A proposal for using sortition in a women’s party in India

An op-ed by Sucheta Dasgupta in the Deccan Chronicle.

The Women’s Party: An opening manifesto
Aug 2, 2020

The case for an all-women party becomes all the more urgent seeing as the women’s reservation bill has been hanging fire for 12 years and at the panchayati raj level, where 33 per cent reservation has been implemented, many of the elected are being seen as stooges of their husbands, or worse, more malevolent forms of patriarchy.

Clearly, whether equity of outcome or equality of opportunity is the goal, reservations are not the final answer.

Say, we form a women’s party. Luck (sortition), and not election experience or ‘winnability’, will be the criterion for handing out tickets within this women’s party (it will perhaps make for grooming of many good leaders and save it from the trap a certain young Delhi-based, and now Delhi-confined, party has fallen into).

Turncoats may avail party membership but will be barred from this draw of lots. The left/right nature of electoral politics excludes perspectives and concerns falling outside particular party agendas — these are deliberately kept out for fear of misperception of ideological dilution on the part of the electorate.

One advantage of sortition over intra-party elections will be that, not being partisan in the old sense of the word, new members will bring to the table many more of these perspectives and concerns.

Burnheim and Gruen on the path toward sortition

An exchange between John Burnheim and Nicholas Gruen on the way to introduce sortition into contemporary political systems.


Scrap attempts to reforming politics as a whole. From a practical point of view attempts to do so by legal constitutional change have no possibility of succeeding from a theoretical point of view, it is folly to assume that if we agree broadly about principle and are motivated to act we will reach a practical agreement. As soon as you analyse the range of possibilities that emerge once one envisages ways of putting all those abstract principles into practice, the more one runs into a host of incompatible proposals.

IIUC, Burnheim argues that the political system either fails to recognize “known and recognised needs” or fails to recognize that established policy does not address those needs. Bodies that are supposed to recognize and address the needs “operate primarily in the interests of those who have power […] rather than the public interest”.

My view is that while it’s no panacea, [there] is likely to be a very effective role for specialised committees of citizens chosen by sortition. I also think that sortition for very specialised tasks is the way forward for many public activities. Don’t concentrate on what juries can’t do, but on instances where they are likely to do something useful.


There are three ‘poles’ of democracy. Direct democracy is one way to do democracy – but it’s both impractical and ill-advised even as an ideal in my view. This leaves representative democracy and I can think of two very different ways of selecting representatives. Competitively through elections and via sortition.

My entire program revolves around finding whatever ways might be possible to inject the latter into a system dominated by the former – whether those ways are large or small.
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Testart on democracy, democratic debate and citizen power, Part 2/2

This is the second part of a translation of a 2017 interview in Le Comptoir with Jacques Testart, a prominent French biologist, and long-time advocate for citizen power. The first part is here.

Le Comptoir: Citizen juries have so far been employed in a consultative role. Can you explain what those procedures are and within which frameworks they do they work?

Testart: The democratic procedures for citizen juries or assemblies are very vague. The principle is always to ask a group of allotted people to express their opinion on a certain problem. Citizen conferences, which are the most well-formed model, were invented by the Danish parliament in the 1980’s, perhaps because the Danish MPs are less conceited than ours. They noted that they were unqualified to politically manage technological and medical problems.
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Wachtel: Let’s Choose Legislators Randomly from the Phone Book

Ted Wachtel is the founder of a political organization called “Building A New Reality“. He is a sortition advocate.

Let Legislative Juries Decide Laws

In a new article in Dissident Voice I explain how laws can be decided by legislative juries, and why this is far preferable to laws being decided by elected politicians and the ballot initiative. This is an update and further statement of the legislative juries proposal I first published in 1998. I set out four ways in which I am in favour of laws being proposed to legislative juries, my preferred approach to deciding the details and arrangements for jury lawmaking, and some of the role agenda juries can play.

It would be far better and far more democratic if laws are decided by legislative juries rather than by elected politicians.

Legislative juries would decide proposed laws by majority vote, using secret ballot, after a fair hearing on a level playing field with supporters and opponents of the proposed law having equal time to present their case to the jury.

It is essential that rule by the people be exercised in an informed manner, including with regard to deciding laws, because informed views are a far better basis for a decision than poorly informed and uninformed views.

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Táíwò: Power over the police

In the context of the recent mass outrage over the murder of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis, Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò of the Pan-African Community Action reiterates the proposal made by Max Rameau to enforce citizen control over police via allotted citizen boards.

