Sortition by elimination

Worries are sometimes expressed about the impossibility of generating a sample of people at random in a way that cannot be manipulated by powerful actors. Sources of physical data are either too predictable to be of use or require machinery that is too arcane or sensitive to be effectively publicly verifiable. Social sources of data – such as the stock market or blockchain transactions – may be influenced powerful forces in society. Many randomizations that rely on explicit and symmetrical inputs from the public as a source of randomness have to utilize aggregation procedures that may allow those with advance knowledge of others’ inputs to manipulate the outcomes. With the prevailing mood of generalized distrust in institutions, a randomization mechanism would have to be completely open and verifiable to have a reasonable chance of inspiring confidence.

My proposal for such a mechanism is a simple elimination procedure which works as follows. At the outset, one candidate is eliminated. This candidate then gets to eliminate another, who then gets to eliminate another, and so on. The selection thus proceeds by sequential elimination of candidates until only one, or however many appointees are desired, remain.

This procedure is easily verifiable by any observer since it is self-contained and does not involve secrets, fancy machinery or fancy calculations. All the decisions involved are made in the open and cannot be foreseen in advance.

In addition to being manipulation resistant, this procedure has the advantage that it involves all interested citizens in the selection procedure and allows them to influence the outcome. By creating a new form of mass political participation, this procedure addresses the oft-heard objection to sortition that it deprives people from having influence over the appointment of decision makers.

In fact, while, like any form of mass participation, the impact made by any single decision-maker is minute, this form of participation is more meaningful than electoral participation because the choice made by each person – who to eliminate – is entirely unrestricted. This is in contrast which the electoral choice which is restricted a-priori by a primaries process in which the field of candidates is drastically narrowed-down. In the proposed procedure, citizens are completely free to make their elimination choices as they see fit, even if it may be seen as a sign of good citizenship to make this choice at random.

A minor technical point: The first candidate to be eliminated, the starting point of the elimination chain, can be chosen arbitrarily – this is not a position of decisive power, but rather the opposite, a position of disadvantage. If no other procedure is found suitable, an election can be used to select this person.

Abizadeh: Representation, Bicameralism, Political Equality, and Sortition

A paper by Arash Abizadeh.

Representation, Bicameralism, Political Equality, and Sortition: Reconstituting the Second Chamber as a Randomly Selected Assembly

Perspectives on Politics, 2020


The two traditional justifications for bicameralism are that a second legislative chamber serves a legislative-review function (enhancing the quality of legislation) and a balancing function (checking concentrated power and protecting minorities). I furnish here a third justification for bicameralism, with one elected chamber and the second selected by lot, as an institutional compromise between contradictory imperatives facing representative democracy: elections are a mechanism of people’s political agency and of accountability, but run counter to political equality and impartiality, and are insufficient for satisfactory responsiveness; sortition is a mechanism for equality and impartiality, and of enhancing responsiveness, but not of people’s political agency or of holding representatives accountable. Whereas the two traditional justifications initially grew out of anti-egalitarian premises (about the need for elite wisdom and to protect the elite few against the many), the justification advanced here is grounded in egalitarian premises about the need to protect state institutions from capture by the powerful few and to treat all subjects as political equals. Reflecting the “political” turn in political theory, I embed this general argument within the institutional context of Canadian parliamentary federalism, arguing that Canada’s Senate ought to be reconstituted as a randomly selected citizen assembly.

Zaremberg and Welp: Beyond utopian and dystopian approaches to democratic innovation

A 2018 paper by Gisela Zaremberg and Yanina Welp has the following abstract:

This paper discusses the myths regarding both the conceptualization and the expected effects that are implicitly or explicitly presented in analyses of the so-called ‘democratic innovations’, that is, the new institutions that aim to increase public participation beyond regular elections. It is argued that these myths, together with the (fictitious) confrontation between direct and indirect politics, have generated false oppositions and reductionisms that mask the debate and limit empirical approximations to democratic innovation. A research agenda based on the concept of ‘participatory ecologies’ is suggested as a way to gain an understanding of the mechanisms of participation in a systematic way.

I found these excerpts of particular interest to the Equality-by-Lot blog:

In a participatory ecology there is no single mechanism that is able to deliver all the virtuous democratic effects. Empirical evidence supports this proposition. For example, a positive balance of participatory mechanisms was observed in Ireland with the combination of a citizen’s assembly selected by sortition, which opened an informed debate about abortion, and a referendum, as a fair mechanism to make legitimate decisions. A negative balance is exemplified by the experience with recall referendums in Japan, where recall is activated more against policies than against authorities; however, as the first is binding and easier than the activation of initiative, it is used more frequently.

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Escoubès and Proriol: Democracy, differently; The art of governing with the citizens

Frank Escoubès and Gilles Proriol are the authors of the book “La démocratie, autrement – L’art de gouverner avec le citoyen” (Democracy, differently: The art of governing with the citizens). In an article in L’ADN they describe the thesis of their book.

There is no doubt that our representative democracy is in trouble. Humiliated, attacked, sometimes rejected: what is going to be its fate in the period between now and the presidential elections of 2022?

