Procaccia: Lotteries Instead of Elections? Not So Arbitrary

Ariel Procaccia, an associate professor in the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University, has an opinion piece in Bloomberg News advocating sortition. Some excerpts:

Have you ever thought that 535 random people off the street would do a decidedly better job than the duly elected members of the U.S. Congress? If so, you’ve been scooped by a few millenniums; the idea of selecting government officials at random, known as sortition, is neither as outrageous nor as original as it seems.

In the fourth and fifth centuries BC, some of the central organs of the Athenian government were populated by selecting random volunteers. For example, the members of the Council of 500 — whose responsibilities included developing legislation, overseeing the executive branch and managing diplomatic relations — were selected at random for one-year terms.

During the Renaissance, sortition was all the rage. For centuries it played a key role in the process of selecting the Doge of Venice, as well as in populating the branches of the Florentine government. It was also employed widely throughout the Kingdom of Aragon, which is part of modern-day Spain. [King Ferdinand II of Aragon spoke highly of the virtues of sortition. Unfortunately, he also established the Spanish Inquisition and ordered the expulsion of practicing Jews from his kingdom, so he is hardly an authority on governance.] Sortition actually endured as a system of government into the 20th century: San Marino’s two heads of state were selected at random from 60 councilors as recently as 1945. [The two heads of state constitute a non-negligible fraction of the minuscule country’s population.]

Procaccia mentions in quick succession David Van Reybrouck, Terrill Bouricius, citizens’ assemblies, Ireland, and the German-speaking Community of Belgium, and finishes off with:

Admittedly, even the Belgian initiative is still a long way off from a Bouricius-style sortition utopia — and the jury is still out on whether we’d want to go that far. But it’s comforting to think that the best fix for our political chaos may be a bit of randomness.

Sortition in Ha’aretz

Ha’aretz is Israel’s elite newspaper. With Israel’s second election day of 2019 coming up in about a month, Ha’aretz published in its latest weekend magazine an article by Hilo Glaser offering readers several reform ideas for the political system. Sortition got top billing. I was interviewed for the article. Below is a translation of some excerpts (original in Hebrew, paywalled).

The method: Sortition (i.e., lottery instead of elections)

The idea: Advocates of sortition note that modern democracy embraces ideas originating from Ancient Greece, but it disposes of the government mechanism that enabled their application. In ancient democracy public offices were appointed by lottery among the entire citizenry. This is how officials, clerics, and even government ministers were appointed.

In 2014, Prof. Irad Malkin published an article in Ha’aretz in which he explained that “the lottery was the most effective tool against the oligarchy of money and government, drawing the citizens into the political activity and allowing them to take part at different levels: in the sovereign assembly, in the high council, and in the courts. This worked well for 200 years.”

Not only historians are calling to revive the lottery mechanism. Yoram Gat, a software engineer and a statistics Ph.D., has recently published an article challenging the mechanism of elections in view of the public frustration with elected institutions and offering sortition as an alternative. He claims that allotment of political office holders will result in optimal representation of the different groups in the population.
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Rennix and Nimni: Alternatives to judges

In the June 2018 issue of Current Affairs magazine, Brianna Rennix and Oren Nimni discuss the horrors of the judicial branch of the Western system of government, where professional judges each rule their “tiny fiefdoms and everyone who enters must cater to their whims”.

[A] lot of seemingly “impartial” legal standards—like the famous “what would a reasonable person do” standard—are inherently subjective, so that it’s hard to say what an “impartial” application would even mean. The law is full of attempts to determine what “reasonable” behavior would be in a particular situation. It should shock no one (except lawyers) that people often have wildly divergent views of what “reasonableness” means in any given situation. For courts, the “reasonable person” standard has a disturbing tendency to align with whatever best suits the positions of those in power. Think of all of the police officers whose shootings of unarmed black people have been deemed “reasonable”—and then say you want a judicial system run by “reasonable” or “impartial” judges.

At the end, they consider some alternatives. The first among their “more radical solutions to the judge problem” is “no more judges”:

But how can you have a legal system without judges, you say? Well, in Ancient Athens (immediate chorus of boos) no, hear me out (boos continue) look, I am not proposing ancient Athens as a civilizational ideal, I am just exploring an alternative institutional design (boos increase in volume) IN ANCIENT ATHENS, judges were essentially administrative functionaries, with no real decision-making power. Cases were decided entirely by enormous juries of 201-501 people, who were assigned to cases by random lottery and received a small fee for their services. A simple majority vote, without deliberation, determined the verdict. In the words of legal historian Adriaan Lanni, “the Athenians made a conscious decision to reject the rule of law in most cases, and they did so because they thought giving juries unlimited discretion to reach verdicts based on the particular circumstances of each case was the most just way to resolve disputes.”

