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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The expandable meaning of “democracy”

Traditionally, the word “democracy” has been used in Western political philosophy as a pejorative term. This use has been dominant for about 2,800 years – since the time of the Old Oligarch and Plato up to and including the time of the American and French revolutionaries. Those latter groups have adhered to this pejorative sense of the word “democracy” and have strenuously insisted that the systems they are constructing are “republican” rather than “democratic”.

The dominant pejorative meaning has been replaced by the by-now familiar celebratory meaning during the 19th century under the pressures of electoralism. As Francis Dupuis-Deri recounts the story of the word “democracy”, it was Andrew Jackson, who was the first U.S. presidential candidate who described himself as a “simple democrat”. This was, Dupuis-Deri writes, his winning campaign tactic in 1828, after having lost his bid in 1824 in which he still ran, like the other candidates in that race, under the banner of “republican” (Dupuis-Deri, Democratie, Histoire politique d’un mot, p. 320). Dupuis-Deri claims that the U.S. politicians of the 19th century were very conscious and deliberate about their adoption of the term “democracy” as a powerful marketing term. He cites the 1844 campaign booklet “Democracy” by Calvin Colton which opens with the following anecdote:

A Member of the House of Representatives, in Congress, a friend of Mr. Van Buren, met a Whig Senator, in a steamboat, in the early part of the Presidential campaign of 1840, when the former said to the latter, “Your Log Cabin and Hard Cider is a no go. We shall beat you.” “How so?” asked the Senator. “Mr. Van Buren,” answered the Member, “relies upon the words DemocracyDemocrat–and Democratic. We all rely upon them, as a party. While we wear this name, you can not beat us, but we shall beat you.” [Even though, in fact, Van Buren was more democratic candidate, t]he Member of the House was right, and the very reason he gave prevailed on the other side.–Mr. Van Buren was beaten.

An interesting parallel of the application of the word “democracy” to systems whose democratic credentials are far from solid is described by Angelos Chaniotis in his article “Illusions of Democracy in the Hellenistic World” (Athens Dialogues. 2010. Democracy and Politeia. Period Two). Chaniotis writes:
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The classical unities

According to Wikipedia, it was Italian Renaissance philosopher Gian Giorgio Trissino who came up with the “classical unities” as a prescriptive theory of dramatic tragedy. The three unities are:

  • Unity of action: a tragedy should have one principal action.
  • Unity of time: the action in a tragedy should occur over a period of no more than 24 hours.
  • Unity of place: a tragedy should exist in a single physical location.

When considering how sortition (and elections) can be conducted in a way that would be resistant to manipulation, such unities are crucial, argues Trent Clark in an article in the Idaho State Journal.

Ancient Athens was home to one of the world’s first democracies. The Greek orator and reformer Cleisthenes initiated citizen “voting” in 508 BC. His solution: Give every voter one black stone and one white stone. On each decision, whether to go to war, accept a treaty, send trade delegations, etc., the citizens would cast a stone (white for “yes,” black for “no”) into a jar. The contents of the jar determined the policy of the city. As many as 6,000 Athenians would participate.

In early Athens, serving in government was a civic obligation, like jury duty today. Military assignments were based on skill with weapons and history as a soldier. But other posts were randomly drawn, a process called “sortition.” Tokens with a citizen’s name, or pinakia, were arranged across a large flat tablet or kleroterion. Multi-colored dice were used to select rows and columns, pointing to a random name for each open position.

Cleisthenes found it essential that all this occur at a known location, at a designated time, in public. Citizens needed to see that the process was not rigged or “fixed” by the city’s tribal bosses.

What If We Made Democracy… More Democratic?

In These Times Editors on 4 Jan.:

When politicians seem increasingly out of touch with the average person, perhaps the average person should make decisions instead.

sor•ti•tion

noun

  1. the appointment of political positions by lottery, rather than election

Aren’t elections kind of what ​“make” democracy, though?

Not according to the ancient Athenians. In fact, these early democrats worried elections would inevitably favor the wealthy and powerful sound familiar? The city-state functioned instead by having citizens randomly selected annually to serve in public office, with duties ranging from monitoring public finances to deciding foreign policy and participating as one (of 6000) jurors on the People’s Court. Women and enslaved people, among others, were excluded, so Athens might not be the best example of a full-fledged democracy; still, they had a point about elections. In the United States, wealthy donors have more impact on policy than public opinion, and Congress is far whiter, richer, older and more male than the overall population.

You can read the rest of this short editorial here.

Democracy in Crisis: Lessons from Ancient Athens

The book Democracy in Crisis by Professor Jeff Miller will be published on January 6th 2022.

The storming of the US Capitol building in January 2021 focused attention on the multiple threats facing contemporary liberal democracies. Beyond the immediate problem of Covid-19, the past two decades saw political polarization, a dramatic rise in inequality, global warming and other environmental threats, as well as the growth of dangerous cultural and political divisions. Western liberal democracies find themselves in the midst of what political theorists call a legitimation crisis: major portions of the population lack confidence in the ability of governments to address our most pressing problems. This distrust in government and traditional political parties opened the door to populist leaders and a rising tide of authoritarianism.

Liberal democracies face major structural and normative challenges in the near future that require us to look beyond the traditional set of solutions available. Democracy in Crisis points back to the world’s first democratic government, Ancient Athens, to see what made that political arrangement durable and resistant to both internal and external threats. The argument focuses on several distinctive Athenian institutions and practices, and considers how we might reimagine them in the modern world. The book addresses questions of civic ideology and institutions, with extended treatment of two distinctive Athenian institutions, ostracism and sortition.

The launch event is at the annual conference of the Association for Political Thought, St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, but has moved online as a result of the Omicron surge. Details below:

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