A proposal of sortition for a student body

In May 2020 Orion Smedley was running for president of the UCLA Undergraduate Student Association. One of the items on his platform was to select USAC councillors using sortition:

Orion Smedley for USAC President

The only way to get a truly representative sample of a population is random sampling (ask a statistician). And presumably we all want a representative government. Enter: Sortition. Sortition is like jury duty, only for legislatures as well. Imagine if your Congress members were ordinary people like you and me instead of career politicians.

Would it work in practice? It worked in Ancient Greece (britannica.com/topic/sortition). But how would it work here?

For starters, we could add a sortition based senate to USAC. While USAC could be the one generating proposals, the sortition senate could be in charge of choosing the proposals. As long as the senate is large enough (by the Central Limit Theorem, at least 30 people) and randomly selected, it would be as though all of UCLA’s undergraduates came together to voice their opinions. It’s the same way that a random spoonful from a well-mixed pot of soup tells us how the entire soup is, no matter how big the pot is; the way USAC is currently selected is closer to not mixing the pot at all and taking spoonfuls from the same spot over and over again, and then being surprised we get the same result every time.
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“Putting the practice of sortition on firmer foundations”

An article in Nature by Bailey Flanigan, Paul Gölz, Anupam Gupta, Brett Hennig and Ariel D. Procaccia proposes a sampling algorithm which produces samples with specified quotas for given subgroups of the population. Since the quotas do not match the proportions of the groups in the population, the probability of selection of each person in the population is not the same. However, the algorithm aims to make those probabilities as equal as possible.

The authors propose the use of their algorithm for selecting citizen assemblies from groups of volunteers. In existing practice, the group of volunteers for a citizen assembly is usually very unrepresentative of the population as a whole and the quotas are used to supposedly compensate for this unrepresentativity and make sure that the selected assembly is descriptive of the population as a whole. The authors claim that “[b]y contributing a fairer, more principled and deployable algorithm [than the previous algorithm used], our work puts the practice of sortition on firmer foundations. Moreover, our work establishes citizens’ assemblies as a domain in which insights from the field of fair division can lead to high-impact applications”.

In my view, while this work may be of theoretical interest in the field of sampling, and while the authors may have the most commendable intentions of promoting democratic decision making, the notion that this work in any way improves the political application of sortition is not only unjustified, but may actually be the opposite of reality.

First, it is obvious that unless absurdly arbitrary and drastic assumptions are made, quotas can in no way compensate for the unrepresentativity of a volunteer sampling group. For quotas to be able to compensate for the unrepresentativity of the volunteer sampling group, it must happen that within each quota group the probability of volunteering is uncorrelated with (informed and considered) opinions on the matters at hand. One would have to have a horribly mechanistic and reductionist notion of what determines individual opinions in order to make such an assumption. Thus, the entire endeavor of quota-adjusted sampling is no more than cosmetics over the reality of bias introduced by low volunteer rates in existing applications of sortition in politics.
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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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Thomas Guénolé: Three problems, one solution

Thomas Guénolé is a French political scientist. Two of his books are La Mondialisation malheureuse (The Unhappy Globalization), published in 2016, and Le Livre noir de la mondialisation (The Black Book of Globalization), published in 2020. According to the Wikipedia, the latter book argues that globalization “as a worldwide system of production and distribution of resources” has been responsible over the years 1992 to 2017 for over 400 million deaths (mostly due to preventable or treatable diseases).

He writes the following in Marianne.

Contrary to a common, but unfounded, conception, the low turnout in parliamentary elections is not a sign of political apathy among voters. This is evident from the fact that turnout in presidential elections is consistently very high. In other words, presidential elections are of interest and all other elections are not. Rather than making voting mandatory, it is necessary to find a way to produce legitimate democratic assemblies, but without elections which are of low interest to the voters.

Allotting all assemblies resolves this problem. They would become truly representative. When using allotment to create a sample of the entire population the probability that this would be a faithfully representative sample of the whole is extremely high. In statistics this is called “pure random sampling”. Sortition would automatically produce assemblies that are truly representative of the French population. They would contain, for example, the same proportion of women, of retirees, of the unemployed, of workers, of young people, as in the population. This vast inflow of representatives, whose gender, age, and poverty normally keep them away from positions of power, would surely change how matters are discussed. At the same time, it is clear that in the presence of those directly affected by reform proposals, the discussions would have radically different tone and content, and would be much more concrete, as would be the proposals themselves that originate from these representatives.
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Okazaki: Appointment and Sortition

Seiki Okazaki, Professor of political theory and comparative politics at Kyushu University, Japan, has written to share a summary of his new article, “Appointment and Sortition,” pubilshed in Law and Philosophy journal, No. 7, pp. 31–56.

I have recently published an article titled “Appointment and Sortition” in Japanese. It is one of the five contributions to Law and Philosophy, No. 7 (June 2021), which discuss ‘Just Lotteries’. Here I will summarize the arguments of my article.

As is well known, sortition has been generally discussed within the framework of ‘election and/or sortition.’ While I agree that the framework is still relevant, I am concerned that it limits the potential of sortition: Sortition tends to be applied mainly to the legislature and is mainly evaluated in terms of its contribution to democracy. If we liberate the concept of sortition from the framework, we can recognize two potentialities of sortition. First, the field of application is not limited to legislature: Sortition can be applied to administration and to the judiciary. Second, we will see that it has a liberal potential as well as a democratic potential: Sortition can contribute not only to citizen participation in power, but also to the restriction of political power (Oliver Dowlen’s book is important in this respect).
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A hit-piece against Lottery admissions

Prof. Jonathan Turley is an American legal scholar. In an article on his blog, he sounds the alarm regarding proposals to admit students to U.S. universities at random.

