Sortition in the press

Some recent media items mentioning sortition:

Verena Friederike Hasel, Politico, May 16:

Germany’s democracy problem: History has made Germans reluctant to let the mob decide.

BERLIN — Germany, like many places in Europe, is badly in need of democratic rejuvenation.

But where other countries are experimenting with bringing voices from the street into the political process, Germany’s dark history casts a shadow on efforts to break down barriers to political participation.

There’s no question Germany would benefit from listening to its citizens and engaging in some talk therapy. […]

In ancient Greece, that cradle of democracy, citizens’ assemblies consisted of 500 people who were elected by lot. After serving for a year, they were replaced by others. Lately, with democracy in crisis, the Greek model has served as an inspiration for modern-day democracies. Ireland, for example, set up a citizens’ assembly in 2016. […]

The Germans have been more reluctant to tinker with their political system. But on a Saturday morning in late February, 44 people gathered in Frankfurt. The choice of venue had symbolic value. Frankfurt, nowadays known as the country’s financial hub, was home to the first freely elected German parliament in 1848. This time around, people gathered for an event called Demokratiekonvent. It’s the brainchild of Dominik Herold, a 27-year-old politics major who wanted to take a cue from Ireland, knowing full well that “Germany still has a long way to go.”
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Rentoul: “Our politics may be utterly confusing, but it certainly isn’t ‘broken’”

John Rentoul writes in The Independent:

[Nigel Farage’s] leaflets, posted through every door in the country, say: “Politics is broken. Let’s change it for good.” Where have we heard that before? On the R side of politics, that’s where. The Remainers in Change UK left their parties complaining that politics is broken. They too rail against the two-party system, even as the two main parties’ combined share of the vote in European election polls is now 34 per cent.

On the other L side of politics, the left-liberal side, the consensus is also that politics is broken. It was a powerful part of Jeremy Corbyn’s message when he was the future once. For many Corbyn supporters, “politics” is an elite conspiracy against the many that needs to be swept aside by radical forms of democracy.

The same theme animated the Extinction Rebellion protesters when they had a sit-in in Parliament Square. The government has done too little to slow down climate change, they said, so politics has failed. As ever, the problem with our democracy is that it is the wrong kind of democracy. Extinction Rebellion want a citizens’ assembly – a group of non-politicians chosen by lot to discuss the climate emergency. Once upon a time, “the Commons of England in parliament assembled” was a form of citizens’ assembly, but now the protesters want to tear it down and start again.

Of course not, says Rentoul. It’s all just a technical issue.
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Loïc Blondiaux: “Nobody believes anymore that the system can reform itself”

An interview with Loïc Blondiaux, professor of political science at the Sorbonne in Paris and a researcher at the European Center for Sociology and Political Science (CESSP) and the Center for Policy Research (CRPS) of the Sorbonne, in International Politics and Society journal:

New instruments of participatory democracy, such as citizen meetings with participants drawn by lot, are sometimes presented as the solution to the crisis of representative democracy. What does that reveal about the current state of French society?

It’s striking about the current democratic crisis in France, but also in the entire Western world, that instruments such as the sortition-based community meetings, where participants are selected at random, are spreading so successfully, and that such democratic innovations are generating high hopes. Who would have thought that political actors would advocate the idea of a third parliamentary chamber, determined wholly or partly by lot, or even the idea of replacing the Senate with a similar process? This interest in sortition attests to the great disrepute that traditional institutions of representative politics have fallen into. The same also applies to the “RIC” (référendum d’initiative citoyenne) promoted by the gilets jaunes, which aims to enable both citizens’ initiatives in constitutional and legal matters and the repeal of laws and the dismissal of elected representatives.

How do you explain the high expectations people have of these participatory instruments?
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Delanoi: Sortition does not replace elections, it complements them

Simon Blin interviews Gil Delanoi in the Liberation. Original in French.

Gil Delanoi, a researcher at Sciences-Po, a sortition expert, promotes this procedure as a fundamental improvement of the democratic system, provided that it is used in an ad-hoc fashion. [Editor’s note: This sub-headline seems to be a misrepresentation of Delanoi’s position – see below. – YG.]

Gil Delannoi, professor at Sciences-Po and researcher at Cevipof, has just published a new book Sortition: how should it be used? (Sciences-Po Press). According to him, this procedure, if it is well-established, could improve the representation of the diversity of the electorate.

