, real, exaggerated, or fabricated, of official enemies is prevalent in the West and so is hand-wringing about the misfortune, real, exaggerated or imagined, of inhabitants of non-Western countries. Yet, even ignoring misery inflicted by Western countries worldwide, misery is rampant in the West itself, misery that can be drastically reduced by appropriate political action.
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Elections are all about competition right? (They weren’t way back when)

Cross posted from Club Troppo.

As part of my recent fascination with competitive and ‘de-competitive’ merit selection, I’ve been looking at the origins of both parliamentary and presidential elections. Intriguingly though we now associate elections with competition between candidates, in both the British parliamentary system and the American presidency, elections were not competitive. Indeed, contemporaries regarded the idea of competition for such an office with alarm for its tendency to encourage ‘faction’.

But isn’t an ‘election’ competitive by definition? Isn’t that the meaning of the word? Well no! That’s what the word implies today, but its root in Latin simply means “to pick” or “to choose”. The word ‘elect’ retains this sense in Christian theology when speaking of ‘the elect’ — those chosen, not in competition with each other but by God. One can circle back from this reference to observe that the electorate is the sovereign body when it comes to its being represented, and in this sense an ‘election’ is the choosing by the sovereign body — if you’re dealing with God, I’m reliably informed that He’s sovereign and so he elects the elect. And if you’re dealing with the electorate, it chooses who is the elect.

Sixteenth century English parliamentary election.

In early modern England, political choice was subsumed within a wide system of social relations. Complex notions of honor, standing, and deference, shared but not always articulated, helped to regulate and absorb conflict between and within loosely defined status groups. The selection of members of Parliament, an intermittent event for county property holders and members of designated boroughs, was but one part of a continuing process of social distinction. Despite the uniqueness of Parliament in the political history of the nation, in the ongoing life of the communities that chose its members, parliamentary selection existed in a broader context. For peers of the realm, a summons to the House of Lords was a prescriptive right, another attribute of their nobility. For members of the small group of dominant gentry families within the county communities, it was both a responsibility of service and a privilege conferred on them by kin and neighbors. For rich merchants of large boroughs, it followed as part of the cursus honorum of civic office; while for gentlemen and lawyers, who obtained the majority of borough seats parceled out to patrons, it was an occasion to follow their own busi- nesses, advance their careers, or simply partake of the delights of the capital.

Selections differed according to social structure, population, and wealth. In counties the keynotes of parliamentary selection were honor and deference. Men were chosen members of Parliament or given the right to nominate members on the basis of criteria largely social in nature. This was especially true of the senior knight of the shire, which by the early seventeenth century had become a mark of social distinction that outweighed all other factors. Counties whose internal social elites were dominated by one or two families — like Herefordshire or Surrey — honored these men and their heirs regularly. Counties like Kent or Somerset, which had more variegated elites, developed patterns of rotation.

The principle of parliamentary selection — and, judging from the available evidence, the reality as well — was unified choice. “By and with the whole advice, assent and consent,” was how the town of Northampton put it when enrtheolling the selection of Christopher Sherland and Richard Spencer in 1626. Communities avoided division over parliamentary selections for all the obvious reasons – cost, trouble, fear of riot, challenge to magisterial authority — and for one other: The refusal to assent to the choice of an M.P. was an explicit statement of dishonor. Freely given by the will of the shire or the borough, a place in Parliament was a worthy distinction. Wrested away from competitors in a divisive contest, it diminished the worth of both victor and vanquished.

Source: Kishlansky Mark A, 1986. Parliamentary Selection Social and Political Choice in Early Modern England, Cambridge University Press.

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Luebwick: How democratic is democratic innovation?

Patrick Luebwick, Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Antwerp and Visiting Professor at the University of Ghent, critiques sortition in general and more specifically what may be called “the citizen assembly process”, i.e., the way allotted bodies are being employed nowadays within the existing power structure. Some excerpts are below. [The text seems to be an automatic translation of an original text in French(?) and contains some dubious phrases, which I tried to correct.]

Betting on direct civil democracy is not an innocent game

Belgium jumps on the bandwagon of democratic renewal. The elected representatives of the people increasingly seem to desire direct assistance through the insights and advice of ordinary citizens. There is a project under way in the German-speaking community where commissions drawn up by lot can provide input to Parliament. The federal government has just completed an online citizen survey inviting us to share ideas about the future of Belgium. The Vivaldi government itself also has a bill ready to allow bodies in which citizens selected by lot can engage in dialogue with each other, politicians, experts and civil society to formulate policy recommendations for state reform.

Various arguments are used to support these types of initiatives. Politicians present it as a good sign to increase political participation and citizen participation. Civic democracy as a means of bridging the gap with citizens and promoting democracy. Proponents often assume that citizen paintings drawn by lottery can speed up and improve political decision-making.

[However, the use of sortition relies on the idea that i]f we inform citizens adequately and allow them to reasonably discuss with each other, we can track down the will of the people. This assumption is problematic. First, the outcomes of the allotted body may reflect what citizens see after deliberation about a particular political topic. But the rest of the population may not be convinced. The use of citizens’ committees thus runs counter to the idea that democracy is a form of self-government. After all, the well-thought-out judgments made by allotted citizens do not match what the what the population thinks or wants. Democracy as autonomy is not served by a participatory shortcut that is taken over the heads of the majority of citizens. Rather, the strength of deliberative democracy lies in the attempt to involve the whole of society in political opinion and decision-making, particularly through open debate in the public sphere and through diverse civil society and civil society.
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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 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.