Beppe Grillo proposes sortition

Beppe Grillo, the co-founder of the Italian Five Star Movement, the party that won the second largest share of the votes in the 2018 parliamentary elections, has published a post in his blog where he proposes replacing elections with sortition [Google translation]:

The idea is very simple: we select people by lot and put them in parliament.

It seems absurd, but think about it for a moment. The selections should be fair and representative of the country. 50% would be women. Many would be young, some old, some rich, but most of them would be ordinary people. It would be a microcosm of society.

However, there would be an important side effect: if we replaced the elections with the draw and made our parliament truly representative of society, it would mean the end of politicians and politics as we have always thought about it.

Naturally the proposal drew some media attention.

It seems, by the way, that Grillo learned about sortition through Brett Hennig (presumably his TED talk). Grillo also mentions Democracy in Practice and newDemocracy as examples of ongoing experimentation with sortition.

A fact emerges from all modern examples: if you give people responsibility, they act responsibly. Do not get me wrong, I do not say it’s perfect.

The right question is: does it work better? As far as I’m concerned, it’s YES.

Thanks to Tomas Mancebo for drawing attention to this rather dramatic development.

Henry Jeffrey: sortition in Guyana

In his column in Stabroek News, Dr. Henry Jeffrey, former minister of Labour, Human Services and Social Security in Guyana, suggests using the lottery to resolve a political stand-off in Guyana that has left key positions in government vacant.

It appears to me that in the case of the chancellor and the chief justice [the vacant positions] the court can force those who are being recalcitrant to negotiate under the shadow of a lottery. It could demand that based upon the existing criteria, the leader of the opposition present his nominees for the positions to the president within a particular time period and that a final decision be made on both positions by a given date. If the parties fail to complete the process within the stated period a lottery will be imposed and the positions so filled.

Leading to this rather modest proposal is Jeffery’s summary of the advantages of sortition. He cites The Lottery as a Democratic Institution by Delannoi, Dowlen and Stone (2013) as his source:

1) Much as in scientific opinion polls, sortition ensures that any characteristics appearing in the general population will appear in roughly the same proportions on a randomly-selected decision-making body so long as the decision-making body has a significant number of members and random selection proceeds from a pool consisting of the entire population it is supposed to represent.

2) Sortition can help to prevent corruption and/or domination by ensuring that those entering public have no better chance than others, and random selection that excludes reasons from decision-making could ironically enable more reasoned behaviour untainted by special interests.

3) Though desirable, political competition founders when, (as in Guyana because of ethnic allegiances) elites either compete too little or too much (when they engage in civil war).

4) Randomization can mitigate the possibility of highly motivated small groups with outlier agendas suborning the political process.

5) The difficulty of getting people to do jury duty these days indicates that many people do [not? -YG] covet holding public office but whether or not they do, a lottery is a fair means of distribution.

6) Sortition can aid political participation and reduce apathy by allowing the rotation of offices that could include usually excluded groups.

7) Turnover in offices, i.e. rotating the people in power, could alleviate elite domination.

8) Sortition can be psychologically liberating in that officeholders selected by lot are less likely to feel any special entitlement to office and those who lose out are unlikely to be deferential to the winners.

Selina Thompson Seeks Young Collaborators For Sortition Project

Broadway World writes:

Imagine scrapping elections and instead selecting politicians at random. What would you do if your name was drawn out and you suddenly found yourself in charge? How do you think the country should be run?

Award-winning performer Selina Thompson is sending out a far-reaching call to action for young people from all backgrounds to put their names forward for a new project this Summer.

The provocative new work, Sortition, will bring together a randomly selected team of young people under 30 from Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland who don’t vote, feel like voting doesn’t work and that politics as usual doesn’t represent them. Sortition is co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary, supported by Jerwood Charitable Foundation, and will go on to be premiered this September at Arnolfini in Bristol.