How can sortition cure the malaise of democratic representation and participation?

As opposed to voting, sortition does not aggregate voices but rather subsamples people from a group in order to delegate a task to them, whether a deliberative, an advisory or a decision-making task. From this perspective, sortition complements voting because it allows breaking out of the legislative logic where only representatives make the law and are concerned with it and where the administration applies it. This way, sortition does not replace elections but completes them. It is certainly possible to combine the two processes.

What form should it take?

Sortition is adaptable. There are at least as many ways to allot as there are to vote. It all depends on the objective that is sought. Sortition can be mandatory or volutary. In the first case it is a duty, in the other it is a right. The size of the sample is also very important. If the allotment aims to construct a mirror of the population, it is preferable to have a large number of people involved in order to create a detailed picture. That said, even if we allot a few people, we already a sample that is more representative than that of a simple vote, particularly in terms of age, gender and profession. We may need allotments of size 10,000 or 1,000 people. Logically, the larger the number the more accurate is the representation. In the case of court juries, where sortition is regularly used in France, it is evident that the group must be able to really have a discussion. Here the optimal size is on the order of 10 to 50 people. The larger the sample, the more difficult this is.
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The Principle of Rotation

Let me share part of the section called “The Principle of Sortition” in E. S. Staveley’s 1972 book, Greek and Roman Voting and Elections. In spite of its title, the section might better have been titled, “The principle of rotation,” since Staveley argues that rotation in Athens was “more fundamental by far” than sortition. I am not an academic, and I would be interested in hearing what the reception was for Staveley’s thesis among his colleagues. Only a few reviews of the book are available to me, and they seem to have been written by specialists in Roman rather than Greek politics. He seems to be shooting across their bow. Was anybody listening?

It certainly stands to reason mathematically that the more posts are available only once in a lifetime, and the shorter their term limit, the more rotation would become the operating principle. This would set up what the Romans later would call a Cursus Honorum, a career trajectory where the average Athenian would gain active experience in every aspect of local governance, from finance to foreign policy. Unlike the Cursus Honorum, though, the order or life stage in which the citizen held a position mattered less than variety of exposure to various workshops in what Pericles called the “school of Athens.”
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Sénat Citoyen and Citizens’ Assemblies

Sénat Citoyen is a French organization whose manifesto offers the following principle:

For every authority, government or elected assembly, there must exist an allotted citizen assembly which monitors, creates proposals and controls this authority.

Citizens’ Assemblies is a book by the Polish activist Marcin Gerwin which he describes as “a step-by-step presentation of how to organise a citizens’ assembly, with the primary focus on the city level”. It is available online for free in 6 languages.

On the website Gerwin lists “Basic standards for organizing citizens’ assemblies”, which are:

  1. Random selection of participants
  2. Demographic representation
  3. Independent coordination
  4. Citizens’ assembly can invite experts
  5. Inclusion of a widest practical range of perspectives
  6. Inviting all stakeholders
  7. Deliberation
  8. Openness
  9. Sufficient time for reflection
  10. Impact
  11. Transparency
  12. Visibility

Politics as a profession

In a recent debate with Etienne Chouard, among quite a few fallacies and hypocritical talking points, Raphaël Enthoven makes an interesting point regarding the role of training in politics (about 23 minutes into the recording) [my transcription and translation, corrections welcome]:

The fact is that, as Plato argues, politics is a profession.

[ Chourad interjects: “Plato was an aristocrat!” ]

Politics is a profession, even if you ask a democratic such as yourself. Even if you ask yourself. How would you explain the place that you accord in [your book] “Notre Cause Commune” [“Our Common Cause”], in your work, in your blog, always, since 2005, to constituent workshops? The fundamental role that you assign to instruction and to training of citizens? Isn’t it in order to give citizens the means to exercise correctly, properly and competently (if you excuse the adverb) the powers they were temporarily entrusted with?

It is obvious that politics is a profession and requires information. This profession, this information, must be open to all. There should be an equality of opportunity, there should be a wealth of opportunities for democratic practice and learning, including through sortition. Saying, however, that the equality of rights, the equality of competence would justify that each and every person would govern successively, as they did in Athens – a very small city – appointed by sortition and as a part time job, ignores the fact that it is the exercise of power that relieves incompetence, unprofessionalism, and lack of skills.