Unger: We really don’t have much to lose!

Stephen Unger, formerly a professor of engineering at Columbia University has a short article proposing sortition as a replacement to elections with several points worth discussing:


Great care should be taken to ensure that the selection process is truly random. The method used should be very simple and transparent. No fancy technology. Note that every stage magician is expert at faking random choices.

Body size:

Assume that, in the new system, the legislative body consists of 200 randomly chosen citizens


Assume that only American citizens at least 21 years old are eligible. Including a modest number of young people is desirable as they are likely to be more energetic, and it is worthwhile to have their views considered. Setting an upper age limit would be difficult. We might allow people over the age of 70 to decide for themselves whether they should be eligible for selection. There should be some minimal education requirement, such as limiting the selection to high school graduates.

Term of service:

What should be the term of office for the legislators? Too short a term would not give them enough time to learn the job. Too long a term would disrupt their lives, and/or make them feel too special, perhaps to the point that they were corrupted. One year seems like a good compromise–enough time to learn the job–but not likely to upset their lives too much.

Probably the most important problem that most people would face would be the disruption of the education and social lives of their children. High level professional athletes might suffer from a substantial layoff. Physicians might have problems–possibly interrupting the treatment of some patients. If the term of office did not exceed a year, this would not be all that bad, assuming special treatment for special cases. For example, we might have some minimal interval, say 3 months between selection and the start of service. Delaying start of service too much might open the door to people being corrupted. Let us assume a one-year term, which seems plausible.


If we assume the salary of a member of congress would be about what it is today (of the order of $174,000 annually [7]), then this would be, for most people, very generous (median annual income of individual Americans is roughly $31K [8].) Wealthy people would probably not suffer too much–in most cases their incomes are largely from capital. Poor people would benefit substantially.

Selection of the executive:

The parliament might, as in most European countries, choose one of its members to be the chief executive (prime minister). But a one-year term might not be feasible, as it really isn’t enough time to master the job. It might be a good idea to have those completing their 1-year terms to elect one of their members, i.e., an outgoing member, to serve an additional year–or perhaps 2 years–as chief executive. Or maybe they should choose more freely from among the general population. This is a point that calls for more thinking.

Procedure for introduction and testing:

Sortition could be tested on a small scale by implementing it for some small municipalities. Then for governments of larger cities, then states, etc. Given the prevalence of scandals and failed governments, more and more people might be open to such experiments.

The people’s voice: as rage and as healing

There’s a spectre haunting Europe … and the rest of the Western world. We have elaborate ‘diversity’ programs in good upper-middle-class places to prevent discrimination against all manner of minorities (and majorities like women). It’s a fine thing. But there’s a diversity challenge a little closer to home which is tearing the world apart. There’s a war on the less well educated.

They’re falling out of the economy in droves, being driven into marginal employment or out of the labour force. This is a vexing problem to solve economically if the electorate values rising incomes which it does. Because, as a rule, the less well educated are less productive.

Still, the less well educated are marginalised from polite society. Polite society even runs special newspapers for them. They’re called tabloids and they’re full of resentment and hate. And yes, a big reason they are the way they are is that the less well educated buy them. They’re also marginalised, except in stereotyped form from TV.

Then there are our institutions of governance. While less than 50 per cent of our population are university educated, over 90 per cent of our parliamentarians are. Something very similar would be going on down the chain of public and private governance down to local councils and private firms.

And I’m pretty confident that a lot of this is internalised even by those not well educated. The last working-class Prime Minister we’ve had in Australia was Ben Chifley who was turfed out of office by a silver-tongued barrister in 1949. Barrie Unsworth in NSW going down badly in his first election as NSW Premier despite seeming – at least to me to be doing quite a good job. But he sounded working class – because he was. I wonder if that was it?

The world is made by and for the upper middle class, those who’ve been to the right schools and gone to unis (preferably the right unis), to get on. The ancient Greeks had a political/legal principle of relevance here which is entirely absent from our political language. In addition to ‘παρρησία’ or ‘parrhesia‘ which is often translated as ‘freedom of speech’ but which also carries a connotation of the duty to speak the truth boldly for the community’s wellbeing even at your own cost (as Socrates did), they also had the concept of ‘ισηγορια’ or ‘isegoria‘ meaning equality of speech.1

In Australia Pauline Hanson’s One Nation represents the political system’s concession to isegoria – toxified as a protest party within a hostile political culture. My own support for a greater role for selection by lot in our democracy is to build more isegoria into our political system in a way that, I think there’s good evidence, can help us get to a much better politics and policy.

In any event, the big, most toxified political events illustrating these problems are, of course, Brexit and Trump – concrete political acts of transformative significance standing before illustrating the power of isegoria as rage. Continue reading

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.