The core problem with policing and incarceration is the same problem that plagues our whole political system: elite capture. The laws, the regulations, the bailouts, and the wonks who write and evaluate all of the above are all powerfully influenced—if not functionally controlled—by elite political and corporate interests. We cannot put our faith in elected representatives and merely vote our way out of this problem: elections are more dominated by dollars than ever, and grassroots energy around political figures is increasingly shaped by identity politics, which faces its own elite capture problem.

Instead, we need to give power back to the people—directly. Under one specific proposal, offered by the Washington, D.C.–area group Pan-African Community Action (of which I’m a member), communities would be divided into districts, each of which would be empowered to self-determine how to maintain public order. Each district would hold a plebiscite to decide what to do with its current police department, immediately giving the community the direct voting power to abolish, restructure, downsize, or otherwise reconstruct their departments.
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The French citizen convention on the climate: the endgame

Florent Gougou and Simon Persico write in La Vie des idées about the approaching culmination of the French citizen convention on the climate and how its work should be translated into policy. They find the use of a referendum particularly appealing. Also included in the article is the useful chart above comparing along several dimensions the makeup of the French National Assembly to that of members of the convention (which were selected to reflect the makeup of the French population).

Deciding together: The citizen convention on the climate and the democratic challenge

Now that the citizen convention on the climate is drawing to a close, how should the proposals of the allotted citizen be made into policy within the framework of the a democratic process? What place and shape should a referendum take within the political decision-making?

In the weekend of June 19 to 21, the 150 citizens allotted to the citizen convention on the climate will meet for the last time in order to conclude their work. Two essential points will be on their schedule. The first is finalizing the list of proposals that they will hand to the executive, and more broadly to the French people. The second is choosing the legal mechanisms by which a decision would be made regarding those proposals: executive orders, legislation or through a referendum.
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Americans support constitutional amendments replacing voting with lotteries

The chart below is excerpted from the results of an opinion survey conducted for “of by for” – an organization working “to get past parties and politicians and put everyday people front and center”. The organization has high profile sortition advocates such as Lawrence Lessig, James Fishkin and Jane Mansbridge as advisors.

Étienne Chouard: Public decision-making from the perspective of the common good, Part 4

Previously published parts of this essay are the Introduction, Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

It remains to examine the different applications of sortition in politics:

Part II. Comparison of different applications of sortition

Having seen how poorly the common good is served by elections and how well it is defended by sortition, we can ask (i) what are the principal applications of allotment for appointing representatives, and (ii) how could this procedure become part of a constitutional, institutional structure.

(i) Principal applications of sortition in politics

Elections among candidates are generally used to award privileges, whereas sortition is used to assign duties.

In addition, to fill a post or carry out a function we elect a single person for an extended duration, during which time there is little or no control over that person. With sortition, a group of people are allotted for a short period, during which time they are closely monitored.
Here are three notable models for the use of sortition in politics (keeping the most important one for the end):

1. Sortition for appointing oversight bodies

It is often asserted in the literature of political philosophy how important it is for citizens to closely control all forms of political power. Here is Montesquieu:

It is the universal experience that any man who carries power comes to abuse it. He abuses it up to the point where he finds his limits. Even virtue needs to have limits! In order to prevent abuse of power it is necessary to match power against power [The Spirit of the Laws, Book XI, Chapter IV].

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Altman: Strengthening Democratic Quality: Reactive Deliberation in the Context of Direct Democracy

A 2014 paper by David Altman, professor of political science at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, proposes using citizen juries as part of the intiative/referendum process in a way that goes beyond Citizen Initiative Review.

Strengthening Democratic Quality: Reactive Deliberation in the Context of Direct Democracy

David Altman

Kellogg Institute for International Studies – Working Paper Series #400

Abstract: Acknowledging that mechanisms of direct democracy can fall prey to narrow and egoistic interests (regardless of how legitimate they may be) and that legislatures do not always have the incentives to articulate responses to those narrow interests, I propose a hypothetical reform: any time a popular vote (i.e., initiative, referendum, or authorities’ referendum) is held, representative and direct institutions should be supplied with a stratified random sample of eligible voters convened to advance citizens’ counterproposals. This original institution—which does not exist even in the places where direct democracy is most developed—would discuss, deliberate, and offer an alternative or an improvement to a policy question that is to be decided in the near future; it would refine and enlarge public views on a contentious topic, providing meaningful political choices, and thus strengthening democratic quality. In arguing for this, my research takes insights from two real-world situations—Uruguay’s two 2009 initiatives for constitutional reform—in which citizens’ counterproposals could have played a crucial role in informing public views on a contentious topic and offered an alternative to both sides of the debate.