Sortition in France – discussion and application

Discussion and application of sortition continue to be very active in the Francophone world. Here are some recent examples:

Guyancourt: “Décidons ensemble” [“Let’s decide together”] are forming their list of candidates for the municipal elections by knocking on door number 20 in each street.

From the Popular initiative to sortition: the responses to the crisis of representation – a discussion with Yves Sintomer, Dimitri Courant, and Clément Mabi.

Random interactions in the Chamber: How allocating legislators’ seats at random affects their behavior.

Allotting candidates for the Paris municipal elections.

An allotted citizen council in Sion, Switzerland will publish positions on the propositions on the Swiss ballot.

Criteria for a representative citizens’ assembly

Given the high profile of some recent (UK) proposals for allotted citizens’ assemblies — including Conservative leadership candidate Rory Stewart’s Brexit assembly and Extinction Rebellion’s global warming assembly — there is an urgent need to initiate an informed conversation on the requisite criteria to ensure that the assembly design is compatible with principles of democratic legitimacy. As we have been debating this topic in depth on this forum for many years, this looks like a good place to start. The underlying assumption of this post is that the legitimising principle is ‘stochation’ — i.e. an assembly that is a portrait in miniature of the population that it seeks to ‘describe’ and that the goal is to increase the fidelity of the representation, subject to cost and other practical constraints. I would suggest the following criteria:

Criteria for the acceptability of the allotment procedure
The criteria for an impartial random-selection algorithm have been covered by Yoram Gat’s recent post. Terry Bouricius has also argued that the need to be seen to be fair might require some sort of public ceremony, as in pre-modern applications of sortition.

Selection pool
Should the same criteria of citizenship be used as for the electoral role, or is there a case to open it to all affected interests? However the Athenians were less inclusive, requiring a higher age for lawmakers than regular citizens along with swearing the heliastic oath.

Voluntary or quasi-mandatory participation?
Athenian legislative juries were drawn from a pool of volunteers, but the 6,000 citizens were a very substantial proportion of the citizen body and there was strong normative pressure for all citizens to serve (those who didn’t were ho idiōtēs).  However the modern take-up of sortition invitations has been in the region of only 4%, so it might well be argued that voluntary participation would generate an atypical sample. If so, should participation be a civic duty (as in jury service) or will incentives and support suffice, bearing in mind that the relevant principle is the representation of the beliefs and preferences of the vast majority of citizens who are not included in the allotment?

Size of the allotted sample
Modern examples of sortition have been for bodies ranging from only twenty to several hundred, and some statisticians have argued that 1,000 is the minimum size for a reasonably accurate representation (Athenian juries ranged from 501 to 5,001). What is the connection between sample size, decision threshold and confidence interval? How big could the sample be before the onset of rational ignorance?

Length of service
On the one hand a citizens’ assembly would need time to gain adequate knowledge on the issue under consideration, whereas on the other there is the danger of participants ‘going native’ and thereby ceasing to adequately reflect the beliefs and preferences of their (virtual) constituents. Should assemblies be convened on an ad hoc basis (as with 4th century Athenian lawmaking), or is there a case for permanent bodies with rolling tenure for members?
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Schulson and Bagg: Sortition needs to become part of mainstream U.S. political discourse

Michael Schulson is a journalist who has written before about sortition. Schulson and Samuel Bagg, a democratic theorist at McGill University, have a new article about sortition in Dissent magazine. Here are some excerpts.

Give Political Power to Ordinary People

To fight elite capture of the state, it’s time to consider sortition, or the assignment of political power through lotteries.

Our broken campaign finance system is a longstanding target of progressive ire. And as Republican state legislatures have made increasingly aggressive moves to entrench minority rule, many people are beginning to see a broader defense of democratic integrity as a crucial part of any left agenda. Yet most of the attention of reformers has been limited to the electoral process—perhaps because we tend to assume that getting “our people” into office will solve the problem.

It won’t. Elite capture of the state extends far beyond the influence of large donors on elections.
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Criteria for the acceptability of an allotment procedure

With the increasing frequency of the application of sortition in society, it has been rightly pointed out that a lack of strict criteria for the validity of the constitutive procedure of the body would allow sortition to be misapplied and manipulated so that its democratic value is annulled. Of course, there are many aspects to constituting political bodies and they all need careful consideration and standardization if we wish to achieve well-functioning democratic decision making. Here I want to advance criteria for standardization of just one aspect – one that is unique to allotted bodies – the allotment procedure.

For an allotment procedure to be considered well designed it should have the following characteristics:

  1. Public statement of n, the number of people who are going to be allotted.
  2. Public statement of the allotment pool – the set of people from whom the allotted will be selected. This statement should make it easy for every person in society to know whether any other person is included in the pool or not.
  3. Public definition of an equal-probability allotment mapping. An allotment mapping is a mapping of each sequence of digits of length L, for some fixed number L, to a list of n people. The mapping is publicly well-defined if it is possible for anybody putting in reasonable effort to determine with reasonable accuracy, given a sequence of numbers, the people who correspond to that sequence. The mapping is equal-probability if the number of sequences which result in a list containing each person in the pool is between N0 and N1 for some fixed numbers N0 and N1, where N1 / N0 < 1.01.
  4. A public definition of a procedure to generate a practically-random equal-probability sequence of L digits. A procedure for generating sequences of digits is practically-random equal-probability if there is a general acceptance that as the procedure is launched as far as anyone can determine every sequence among the 10L possible sequences is equally likely to be the outcome of the procedure.
  5. The random sequence procedure should be launched after the four public statements above were made. Its launch and applications must be public so that it is applied exactly once and once it is applied, its outcome (i.e., the sequence of digits it generated) is immediately public.