Bradatan: Today’s democracy favors the the power-hungry, arrogant, oppressively self-assertive political animal

Costica Bradatan, professor of philosophy at Texas Tech University, has a free-ranging essay about democracy in the New York Times. It is a rather incongruous mass of ideas, some more convincing than others. It does mention (approvingly? hard to tell) sortition as one of the fundamental foundations of Athenian democracy.

The institutions of democracy, its norms and mechanisms, should embody a vision of human beings as deficient, flawed and imperfect.

Ancient Athenian democracy devised two institutions that fleshed out this vision. First, sortition: the appointment of public officials by lot. Given the fundamental equality of rights that all Athenian citizens — that is, free male adults — enjoyed, the most logical means of access to positions of leadership was random selection. Indeed, for the Athenian democrats, elections would have struck at the heart of democracy: They would have allowed some people to assert themselves, arrogantly and unjustly, against the others.

The other fittingly imperfect Athenian institution was ostracization.

Bradatan notes how different is the modern system that self-describes itself as “democracy”:
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Sortition at the University of Lausanne

A short video by Michele Andina on featuring Maxime Mellina and Aurèle Dupuis from the University of Lausanne discussing sortition.

Sortition and democracy. History, instruments, and theories: a special issue of Participations journal

Participations journal’s latest issue is devoted to sortition. This appears to be a treasure trove. The issue, titled “Sortition and democracy. History, instruments, and theories”, has 24 papers comprising over 500 pages. The French text of all papers seems to be allow unrestricted access.

The papers are organized into 5 sections:

  1. The ancient world
  2. The medieval world and the modern world
  3. The Chinese world
  4. The contemporary world
  5. Postface

The authors include familiar names (Sintomer, Demont, Courant) as well as many that I, at least, am not familiar with.

“The contemporary world” section has some papers that seem particularly interesting, e.g., Samuel Hayat’s “The militant trajectory of the reference to Bernard Manin in French activism for sortition” and Julien Talpin’s “Does random selection make democracies more democratic? How deliberative democracy has depoliticized a radical proposal”.

Another intriguing paper is Alexei Daniel Serafín Castro’s “Political representation and the uses of sortition in Mexico: 1808-1857” which discusses a historical application of sortition that I have never heard of before.

Yves Sintomer: Blow the dust off of democracy with an allotted third chamber. Part 1

This is an English version of an interview with Yves Sintomer in the journal Socialter (original in French).

The Gilets Jaunes, who are looking for new democratic experiences, have called for an “assembly of assemblies”. Would it be necessary, in order to resolve the impasse, to radicalize our democracy? Why not re-institutionalize one of the its original components: sortition. A conversation with Yves Sintomer, a political scientist and an expert in democratic procedures.

Philippe Vion-Dury, 17/04/2019
Photos: Cyrille Choupas

The Gilet Jaunes have been first presented at an anti-tax movement and then as a social justice movement. Isn’t it, however, fundamentally, the question of institutions and democracy question which predominates?

What unites the Gilets Jaunes, it seems to me, is not so much the question of institutions in the strict sense as much as denial of recognition to which they respond by protesting against social injustice and against the democratic gap, a sentiment of non-representation. These two components appear to me to be tied together: society does not recognize them both because its fruits are distributed too unequally and because their voice is not being heard.

Popular distrust can be observed in most western democracies, in different forms. Isn’t there a generalized crisis of “representative government” itself?

There is a French particularity: a President with disproportionately concentrated power, little countervailing power, unusually weak political parties… and the revolt of the Gilet Jaunes is a social mobilization to which there is no equivalent in neighboring countries. This particularity has to be put in context, because it works within a much more general crisis of representation which affects not only European democracies but is also the young democracies of Latin America and in the formally democratic countries of Africa and Asia.

Representative governments were created during the English, French and American revolutions as a compromise solution. It involved giving effective decision power to a self-proclaimed elite – from this point of view, there is an aristocratic dimension to representative government. This ruling aristocracy, however, would not longer be one of “blue blood”, of nobility, but an aristocracy determined by the voters.

This institutionalization of representative government has long been opposed to the feudal society of the Ancien Regime, but also against democracy, understood as “government of the people, for the people, by the people” – to quote Abraham Lincoln. The is to limit the power of the people by giving decision making power to an elected aristocracy. That allows us to distance ourselves from the classical liberal conception asserting that “democracy means elections”.
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