Micah Erfan: Texas should try sortition democracy

Micah Erfan is an economics freshman at the University of Houston. He writes at the The Cougar, “the official student-run news organization of the university”. Nicely assertive, Erfan draws a direct link from the oligarchical nature of the elections-based system to the deaths of hundreds of citizens in a climate disaster. This is the kind of things one cannot do after having managed to climb a few rungs of the academic ladder.

Texas democracy is immensely broken. Sortition democracy, a government by random selection, might be the best way to fix it.

The idea is that a simple random sample or stratified sample of the population will provide a group that is far better suited to represent the genuine views of residents than a collection of politicians.

In recent years, Texas has become notorious for its anti-democratic policies. Key among them is the state’s rampant gerrymandering.

Even though roughly 60 percent of residents are nonwhite, in Texas’s new political maps, fifty percent of congressional districts have white majorities.

Texas’s elections also suffer from severe voter suppression and the use of majoritarian first past the post voting, a system that has frequently been deemed by political scientists as one of the least representative.

This democracy deficit has come with real costs. In 2021, the failure of lawmakers to prepare the state power grid for extreme weather cost the state 200 billion dollars and over 700 lives.

A sortition proposal in Malaysia

Datuk Yong Soo Heong writes in the Malaysian newspaper New Straits Times:

[M]any in the political gamesmanship seem to be brimming with confidence on how to bring that winning formula for themselves and their hangers-on. I’m not so sure what they’ve in mind in terms of wealth-creation for the people because I’ve not heard much about this except that they want to return to power.

Therefore, we often find ourselves in a dilemma.

Who do we vote for? Who could be trusted? Which politicians will not abandon their righteous cause? These are tough questions to answer.
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More criticism around the Herefordshire climate citizens assembly

Skepticism toward the Herefordshire climate citizens assembly continues to reverberate on the pages of the Hereford Times.

On February 28th, a letter to the editor was published which asked David Hitchiner, Leader of the Herefordshire council, whether he endorses the assertion made on the website of the Sortition Foundation (which took part in the organization of the assembly), that “our politics are broken”, and more specifically asking how much the sortition process has cost. Councillor David Hitchiner then responded that he does “not consider that [the political system] is perfect” and that the process cost £70,000.

Now, a letter from Julian Evans from Lyonshall is again critical of the sortition proceedings. Evans is pointing at the sum paid to the 48 citizens who were selected to participate in the assembly – £300 each – and says that it indicates that the allotted “were ranked as more important than parish councils”, whose members are unpaid. She writes:

It is therefore reasonable that we should be told who these people are and that they should each be required to file a declaration of interests, as all parish councillors are mandated to do.
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Another round in the Herefordshire citizen assembly controversy

A previous post mentioned a letter to the editor of the Hereford Times expressing objections and distrust of the process around the Herefordshire Citizens’ Climate Assembly and in particular asking what the cost of the process was.

Councillor David Hitchiner, Leader of Herefordshire Council, has now responded to the letter. Hitchiner reports that the total cost was £70,000, with Sortition Foundation receiving £8,456 plus VAT and Impact Consultancy and Research, receiving £30,000 (which, Hitchiner emphasizes, is a bargain).

The letter also asked Hitchiner whether he “subscribes to the view that our politics are in fact broken and, if so, what the council has been doing about it?”

Hitchiner answers:

Thankfully we live in a country with a democratic system. I do not consider that it is perfect.

Too few people do not [sic] exercise their democratic right to vote, and the elected are not even close to being a cross section of our society by age or socio-economic groupings.

For this reason consultation in decision making is especially important.

My hope is that more people in Herefordshire will respond to our consultations, and also decide to vote at the next election in response to the way in which this administration has gone about discharging the faith placed in us at the last election.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the commenters, both of them, are not impressed. One of them, letmehelp, writes:
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Small steps

Access to the chamber’s time for dealing with members’ bills is randomised.

Well this is a small step indeed, (perhaps intimated by the picture) but I thought readers might be interested in this little feature of New Zealand’s parliamentary arrangements.

It is usually the proviso of Christmas Day snacking or visits to your nan’s. But in New Zealand – a country with a penchant for on-the-fly problem-solving – the humble biscuit tin has become a mainstay of parliamentary democracy.

There, as in Britain, members’ bills are a chance for MPs to have laws that they have proposed debated in the house.

But unlike in Westminster, in Wellington those bills are represented by plastic bingo counters in a 30-year-old biscuit tin. A curled, yellowing paper label taped to the front helpfully proclaims: Members’ Bills.

New Zealand House Speaker Trevor Mallard bottle-feeds lawmaker Tamati Coffey’s baby while presiding over a debate in parliament

Each plastic counter represents a bill, and when there is space on parliament’s order paper for a fresh round of proposed laws, a member of the parliamentary service digs into the tin for a lucky dip.