Other than the first criterion, all of these criteria are non-trivial to implement. There is, of course, some similarity to a prize lottery procedure, but there are some complications associated with the fact that each person must have exactly one “winning ticket” and of course with the fact that the prize – political power – could be of much greater value than any other lottery prize ever.

In particular, making sure that the digit sequence selection procedure is practically-random equal-probability is fraught with difficulties since any physical randomization device may potentially be rigged by powerful attackers. If you have ideas for rigging-resistant randomization procedures please post them in the comments.

Scotland’s opposition parties attacking the government’s citizen assembly proposal as untrustworthy

The National reports:

Citizens’ Assembly: Scotland in Union tells Scots to stay away
By Andrew Learmonth

SCOTLAND’s staunchest Unionists are trying to kibosh the Scottish Government’s plans for Citizens’ Assembly before they’ve even started.

Scotland in Union has warned Scots to stay away, saying they’ll be “misused” for independence.

Nicola Sturgeon announced the initiative back in May, saying the Government was keen to follow the example of Ireland where the assemblies were used to find consensus on reforming Ireland’s abortion laws. [Details.]

But the Tories and the LibDems have already said they don’t want to be involved, calling the assemblies a “stunt to kick-start the conversation about independence”.
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Interview with Yves Sintomer, part 2 of 2: With sortition, the scale is immaterial

This is the second part of a translation of an interview with Yves Syntomer. The first part is here, the original in French is here.

Does the end of the 20th century mark the return of a desire to experiment with sortition?

We witnessed in the 1980’s and 1990’s an explosion of experiments applying sortition, a “first wave” where the reference to Athens was very significant. There are however big differences. We aim to obtain a representative sample of the population by allotment, where the Athenians did not have this mathematical notion and resorted to pure luck. The second big difference is that we wish to use sortition to create an Assembly which is going to debate in nearly ideal conditions, following the ideas of ­Jürgen ­Habermas, according to which a decision is not legitimate unless it is preceded by a well-formed discussion.

The third difference is that sortition is introduced at the margins of the political system and that the mini-publics so constituted are merely consultative. This first wave allowed to show that with discussions among ordinary citizens, non-specialists, once they have sufficient information and have the opportunities to examine things, where opportunity to speak has been equally apportioned, in a general assembly or in small groups, high-quality conversation is attained. It is impressive to see that the exchanges between ordinary citizens put to shame those that take place in parliaments.

We are now seeing the emergence of a second wave. Sortition is now invoked by social movements in France, including Nuit Debout and some among the Gilets Jaunes. Ireland has recently offered us a paradigmatic example of this second wave. We had two allotted assemblies (one in its entirety, the other in its majority) convened first to discuss marriage for all and then abortion and to propose constitutional reforms which were then submitted to the people who have ratified those propositions by referenda.

Iceland is another significant example. The country was in a bad state at the moment of the subprime crisis… Two citizen assemblies were allotted (one in its entirety, the other in its majority) in order to propose how to reconstruct the country. That was followed by an election of a constituante committee where professional politicians could not be members, a proposal of a new constitution, a validation of the proposal by a consultative referendum… It was finally buried by an obstruction by a majority in Parliament, which refused to adopt the text.

It may be objected that those are two small countries…

With sortition, the scale is immaterial: it may be used at the level of a city or a country in quite similar ways.
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Yves Sintomer: Blow the dust off of democracy with an allotted third chamber. Part 1

This is an English version of an interview with Yves Sintomer in the journal Socialter (original in French).

The Gilets Jaunes, who are looking for new democratic experiences, have called for an “assembly of assemblies”. Would it be necessary, in order to resolve the impasse, to radicalize our democracy? Why not re-institutionalize one of the its original components: sortition. A conversation with Yves Sintomer, a political scientist and an expert in democratic procedures.

Philippe Vion-Dury, 17/04/2019
Photos: Cyrille Choupas

The Gilet Jaunes have been first presented at an anti-tax movement and then as a social justice movement. Isn’t it, however, fundamentally, the question of institutions and democracy question which predominates?

What unites the Gilets Jaunes, it seems to me, is not so much the question of institutions in the strict sense as much as denial of recognition to which they respond by protesting against social injustice and against the democratic gap, a sentiment of non-representation. These two components appear to me to be tied together: society does not recognize them both because its fruits are distributed too unequally and because their voice is not being heard.

Popular distrust can be observed in most western democracies, in different forms. Isn’t there a generalized crisis of “representative government” itself?

There is a French particularity: a President with disproportionately concentrated power, little countervailing power, unusually weak political parties… and the revolt of the Gilet Jaunes is a social mobilization to which there is no equivalent in neighboring countries. This particularity has to be put in context, because it works within a much more general crisis of representation which affects not only European democracies but is also the young democracies of Latin America and in the formally democratic countries of Africa and Asia.

Representative governments were created during the English, French and American revolutions as a compromise solution. It involved giving effective decision power to a self-proclaimed elite – from this point of view, there is an aristocratic dimension to representative government. This ruling aristocracy, however, would not longer be one of “blue blood”, of nobility, but an aristocracy determined by the voters.

This institutionalization of representative government has long been opposed to the feudal society of the Ancien Regime, but also against democracy, understood as “government of the people, for the people, by the people” – to quote Abraham Lincoln. The is to limit the power of the people by giving decision making power to an elected aristocracy. That allows us to distance ourselves from the classical liberal conception asserting that “democracy means elections”.
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