Criteria and two proposals for the use of sortition in politics

The Dutch organization has published a document (Dutch, German, Français, English) with criteria for the application of sortition in a political system and with two proposals for the use of sortition in the European political system.

The criteria deal with how the agenda is set, the sampling system, the size of the allotted chamber, its service term, its powers – advisory or binding and the potential for manipulation.

The two proposals are:

  • a “transitional” system in which the size of an allotted chamber is determined by the number of voters indicating support for this chamber during elections, and
  • a ‘European Citizens Jury’ – an allotted chamber set up as a review chamber next to the European parliament.

From the introduction:

According to historical sources, our political system was developed to protect the elite AGAINST democracy (sovereignty of the people). An “Electoral Aristocracy” was installed (18th century). Nevertheless, this can be seen as a positive evolution compared with monarchy.

Later on, some “democratic” elements were introduced, for instance “free”, or so called “democratic”, elections with universal suffrage, the equality principle, freedom of speech, freedom of organization, free press etc. However, some of those elements were moderated or abolished afterwards.

But a “democratic element” is not yet a “democracy”. Freedom of organization may be a “democratic element” without which a democracy cannot exist, but on its own it is no democracy. Hence “free elections”, to appoint a governor for instance, may be a democratic element, but on their own they are by no means a democracy. Furthermore, our political system of representation by elected representatives originates from the Roman Republican system and not from the Athenian Democracy. Calling our political system a “democracy” is deliberately misleading propaganda.
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Bouniol: The idea of a Citizens Chamber gains ground

Béatrice Bouniol has been showing some interest in sortition in her stories at La Croix. Last November, on the occasion of the publishing of a new book on the subject of “The Citizens Assembly of the Future”, Bouniol had the following story.

The idea of a Citizens Chamber gains ground

During COP 23, the Foundation for Nature and Man calls on France to make a democratic innovation by establishing a Citizen Assembly for the Future. Facing a crisis of representation, a citizens’ third chamber, an idea which has been discussed for about twenty years, gains ground.

On July 3rd, 2017, speaking in front of Congress, Emmanuel Macron proposed the transformation of the Social and Environmental Economy Council (CESE) into a Chamber of the Future, “a forum of our Republic” aimed at becoming “the crossroad of public deliberation”. Dominique Bourg, president of the scientific council of the Foundation for Nature and Man – created by Nicolas Hulot – having advocated the creation of such a chamber since 2011, was thus pleased at the proposal, but expressed his worry on the pages of La Croix that it could be a mere “rebranding – certainly necessary but far below what is desired.” The programmatic essay that appears today under his direction (Inventing the 21st Century Democracy: The Citizen Assembly of the Future. [Inventer la démocratie du XXIe siècle. L’Assemblée citoyenne du futur, Les Liens qui libèrent/Fondation pour la Nature et l’homme, 2017]) aims therefore to remind the President of the Republic of the conditions required for creating a Citizen Assembly for the Future.

The hall of the Social and Environmental Economy Council, at Iena Square, Paris.

In order to go beyond a feel-good formula, the establishment of a third parliament chamber must rest on an effort of democratic creativity, required by an unprecedented situation. At the age of the anthropocene (a new geological period defined by the impact of humans on their environment), reported by a group of researchers, it is necessary to systematically take into consideration of the impact of laws on the long term, that is, of their influence on the large scale physical and biological evolution of the planet.
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When is a democratic innovation not a democratic innovation? The populist challenge in Australia

An interesting article by Lucy Parry about the Australia mini-publics in participedia:

Outside the room: the populist challenge

Remember those NIMBYs and SIFs that mini-publics aim to exclude through random selection? Their exclusion rests on the assumption that the quality and outcome of deliberation is better without those insistent voices. The aim is that through a process of deliberation, people will become ‘more public-spirited, more tolerant, more knowledgeable, more attentive to the interests of others, and more probing of their own interests’ (Warren 1992, p8). Producing deliberated public opinion involves weeding out weak and poorly informed arguments. Again, this is all very well if you are inside the room. If you’re outside the room, you may very well object.

And let’s face it, those objectionable voices are not going away. As Ben Moffit points out, ‘Populism, once seen as a fringe phenomenon relegated to another era or only certain parts of the world, is now a mainstay of contemporary politics across the globe’. The voices that a Citizens’ Jury wants to keep out of the room now have the room surrounded. If we continue down the mini-publics road, the very thing that allegedly legitimises mini-publics will also be its downfall. The assumptions underpinning random selection are that it is representative of the wider community; and that it facilitates better quality deliberation by bringing together everyday citizens rather than insistent voices. Whether these things are accurate or not is a moot point – what actually matters is how they are perceived by broader publics. It is sad but possibly true that for those outside the room, what goes on inside the room doesn’t matter. And I suspect that the argument that a Jury is representative and very well informed is simply not going to cut it.

Mini-publics rely on information presented by experts; populism rejects the knowledge of experts. With all the will and most independently-recruited-and-facilitated process in the world – people may just not trust it.

This is in line with the criteria for the use of sortition in politics I proposed a while ago and especially with our Two Chamber proposal (page 9):

The presentations of the experts and groups of interests have to be public in case of legislative juries, in order to provide both public information and control. This also has to ensure that ‘informed citizens’ share the same view as the citizens’ jury. That way, we avoid that decisions taken by the citizens’ jury differ from what the people think, in case they had the chance to express their view in a referendum.)