Thompson herself is presenting her project in a video on sortitionproject.com:

Frey and Tridimas on sortition

George Tridimas wrote to draw attention to the recent issue of the journal Homo Oeconomicus which has a set of comments (including one of his own) on a 2017 paper by the Swiss political economist Bruno Frey titled “Proposals for a Democracy of the Future” (PDF).

In the paper, Frey has a section called “True  Democracy  by  Random  Decisions?”. Some excerpts from that section:

The major advantage of random procedures in politics is to guarantee equal chance and therewith fairness, given the underlying body (e.g. Stone 2007). Each and every one in the underlying population has an equal chance of getting elected. It is therefore not necessary to introduce special quotas e.g. for the share of women. Interestingly, random procedures even take into account dimensions not yet discussed or even beyond imagination. Most importantly, the body politic is opened to new ideas and otherwise disregarded views. This also holds for preferences not yet even known but which may be important in the future.

The disadvantage of random decisions in politics is that capabilities, education and the intensity of desires are disregarded. This is the main reason why random choices in politics are rarely, if ever, taken from the population as a whole. The advantage of equality and fairness must be compared to the disadvantage of lower competencies. There are a great many possibilities to combine the two – a worthy subject for future research.

In addition to proposing combining sortition with elections, Frey also proposes deciding the outcome of referenda at random with the probabilities of the outcomes given by the vote shares.

Tridimas’s comment contains a review of the use of sortition in Athens. He concludes with a section called “Why Sortition may not Work”:

Clearly, the Athenian democracy was fundamentally different from the present representative democracy. Assembly deliberation, the rule of simple majority, absence of political parties, citizen participation through the courts, and sortition were a joint constitutional package, inexorably linked and mutually reinforcing. Therefore, an institution like sortition that served the direct democracy well may not be easily transferable to a representative democracy without the rest of the institutional structures. Cutting and pasting sortition from Athens to today is not the same thing as grafting it to the current institutional structure, and may fail to deliver ‘‘a better democracy’’.

Ackerman and Le Grand: How to have a serious referendum on Brexist and avoid a rerun of the original

Not being British I hesitate to post this entry, but I am advised by an informed source that “this is DIRECTLY on point re your sortition cause, and from perhaps the most prominent public law academic of the past century.”

To me the article seems to be a direct lift of Fishkin’s “Deliberation Day”:

A number of things were wrong with the 2016 referendum, including the disenfranchisement of key stakeholders and the extent of misinformation by both sides. Given that referendums should be informed exercises in democratic decision-making, Bruce Ackerman [Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale] and Sir Julian Le Grand [Professor of Social Policy at the Marshall Institute, LSE] explain how a referendum on the deal should look like.

[T]he government should take affirmative steps to fill the information gap. The best way forward is suggested by social science experiments, including an early one held in Britain. In 1994, Channel Four organised an intensive discussion amongst ordinary citizens on whether the UK should become more or less engaged with Europe. The scientifically selected sample of 238 participants went to Manchester for a weekend to engage in a series of small group exchanges with competing experts for Yes and No, as well as representatives from the three major parties. At the end of the weekend, support for Britain’s increased integration into the EU rose from 45% to 60%. In contrast, support for the Euro did not rise above 35%. Before-and-after questionnaires established that participants became more knowledgeable.

Sortition in Jacobin magazine

Tom Malleson, assistant professor of social justice and peace studies at King’s University College at Western University, Canada, writes in Jacobin magazine that “we need a legislature by lot”.

Some excerpts make the following points. Electoralist regimes are not democratic:

[There is] widespread disillusionment that many of the world’s people feel towards their purportedly democratic systems. [T]he truth, widely known yet rarely acknowledged, is that the American political system is increasingly run not by the people, but by the rich. Plutocracy. Leading scholars of American politics Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page conclude their recent study with the observation that “the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose.”

The standard reform proposals show little promise to fundamentally improve the situation:

What, then, is to be done? There has long been a conventional answer on the center-left: proportional representation and campaign finance reform — the former to enhance the representativeness of elections and the latter to reduce the distorting effects of money. This intuitive belief that the answer to our democratic problems is enhanced elections runs so deep that it is like an article of faith.