“It was what was available at the time,” Trevor Mallard, the Speaker of New Zealand’s parliament said of the tin, adding that it had initially contained “a mixed selection of biscuits”.

The tin was introduced after parliamentary reforms in the 1980s that changed an earlier method for keeping track of members’ bills – a list – to a ballot draw.

Nicholas Gruen wants to give a citizen jury a “very, very small power”

Nicholas Gruen, an occasional contributor to this blog, has appeared on the Australian radio show Overnight with Michael McLaren and talked to Luke Grant about using sortition to add “a whole new part to Australian democracy”.

Like quite a few other prominent advocates for sortition, Gruen’s rhetoric tends to minimize the oppressive outcomes of the current system, and in doing so becomes incoherent. On the one hand, Gruen argues rather forcefully that the electoral system is non-representative and is really about promoting the interests of powerful organizations and people and of certain sectors in the population. However, at the same time, Gruen never tires of iterating his commitment to keeping essentially that same system – which he insists on calling a “democracy” – and emphasizing that his goal is simply “moderating the worst” of this system using citizen juries in one way or another.

Herefordshire: The cost of sortition

Christopher Baily, from Weston under Penyard, writes the following in a letter to the Hereford Times:

How much did Climate Assembly cost Herefordshire Council?

ACCORDING to the Herefordshire Council website the Herefordshire Citizens’ Climate Assembly discussed last month how Herefordshire should meet the challenges of climate change.

The people taking part were chosen from households invited to register their interest by an independent organisation called the Sortition Foundation, who were to make sure the final group represented the diversity of Herefordshire’s population.

On its website the Sortition Foundation says that together we can fix our broken politics.

May I ask whether David Hitchiner, the leader of the council for the past three years, subscribes to the view that our politics are in fact broken and, if so, what the council has been doing about it?

Perhaps he might also tell us, in the spirit of openness and accountability, how much of our money has been spent on engaging Sortition in this way, along with Impact Consultancy and Research and the Involve Foundation helping to run the assembly.

Disclosure of costs may be a rather trivial matter, and the obsession with this issue reflects the “broken politics” we are saddled with. But the issue of transparency around the application of sortition is crucial. Without transparency, it is easy to suspect that the whole process is being manipulated behind the scenes by established powers.

San Francisco recalls school board members who replaced exams with a lottery

A year ago the San Francisco board of education voted to replace admission exams at Lowell High School, “regarded as San Francisco’s top public high school”, and one of two public schools using exams for admissions, with a lottery. The school has a high proportion of Asian students and a low proportion of Black students, and, naturally, the change was presented as both being unfair to the former and as being a way to address discrimination against the latter.

On Tuesday some of the board members behind this change (as well as some other more symbolic changes) were recalled by large majorities of the San Francisco voters.

Sortition advocacy in South Africa

In an op-ed on the South African website Thought Leader, Bronya Hirschman writes about sortition.

Governance re-imagined: Is politics without parties possible?

Sortition offers inclusiveness and creates a diverse, non-partisan government and it asks citizens to take responsibility for their governance.

In 2021, media outlets (SABC News, IOL and Bloomberg, among others) reported that voter turnout was at an all-time low. Professor Joleen Steyn-Knotze, of the Human Sciences Research Council, attributes this to voter dissatisfaction. Research by The Conversation concurs and puts low voter turnout down to “individual and administrative barriers, followed by complaints about service delivery and corruption, uninterest or disillusionment, and a lack of political alignment”.

But it appears that low voter turnout is a global trend. Elections, as David van Reybrouck explains in Against Elections: The Case for Democracy, were, after all, designed to keep power in the hands of the elite. Thus it would seem we, as a society, have lost faith in the political process. But what does this mean? In effect, we, the people, are just a few people — the rest, a bit busy to be bothered.
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Action ideas

In the discussion following my presentation in the January DWE meeting, one of the participants suggested that a list of actions and activities that sortition activists can engage in in order to promote idea of sortition would be useful. Here is my attempt at a first draft. The possible actions and activities are categorized by the circle of action (internal, personal circle, wider circles). In addition there is a category of activities that are suitable for coordinated action. In some cases it may be worth expanding on the bullet items and giving some details, but I wanted to keep the list brief and manageable, so I intend to do this separately.

Please contribute your ideas in the comments. Hopefully we can create an improved, richer list in future versions.

Changing personal habits of thought and expression

  • Breaking the habit of thinking and referring to countries with elections-based political systems as “democratic” (e.g., “the Western democracies”)
  • Awareness of the oppressive outcomes of the elections-based system
  • Thinking and talking about those outcomes as inherent to the elections-based system, rather than aberrations
  • Rejecting the standard electoralist “fixes” (campaign finance reforms, term limits, the popular initiative process, proportional representation, etc.)

Action within the personal circle
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