Shallit: The Sortition Solution

Mathematician and professor of computer science Jeffrey Shallit has a post on his blog in which he advocates for sortition. Some excerpts:

The US political system is clearly broken. … Proportional representation is often proposed as a solution to some of these problems. … But this doesn’t resolve the corruption and tribalism problems…

My solution is exotic but simple: sortition, or random representation. Of course, it’s not original with me: we use sortition today to form juries. But I would like to extend it to all legislative bodies.

Here is a brief outline of how it would work. Legislators would be chosen uniformly and randomly from a universal, publicly-available list; perhaps a list of all registered voters.

In each election period (say 2-5 years), a random fraction of all representatives would be completely replaced, perhaps 25-50%. This would allow some institutional memory and expertise to be retained, while insuring that incumbents do not have enough time to build up fiefdoms that lead to corruption.

Sortition could be phased in gradually. For the first 10 years, sortition could be combined with a traditional electoral system, in some proportion that starts small and eventually completely replaces the traditional electoral system. This would increase public confidence in the change, as well as avoiding the problem of a “freshman class” that would be completely without experience.
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Sortition in Switzerland

The Swiss news website 24heures has a story about sortition in Switzerland. (Original in French, my translation, corrections welcome.)

And if parliament members were allotted?

Democracy A seminar examines the use of sortition in Switzerland, which some citizens want to implement.

By Caroline Zuercher, 25.10.2017

Antoine Chollet, research professor at UNIL. Photo: Marius Affolter

Allotment is useful not only for selecting the winners in lotteries. A group of citizens, Generation Nomination, wants to use it for selecting our people’s representatives in Berne. In time, they place to launch a initiative to this effect. The mechanism is far from being new having already been used in ancient Greece. An international seminar, on Friday and Saturday at the university of Lausanne is examining exactly these experiences in Switzerland and in Europe.

Sortition has been used in various contexts. And it has not always been synonymous with democracy. Antoine Chollet, teaching assistant in the University of Lausanne, gives and example. In the 18th century Berne used it to name bailiffs and other magistrates, but only the members of noble families participated in the allotment. The goal was therefore about all to share power among the powerful.

Switzerland had more democratic experiences as well. Studies supported by the National Swiss fund for scientific research examined cases in Schwytz and in Glaris. “There, the people demanded allotment in order to reduce the corruption of the elites and to enhance the circle of powerful families”, explains the researcher. In Glaris at the end of the 18 century, for example, the deputies were for allotted among the entire body of citizens. With limited success: “Our research shows that it was transformed into a form of lottery. Those who were selected could resell their post: that was the great prize!”
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Ismael Serageldin: Transparency and Trust in Trying Times

Ismael Serageldin is the Director of the Library of Alexandria, and one of the most well-connected people in the world. In September he delivered a lecture in Latvia (where he was receiving his 38th honorary doctorate) titled “Transparency and Trust in Trying Times” in which he proposes allotting the legislature (PDF). Serageldin developed his enthusiasm for sortition reform after reading David Van Reybrouck’s book Against Elections: The Case for Democracy and Terrill Bouricius’s paper “Democracy Through Multi-Body Sortition: Athenian Lessons for the Modern Day”. This lecture discusses a range of topics revolving around the deficit of democracy, and the portion about his proposal for a legislature through sortition begins on page 18.


We could try to salvage representative democracy – at least for the legislative branch – by adopting a system of sortition.

The problems we see with legislative or parliamentary elections – a backbone of parliamentary representative democracy – can be summed up as:

  • The polarization that leads to paralysis or blockage, as happens in the US congress and as seen in Belgium staying over 500 days without a government.
  • The interference of money in the electoral process which leads to undue influence of the rich, resulting in a generalized feeling of the voters not trusting the parliamentarians or congressmen that they elected.
  • The gerrymandering of individual districts to suit particular interests with a very large preponderance of particular parties wining particular seats
  • The disparity between the shares that different parties get of the actual votes cast and the shares of the seats taken in the parliament
  • The enormous power of incumbency that results in individual deputies being almost invulnerable, with probability of reelection in certain districts exceeding 95%.

Sortition would replace conventional elections. The kind of elections that we have come to take as a given, with political parties vying for power, and entrenched political incumbents getting reelected and a feeling among the public that the elected parliament still does not really represent them, and that in reality things are governed by the elite because money and politics have become too intertwined.

Sortition can respond – at least partially – to these challenges to representative democracy.

Detoxing democracy: Brexit and the considered will of the British people

Nicholas Gruen is an economist, entrepreneur and commentator who has been described by former Australian member of the House of Representatives Lindsay James Tanner as “Australia’s foremost public intellectual”.

On Nov. 6th, Gruen will be giving a talk at King’s College London titled “Detoxing democracy: Brexit and the considered will of the British people”.


Though material conditions played their part, the degradation of politics now so evident in the shock and awe of Brexit and Trump also reflect the way in which elections orient politics around political combat, rather than deliberation and problem solving. Yet Britain could use the ancient Athenian idea of selection by lot – choosing a cross-section of the public to deliberate together to complement elections – to turn its slow-motion crisis into the rebirth of democracy, moving it from government according to the will of the people, and towards the richer, safer notion of government according to the considered will of the people.

An outline of the argument: Detoxing Brexit by detoxing democracy.

Britain’s governing class is now engineering a tragedy that arose from a piece of political improvisation gone horribly wrong. Yet there’s a principled way of handling the situation.
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