Yet should reformed electoral democracy really be the ultimate aim of our democratic hopes and dreams? Consider some of the places that are much closer to achieving an equitable electoral system, such as Canada, the UK, and particularly Western Europe. Such systems tend to function much more democratically than the US, but they run into the same basic problems with elections.

Money continues to play an important role, biasing elections towards the wealthy. Governments continue to be incredibly unrepresentative of the population — almost always composed of rich, white, middle-aged men. Even in Sweden, the young, the less educated, and the working class continue to be dramatically underrepresented (for instance, blue-collar workers make up about 9 percent of members of parliament despite comprising 41 percent of the electorate).

[T]he electoral process is inherently biased in favor of the rich — thereby undermining the cherished democratic ideal of political equality — because the precondition to winning an election is having the time and resources to communicate with the public and mobilize support, and that will always be done more effectively by those who have more money. This means that electoral democracy, regardless of campaign finance rules, will always be somewhat tilted towards the affluent.

Democracy and elections are incompatible:

If you lived in any previous historical era and told your neighbor that you believed in democracy, they would have understood what you meant. Yet if you had said that you believed in democracy and elections, they would have thought you’d lost your marbles.

For more than two thousand years, it was common knowledge that the only people who wanted elections were the rich and the powerful, since they were the ones who invariably benefitted from them. Those who genuinely believed in democracy, on the other hand, believed that political power must be kept in the hands of regular people and typically advocated the selecting of political positions by lot.

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Citizens’ juries as activism: holding the US Congress to its constitutional role

For some time now we’ve been ‘proving up’ citizens’ juries as a means of consulting the people, but generally within the context of governments being in charge. As a result they’ve been mostly relatively innocuous. For instance the first two in South Australia were focused on making Adelaide’s nightlife safe and vibrant and getting motorists and cyclists to share the road more safely. They’re pretty anodyne and boutique issues for politicians so it’s pretty low risk. They might generate some answers they’re happy with, help get community buy-in to tricky issues. And if they don’t work out as hoped for, governments can walk away without too much angst.

Having tried exercises with a degree of difficulty of about 3 out of ten, the then Premier of South Australia Jay Weatherill had a rush of blood to the head and tried the citizens’ jury with pike and triple twist – rated in the diagnostic and statistical manual of democracy at 10. Should South Australia start a nuclear waste storage industry? The answer was … no, which wasn’t much fun for anyone. Elsewhere in Melbourne a citizens’ jury worked on a ten year budget plan which was certainly well received at the time. The plan is now a few years old and I’m not sure how well it’s stood the test of time.

In the UK, a consortium of academic and other interests held a citizens’ jury on Brexit but, in the angst ridden atmosphere of Brexit Means Brexit Britain, they were at great pains not to antagonise the politicians who were planning on spending the next four years masterminding what the overwhelming majority of them understood to be the disaster of Brexit (you know, the way Australia’s politicians did abolishing carbon pricing against the better judgement of around 80 percent of them – it’s costing the budget over $10 billion a year since you asked.)

Thus, as the organisers collateral put it dutifully, “The UK’s voters have decided to leave the EU. The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit is not reopening this question. This decision has already been made.”[1] However I can’t think of any big change that came about from people playing by the rules of the existing system and asking nicely. And the fact is that sortition has roots going deep into our history and culture – in fact back two and a half millennia to Athens, the birthplace of democratic politics, but also back more than 800 years to Magna Carta in our legal system in the form of juries. As public trust plummets for so many institutions, its trust in juries is alive and well and while ‘vertical’ trust – the trust of people in large and powerful institutions – has been falling, horizontal trust – in people’s peers and People Like Them has not fallen and may have risen.

And, not being able to recall any form of political activism that brought about major change except by asserting its own legitimacy in competition with the legitimacy of the existing system, I want to find ways of confronting the existing system in its weakest places with the legitimacy of citizens’ juries and sortition where they are strongest. This is the way I put it in a recent interview:

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