“Just Blind Chance”: The Rising Call For “Random Selection” For College Admissions

Random selection is not generally an approach that most people opt for in the selection of doctors or even restaurants or a movie. However, it appears to be the new model for some in higher education. Former Barnard College mathematics professor Cathy O’Neil has written a column calling for “random selection” of all college graduates to guarantee racial diversity. It is ever so simple: “Never mind optional standardized tests. If you show interest, your name goes in a big hat.” She is not the only one arguing for blind or random admissions.

Blind selection is the final default position for many schools. Universities have spent decades working around court decisions limiting the reliance on race as an admissions criterion. Many still refuse to disclose the full data on scores and grades for admitted students. If faced with a new decision further limiting (or entirely eliminating) race as a criterion, blind selection would effectively eliminate any basis for judicial review.
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The Scottish Citizens Assembly recommends creating a House of Citizens

Back in January, the Scottish Citizens Assembly has concluded its work and published its report. One of the sections in the recommendations chapter (PDF) is called “How decisions are taken” and contains various proposals involving the use of allotted bodies for political decision making. One of those recommendations is to

set up a ‘house of citizens’ to scrutinise government proposals and give assent to parliamentary bills. Membership should be time-limited and representative of the population of Scotland, similar to the way this CA was selected.

Having a permanent allotted body with oversight powers over government and (it seems) binding veto power over legislation is, I believe, an unprecedented proposal from an official constitutional reform body. Of course, the Scottish CA itself was merely advisory, so the adoption of its recommendations by the elected government is very far from certain.

A discussion of the report was held in the Scottish parliament in February. In the discussion John Mason of the Scottish National Party responded to the proposal:

The start of the members’ introduction says:

“We, the people of Scotland, present this report” to Government and Parliament. That is a big statement, suggesting that the assembly is either more representative of, or more in touch with, the general population than elected MSPs are. We should take that kind of statement seriously. The assembly is a cross-section of society, but it is not elected, so are we questioning democracy if we follow that logic?
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Confessions of a Traitor to the Cause: Some reflections looking back from John Burnheim

As I struggle with my ninety-fifth year, I would like to beg forgiveness from the true believers in sortition.

Nearly forty years ago, in 1985, I published the book Is Democracy Possible? with the subtitle The Alternative to Parliamentary Democracy. The sortitionists believed that the alternative could only be to reject the electoral system and replace it by sortition. The will of the people could be expressed only by the people themselves, so they assumed I must support that view.

In fact what the book advocated was something different, but it was so far outside the mainstream that it attracted little attention. There is no point in offering answers to questions people, apart from a few anarchists, don’t ask. Everybody assumed that democracy was a matter of ensuring that the power of the state is invested in the nation’s people. Anybody who denied that was a traitor to democracy.

My contention was that the real problem was the concentration of all public goods in the powers of the state. Those who agreed with me on that point usually assumed that the only alternative was to manage the power of money to protect the rights of the owners of property — radical capitalism. Robert Nozick, in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), claimed that the public goods that the state did not provide could be provided on a moral basis by the rich. This was hardly a prescription for democracy. Clearly public goods are very important to human life. Many public goods are conventions that evolve from the interactions of people as unplanned byproducts. Our languages are the obvious example. However in complex technological societies, many of the goods we need to have at our disposal must involve rational choices between different possibilities that are accepted by all those who need them.

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The Swiss Council of States rejects sortition for judges

SwissInfo reports:

Like the National Council, the Council of States has rejected the initiative that would replace the selection of judges by election to their selection by sortition.

Submitted by the entrepreneur Adrian Gasser, the initiative “Appointment of federal judges by sortition” aims to make judges more independent. The candidates have to attain their high position based solely on their qualifications, even if they do not have a political network, according to the text of the initiative.

Selected by a a commission of experts, the judges would then be allotted in a way that the official languages would be fairly represented. They would be able to serve five years beyond the normal age of retirement.

Democratic legitimacy

The senators have implicitly rejected the text. The initiative contradicts the Swiss practice where judges are elected and enjoy democratic legitimacy, a principle that is incompatible with a random process, declared Beat Rieder, a member of the judiciary committee.

The existing system has proven itself. Andrea Caroni, the president of the commission, the idea must be “voting rather than rolling the dice, democracy rather than lottery”. Sortition would in no way guaranty more independence and more fairness, added Thomas Minder.

The choices of the members of the commission of experts would not be neutral either, added Carlo Sommaruga. And it would not necessarily be the best that would be designated due to chance, concurred Karin Keller-Sutter, the Minister of Justice. According to her, the initiative introduces a “foreign element” into our institutions.

A different proposal that was also discussed would have judges elected for life rather than facing periodic re-election. In practice, however, non-re-elections are very rare. This proposal was rejected as well. According to article, Andrea Caroni thinks that “parliament knows how to protect the judiciary institution”.

Lottocracy: Lectures by Alex Guerrero

Prof. Alex Guerrero – a long time sortition advocatehas three lectures on sortition as part of a Coursera course called “Revolutionary Ideas: Borders, Elections, Constitutions, Prisons”. The lectures about sortition are titled:

  1. The Lottocracy
  2. The Promise of Lottocracy
  3. Concerns About Lottocracy

The lectures present Guerrero’s proposal which centers around single-issue-specific allotted bodies but also contain discussions that address questions that are relevant to other forms of sortition-based governance. The total length of the lectures is about 1 hour and they seem to have in mind an audience that is similar in terms of interests and attitude to political science undergraduate students.