The citizens do not feel represented anymore

This is hardly news – our democracy is flawed. The elected are supposed to create the most faithful, the most accurate representation of the citizens, that which a technocracy cannot achieve. The coronavirus crisis has sunk the nail, in silencing the citizens like never before. In the face of that, populism and demagoguery are rising, claiming that they will provide ways for the people to decide everything, all the time, by themselves. Denial the complexity of reality, political irrealism, ideological naivety. In this context, the risk of “democratic retreat” is real. This could be due to an absence of consultation with the citizens (plowing through) or due to a simplistic consultation without a follow-up (an unkept promise). There is therefore an urgent need to “repair the links of trust”.
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Two New Articles on Citizens’ Juries

Read two interesting articles on Citizens’ Juries today. The first, entitled “The Wisdom of Small Crowds: the Case for Using Citizens’ Juries to Shape Policy,” was written largely by researchers affiliated with the Brookings Institute.

The emphasis in the article is on the epistemic advantages of citizens’ juries (with, say, 12-24 members) and not on the descriptive representation provided by citizens’ assemblies or deliberative polls (with hundreds of members).

That article led me to another one, “Respect: A New Contract with the Middle Class”, also from Brookings researchers.

The emphasis in this article, in contrast to the previous one, is on citizens’ juries as a respectful way of involving citizens in the political process.

In scholarly circles, Citizens Juries are seen as an example of “participatory action research.” To us they are a tangible expression of partnership between state and citizen, and of democratic respect. To date, they have been the result of largely voluntary and philanthropic efforts, and patchy in terms of quality. We believe that Citizens Juries should be seen as an important part of the standard policymaking process.

An in-depth study of the “Irish Model” by Dimitri Courant

In “Citizens’ Assemblies for Referendums and Constitutional Reforms: Is There an “Irish Model” for Deliberative Democracy?” Dimitri Courant analyzes the recent Irish citizens’ and constituional assemblies in a nuanced and contexuatlized way. This must be one the better treatments of the subject for anyone intersted in the “trans-localization” of the model itself and for those intersted in the design issues for citizens’ assemblies. To me it is a sober evaluation of the “Irish case” and gives us much food for thought on what might happen going forward.

Among democratic innovations, deliberative mini-publics, that is panels of randomly selected citizens tasked to make recommendations about public policies, have been increasingly used. In this regard, Ireland stands out as a truly unique case because, on the one hand, it held four consecutive randomly selected citizens’ assemblies, and on the other hand, some of those processes produced major political outcomes through three successful referendums; no other country shows such as record. This led many actors to claim that the “Irish model” was replicable in other countries and that it should lead to political “success.” But is this true? Relying on a qualitative empirical case-study, this article analyses different aspects to answer this question: First, the international context in which the Irish deliberative process took place; second, the differences between the various Irish citizens’ assemblies; third, their limitations and issues linked to a contrasted institutionalization; and finally, what “institutional model” emerges from Ireland and whether it can be transferred elsewhere.

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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 12

The final objection to “open democracy” which Landemore considers in chapter 8 of her book is that a non-electoral system would be too demanding on people’s time and effort. Landemore does not explicitly do so, but it seems useful to differentiate between the demands made on the population in total, or on average, and the demands made on specific people. A system may be problematic if it requires the average citizen to invest more time and effort than the average citizen sees fit. But even in cases where the demand on average is low, there may be problems if some citizens (even a small number) are asked to put in more time and effort than they are willing to put in.

Landemore rightly emphasizes that “it is essential to consider citizens’ time and attention as scarce resources that must be used wisely”. The notion that it makes sense, or even commendable and serves some ideal of citizenship or democracy, for citizens to show up to mass meetings or mass political events of any kind must be firmly rejected. This is not “participation” but exploitation. It is important to note, however, that the same is true for other forms of powerless “participation”, quite a few of which Landemore “makes room for” (p. 206) in her let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom approach. Spending time on a “crowdsourced platform” (p. 206), for example, or even sitting on an “agenda-setting” or “proposal review” body which is one of thousands of such bodies, meaning that its output is diluted thousands of times, is also a meaningless, exploitative anti-democratic ritual.
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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 6

The term “direct democracy” could have two meanings that are a-priori distinct but are often conflated in discourse. The first meaning is: a system in which all group members are directly involved on an equal basis in all important decision making. The second meaning is: a system which employs certain devices, notably votes on legislation, involving a formal equality among citizens, and which avoids formal delegation of authority. Since the two meanings are not the same and since the first meaning is by definition a form of democracy, I’ll use “direct democracy” to mean the former. The second meaning I’ll call “non-delegatory mass politics”.

In chapter 3 of Open Democracy Landemore makes her argument against the standard reformist idea that direct democracy can and should be achieved through non-delegatory mass politics. As Landemore mentions, this idea is quite common among anti-electoralist movements. The idea certainly has an intuitive appeal since non-delegation seems like the obvious antithesis of elections. Devoting time and space to a tight argument against this idea seems therefore like a well-justified effort. Beyond the intellectual value of such an argument, it serves a practical purpose as well in

paving the way for democrats to reconquer sites of real power by disabusing them of the notion that gathering in public spaces in large numbers marching against authorities, or letting popular social media personalities end up as de facto leaders is enough, or even all that democratic.

