Ephraim David on sortition

Prof. Ephraim David is a historian of Classical Greece at the Haifa University in Israel. In a 2021 paper, published in the journal Advances in Historical Studies, David discusses sortition in Ancient Athens in the context of recent interest in sortition as a mechanism which can complement or replace elections in modern political systems.

The abstract of the paper is as follows:

Though considered the most democratic method of allocating citizens to office in Classical Greece, sortition (selection by lot) has never been adopted on a large scale by modern democracies (except for juries) and has fallen into oblivion. Recently, however, some political theorists, motivated by deep disappointment with current electoral practices, have been advocating a return to sortition without being sufficiently aware of the complexities involved in their ancient Athenian model. This study tries to explain the roots and ideology of sortition, the ways in which it operated in Athens and the causes of its functional success there for almost two centuries. Proposals of returning to a similar system should pay due attention to the significant role played by elections alongside the lottery in Classical Athens and the precautions taken there to prevent possible harm. In my view, the optimal formula for reform would be a political compromise combining, in one way or another, elections with sortition among volunteering candidates from various quarters of the civic society, selected in due proportions so as to be statistically representative of the demos. Selection by lottery should apply only to groups of people (e.g., committees and councils)—never to individual magistrates.

As the abstract indicates, David is somewhat conservative, emphasizing various aspects of the Athenian system that, as he presents things, guaranteed that “[d]espite the widespread use of sortition, Athenian democracy was far from being a dogmatic ‘lottocracy'”: election of generals and reliance on other forms of expertise, age qualifications, the voluntaristic way in which the allotment pool was created, the dokimasia and retrospective accountability for political decisions.

Nevertheless, it is clear that, unlike most academics dealing with sortition, including those that are considered as being advocates for sortition, David recognizes that reform of the existing system is an urgent need, due to the severe dysfunction of the electoral system as a means for representing public values and interests:

The adoption of sortition among volunteers (in one way or another) for the legislative, in addition to elections, is liable to galvanize participatory democracy and significantly reduce (or, at least, balance) the extent of the ills involved in an exclusively elective system, particularly the manipulation of party elites, the extensive cheating of voters by deceptive electoral propaganda, the manipulation of populist politicians and the over-influence of wealthy oligarchs and tycoons in politics—the blatantly plutocratic aspect of most modern democracies. The optimal ways of reaching
those aims remain to be further explored not only for macro-politics but also with respect to other forms of administration.

A sortition proposal in Sri Lanka

Over the last few years, Sri Lanka has been experiencing a prolonged economic crisis which has come to a head in 2022 leading to a political crisis. The following recent piece by Chandre Dharmawardana, a prominent Sri Lankan retired physicist, published in several Sri Lankan websites, offers sortition as a way to resolve the political crisis.

Using sortition to prevent electing of same crooks to parliament

The terrorism of the LTTE ended in May 2009, and most Sri Lankans looked forward to a dawn of peace, reconciliation and progress. Even Poongkothai Chandrahasan, the granddaughter of SJV Chelvanayagam could state that ‘what touched me the most that day was that these were poor people with no agenda wearing their feelings on their sleeves. Every single person I spoke to said to me, “The war is over, we are so happy”. They were not celebrating the defeat of the Tamils. They were celebrating the fact that now there would be peace in Sri Lanka’ (The Island, 23rd August 2009).

The dilemma faced by SL

Unfortunately, instead of peace, prosperity and reconciliation, a corrupt oligarchy made up of politicians from the two main parties of the period, namely the UNP, the SLFP, the JVP, their associated business tycoons and NGO bosses have evolved into a cabal of the rich who have hogged the power of parliament among themselves. The party names “UNP, SLFP, JVP” etc., have morphed into other forms, while the leaders concerned have changed adherence to the parties or made alliances with the ease of changing cutlery at a sumptuous banquet.

Periods of civil strife are also periods when corrupt cutthroats thrive, with illegal arms and money in the hands of those on both sides of the conflict who made a career out of the war.
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Snell: Countries obsessed with sortation likely to be inward looking and self-obsessed

As they describe themselves, James Snell is a senior advisor at the New Lines Institute, currently writing a book on the war in Afghanistan. The New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy is a nonprofit and non-partisan think tank in Washington D.C. working to enhance U.S. foreign policy based on a deep understanding of the geopolitics of the different regions of the world and their value systems.

Snell has a piece in Politico where he expresses his concern about the dangers of what he consistently calls “sortation”. Snell’s concern has seemingly been triggered by the upcoming posthumous publication of Maurice Pope’s book “The Keys to Democracy”.

[T]he ancient Athenians — so admired by the founders of the United States — were ruled by a boule, or a council, where the positions were filled by lot. The same went for Athens’ courts, and Roman juries after the founding of their republic.

There’s something romantic about this notion of a non-representative democracy, of government formed by citizens rather than their elected delegates — so romantic, in fact, that it’s making a comeback.
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Hansen: ancient and modern democracy

In a recent article Dr. Polyvia Parara made reference to a 2005 book by Mogens Herman Hansen, The Tradition of Ancient Greek Democracy and its Importance for Modern Democracy. It turns out this book is available online.

As always, Hansen is a very useful source of information about democracy in the ancient Greek world. In this book, Hansen focuses less on ancient Greece and more on the connections between ancient Greek democracy and “modern democracy”. Hansen rightly points out that, contrary to what some would have us believe (he cites and quotes Hannah Arendt), there is very little evidence for either institutional or ideological continuity between the two periods.

Hansen focuses first on the ideology.

The classical example that inspired the American and French revolutionaries as well as the English radicals was Rome rather than Greece. Thus, the Founding Fathers who met in Philadelphia in 1787, did not set up a Council of the Areopagos, but a Senate, that, eventually, met on the Capitol. And the French constitution of 1799, designed by Sieyès, had no board of strategoi but a triumvirate of consuls.

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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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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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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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Ned Crosby (1936-2022)

Saddened to learn of the death of Ned Crosby, founder of the Jefferson Center and creator of Citizens’ Juries. Crosby was one of the first to envision selection by lot playing an important role in modern democratic politics. I only saw him speak once, and I’m sorry never to have met him.

Further details can be found here: https://www.cndp.us/announcement-on-the-death-of-our-founder-ned-crosby/.

The Minnesota Star Tribune has a full obituary.

RIP, Ned.

1936: For the Random Selection of the Chamber of Deputies

Hugh Pope is a British reporter and author. He is also the son of Maurice Pope, a linguist and a specialist in Classical studies and antiquity. It turns out that when Maurice Pope died in 2019 he left a manuscript which he wrote decades earlier titled “Sortitional Democracy”. Hugh has now undertaken to edit and to publish this manuscript, and it seems that in the process he has become a sortition activist. I certainly hope to read and review the book once it is published later this year.

It seems that, now that he is running in the sortition circles, Pope has met David Van Reybrouk and the latter has informed him about the existence of a book published in 1936 in France called Pour le Tirage au Sort de la Chambre des Députés (For the Random Selection of the Chamber of Deputies). The book was written by an anonymous former French Assembly-member.

This book marks a very early contribution to the modern consideration of sortition. In fact, it is the earliest book-length treatment of sortition in the entire history of political writing, as far as I am aware, if we don’t count Headlam’s Election by lot at Athens, which is mostly historical and its political-ideological aspects are somewhat secondary (and which is also aimed at dismissing sortition rather than considering it seriously).
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