Finding Genius Podcast

I’ve been meaning to post about this, but sadly the end of term proved rather hectic for me. I was interviewed in April about sortition for the Finding Genius podcast. It was a good interview–wish I’d seen the interview with Simon Pek beforehand, as the topic of sortition inside of firms came up. The picture they found of me is ten years old, but I’m not going to complain about that! The podcast can be accessed here: Revolutionizing Democracy – The Benefits Of Sortition and Selected Citizens Councils with Dr. Peter Stone.

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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Public support for allotted citizens’ assemblies in Western Europe

A new paper in the European Journal of Political Research (full text) provides data about popular support for allotted citizens’ assemblies in Western Europe. The countries surveyed were: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the UK.

Public Support for Deliberative Citizens’ Assemblies Selected through Sortition: Evidence from 15 Countries

Jean-Benoit Pilet*, Damien Bol**, Davide Vittori*, and Emilien Paulis*

*Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium
** King’s College London, United Kingdom

Abstract

As representative democracy is increasingly criticized, a new institution is becoming popular among academics and practitioners: deliberative citizens’ assemblies. To evaluate whether these assemblies can deliver their promise of re-engaging the dissatisfied of representative politics, we explore who supports them and why. We build on a unique survey conducted with representative samples of 15 Western European countries and find, first, that the most supportive respondents are those who are less educated, have a low sense of political competence and an anti-elite sentiment. Thus, support does come from the dissatisfied. Second, we find that this support is for a part ‘outcome contingent’, in the sense that it changes with people’s expectations regarding the policy outcome from deliberative citizens’ assemblies. This second finding nuances the first one and suggests that while deliberative citizens’ assemblies convey some hope to re-engaged disengaged citizens, this is conditioned to the hope of a favourable outcome.

Despite emphasizing the “deliberative” label in the title of the paper, the question measuring support for allotted assemblies makes no mention of this obfuscatory term and instead focuses directly on decision-making power:

Overall, do you think it is a good idea to let a group of randomly-selected citizens make decisions instead of politicians on a scale going from 0 (very bad idea) to 10 (very good idea)?

The median response was 4.32, which is pretty impressive for such a radical idea. The chart below shows the distribution of responses. It is interesting to note that (if I read the chart correctly) the two countries with the lowest median support for the idea (3/10) are Denmark and Norway – the two Scandinavian countries in the survey. Those countries are among those with the highest level in the Western world of satisfaction with current government.

Sortition on VSauce

VSauce is a popular YouTube channel. The channel, which has millions of subscribers, deals with “scientific, psychological, mathematical, and philosophical topics, as well as gaming, technology, popular culture, and other general interest subjects”.

In April 2021 the channel uploaded a 30-minute video called “The Future Of Reasoning”. The video is a bit of grab bag of ideas and topics, but the main message seems to be that in order to deal with global warming the human race (or the West, or the US) needs to improve the way in which it makes decisions, and that this improvement could involve relying on sortition. “Lottocracy” is presented and argued for starting about 26 minutes into the video and Aristotle is quoted about 28 minutes in. According to YouTube, the video has been watched 6.5 million times – quite a nice exposure to the idea of sortition.

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.