Accepting that democracy is always in some sense representative […], and indeed needs to be, would save a lot of these social movements from the sort of conceptual and practical dead ends that the Zappatistas, Occupy, the Indignados and other proponents of assembly democracy in the Arab Spring, in Turkey and elsewhere count not find a way out of. It would allow for the civic energy mobilized by these movements to be channeled into constructive decision-making beyond demonstrating and occupying and generally go from noise to signal. (p. 76)

Furthermore, recognizing that representation is inevitable will help stave off the danger that “under the guise of immediacy and spontaneity […] self selected groups [would] speak[…] in the name of the whole” (p. 76).

Landemore’s position, like her position regarding elections, is commendably principled and uncompromising:

It is simply not the case that democracy as a political regime can ever be truly direct even at the small scale of a city or a canton as opposed to being always mediated and based on some kind of political delegation of political authority. (p. 63)

[T]he possibility of direct democracy breaks down as soon as the group expands beyond a few hundred people. (p. 65)

[T]he interesting question is not: direct or representative democracy? But instead: What kind of representation should we favor? The real opposition is […] between more or less democratic forms of represntative rule. On one extreme, ordinary people actually get to rule […] (as in Ancient Athens); at the other extreme the representative system is open only to an elite few. […] Our contemporary electoral ‘democracies’ fall somewhere on this continuum and, arguably, rather close to the elitist, closed side. (p. 78)

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Chevallier: The chic populism of participative democracy

A column by Arthur Chevallier in Le Point is yet another condemnation of the allotted committee monitoring the French vaccination campaign. The author sees the creation of the committee as a sign of weakness and hesitation. The government, he asserts, must act resolutely and dispose of attempts to over-communicate.

Chevallier is an editor at Passés composés and the author of the book “Napoléon et le Bonapartisme” published by Que sais-je ?.

The chic populism of participative democracy

Jan. 5, 2021

The allotment of 35 citizens to follow the vaccination campaign was aimed to be the perfect exercise in communication. It turned out to be the opposite.

Democracy is not about weakness. It is not about the promotion of amateurism. The creation of a committee of 35 allotted citizens which is supposed to follow the vaccination against Covid-19 invited mockery. What should have been proof of transparency turned into evidence of failure. If criticising the management of the crisis is less a matter of courage than of cynicism, since the matter is not as easy as it may seems, it is still necessary to denounce the unhealthy attempt to compensate for lack of efficacy by populism. Horizotalization of power is an illusion. Democracy did not gain its prominence by getting amateurs to run complex matters, but rather by its successes.

Without being aware of it, progressivism gives way to a stereotype of recationism. Since the 19th century, an ideology which may be called counter-revolutionary mocks democracy for being “feminie”, attaching to it labels such as the well-known “prostitute”, and hurling insults claiming that it is incapable of creating a powerful and harmonious state. History proves the opposite. Democracy is in fact quite often a radicalization of politics. In antiquity, Athens was at its height of power and imperialism at the 5th century BC, being its age where its democracy attained its most sophisticated form.
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Sicard: Replacing representative democracy with participative democracy is dangerous, Part 2/2

This is the second and final part of a translation of an article by Claude Sicard published in July 2020 in Le Figaro. The first part is here.

In order to put an end to the Gilets Jaunes revolt, Macron embarked in January 2019 upon what he called the “Great National Conversation”. This has consisted of organizing huge meetings in city halls with the participation of mayors and the local elected politicians, and urging the population to share their comments in person in during the meetings or through an online platform. Macron himself made many animated appearances in these meetings all over the country, which usually lasted more than four hours. Macron would take off his jacket and respond to all the questions addressed to him. Meetings took place in more than 10,000 municipalities, and 1.9 million comments were made. The “Great Conversation” was concluded with a press conference on April 25th, 2019. On that occasion Macron said: “I wished to meet you in order to draw the main lessons from the Great National Conversation and to propose to the nation directions for a new way that our citizens are looking for, a new way for our republic”. He has described the Great Conversation as “an unprecedented exercise for contemporary democracies”. This was therefore a mass popular consultation whose goal was to orient the actions of public institutions over the coming years.

That was followed by a second step. Following the coronavirus crisis, on May 25th, the “Health Conference at Ségur”. The crisis required great dedication from health professionals in order to make up for grave weaknesses of our public hospital system. It was therefore necessary to take their many demands into account without any further delay. Macron saw himself as forced to try to address as well as possible those demands, having been the first praise the exceptional dedication of the health personnel during the crisis, going as far as calling the first responders “national heros”. Macron initiated another great consultation, this time among 300 principal actor in the health sector. This was a second exercise, then, in participative democracy. The goal of this consultation was particularly ambitious. The prime minister defined it as follows in his opening speach: “To construct together the future of the hospital, to heal a system that was blocked and impoverished, and build a new health system organization in each territory”. The participants were given an incredibly short period for reforming our public health system: a month and a half at the most.
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