A sortition proposal in Malaysia

Datuk Yong Soo Heong writes in the Malaysian newspaper New Straits Times:

[M]any in the political gamesmanship seem to be brimming with confidence on how to bring that winning formula for themselves and their hangers-on. I’m not so sure what they’ve in mind in terms of wealth-creation for the people because I’ve not heard much about this except that they want to return to power.

Therefore, we often find ourselves in a dilemma.

Who do we vote for? Who could be trusted? Which politicians will not abandon their righteous cause? These are tough questions to answer.
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UK government as seen by UK citizens

A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in the UK has some new data about the opinions of the UK citizens about their government. The findings, showing low levels of satisfaction and trust in the system, are not surprising, but useful in giving some details and in showing that no significant change in the general negative sentiment has taken place.

Contrary to the supposed polarization, there exist a wide consensus regarding the oligarchical nature of the system. UK citizens across the political spectrum see the voters as having little influence compared to party donors, business, media and lobbyists. There is also a widespread agreement that politicians “do not understand the lives” of typical people and that “democracy in Britain does not serve [their] interests”.

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Expectations of commitment by the allotted, part 2/2

Part 1 is here.

The alternative

The alternative to the path of low commitment, with all its inevitable implications that undermine the democratic potential of sortition, is to expect, indeed, to demand, high level of commitment by the allotted to the political process. In short, political decision making should be seen, both by society and by the allotted, as a full time job. It should be a well compensated, intellectually demanding undertaking. The following attributes should be part of the design of any high powered allotted chamber, such as an allotted parliament:

  1. Service terms should be measured in years – say four years.
  2. Personal initiative and collaboration with other members of the allotted body would be expected. Unless special circumstances exist, frequent physical presence at the workplace would be expected.
  3. The activity of the members would be overseen by an allotted body, with which the members would be expected to cooperate. The oversight body would produce reports about the activities of the members. In cases of clear dysfunction the oversight body could sanction members. The body would refer cases of suspected malfeasance to the courts.
  4. The details associated with the design and the work processes of the allotted chamber, as well as budgets and member salaries, would be determined, and adjusted on an ongoing basis, by the chamber itself or by a different long-term allotted chamber such as the oversight body.
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Expectations of commitment by the allotted, part 1

In many discussions and proposals involving allotted bodies it is either implicitly or explicitly assumed that the allotted cannot be expected to invest much effort in their involvement in the political procedure. Then, a whole set design decisions regarding allotted bodies are justified as a consequence of this assumption:

  • Service terms must be short (measured in days, usually),
  • The allotted cannot be expected to gather information independently, to come up with their own agenda, or to design the procedures of their work,
  • The allotted cannot be expected to move to a different location in order to regularly physically attend meetings, so remote meetings are often offered as a substitute.

Even with all these burden-lightening design choices, it is often assumed that only a small minority of those offered allotted seats in a decision making body would take up the offer, so, it is again assumed, either service has to be mandatory or selection of replacements in one way or another has to take place.

All of these design decisions are dramatically detrimental to the effectiveness of sortition as democratic mechanism of decision making. The burden-lightening measures reduce the capacity of the allotted, as individuals and as a group, to make decisions that are independent, considered and informed. They all, in fact, transfer significant decision making power to the hands elite groups that manage the set-up.
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Pek: Sortition as the remedy for organizational degeneration in worker-owned firms

It is undebatable that in Western societies private firms are oligarchical institutions in which power is concentrated in the hands of the few. It is therefore not surprising that it is frequently argued that a major front in the struggle for democratization of Western society is the workplace. It is further argued that the democratic alternative to private firms are worker-owned firms. Such an argument, however, usually focuses solely on the formal issue of “ownership” and ignores the inherent oligarchizing tendencies of large organizations. A paper by Simon Pek in the Journal of Management Inquiry tackles the latter, crucial issue.

Drawing Out Democracy: The Role of Sortition in Preventing and Overcoming Organizational Degeneration in Worker-Owned Firms

Simon Pek


Fostering sustainable worker ownership and control of their organizations has long been an aspiration for many. Yet, the growth of worker-owned firms (WOFs) is often accompanied by organizational degeneration: the tendency for a small oligarchy of unrepresentative workers to control democratic structures at the expense of the participation of everyday workers. Prior research suggests that organizational degeneration occurs naturally as WOFs become larger and more complex. Building on and departing from this work, I argue in this essay that an important cause is likely to be current practice around how worker representatives are selected—specifically, the near-universal reliance on elections. As an alternative, I argue that the application of sortition—the use of lotteries—to select worker representatives in major decision-making bodies such as boards of directors and councils could help prevent and overcome organizational degeneration, while also offering additional social and business benefits for workers and their organizations.

Bagg: Citizen oversight juries

Samuel Bagg is a democratic theorist, soon to be at the University of South Carolina. In 2019 he co-wrote with Michael Schulson an article about sortition in Dissent magazine. In a paper just published in the American Journal of Political Science Bagg elaborates on the ideas in Dissent magazine. The elitist notions that were hinted at in the 2019 article (and that are unfortunately standard among academics who discuss sortition) are now full fledged as Bagg offers a proposal for a strictly curtailed role for allotted bodies. The proposal seems very much along the lines the proposal made by Ethan Leib almost 20 years ago (of which Bagg seems unaware), but with a more limited range of application.

The paper’s abstract is as follows:

Sortition as Anti-Corruption: Popular Oversight against Elite Capture

Random selection for political office—or “sortition”—is increasingly seen as a promising tool for democratic renewal. Critics worry, however, that replacing elected and appointed officials with randomly selected citizens would only exacerbate elite manipulation of political processes. This article argues that sortition can contribute to democratic renewal, but that its genuine promise is obscured by the excessive ambition and misplaced focus of prevailing models. Casting random selection as a route to accurate representation of the popular will, most contemporary proposals require randomly selected citizens to perform legislative tasks, whose open-endedness grants substantial discretion to elite agenda setters and facilitators. The real democratic promise of sortition-based reforms, I argue, lies in obstructing elite capture at critical junctures: a narrower task of oversight that creates fewer opportunities for elite manipulation. In such contexts, the benefits of empowering ordinary people—resulting from their immunity to certain distorting influences on career officials—plausibly outweigh the risks.

The notion of oversight is rather broad and could imply bodies with wide anti-corruption purview that could create a real source of independent political power by drawing and enforcing radical rules about the connections decision makers (and in particular, elected officials) may or may not have with the powerful bodies in society and politics. However, this is not at all what Bagg has in mind.

COJs [Citizen Oversight Juries] would be convened over the course of a few days or weeks at most, and participants drawn randomly from the population would be required to serve for the entire process, so as to minimize the distortions of self-selection. As in civil and criminal trials, crucially, the role of jurors would be to make a judgment about a narrow, binary question, whose parameters are fixed in advance, after hearing arguments from designated adversarial representatives on both sides.

Thus, just like Leib’s proposal, Bagg’s proposal is for ad-hoc, short-term bodies, whose rules, agenda and information are dictated by elite bodies. It is only within the framework of these restrictions that Bagg feels that “citizen oversight bodies could plausibly make use of those advantages [of sortition] without incurring excessive risks”.

Nicholas Gruen wants to give a citizen jury a “very, very small power”

Nicholas Gruen, an occasional contributor to this blog, has appeared on the Australian radio show Overnight with Michael McLaren and talked to Luke Grant about using sortition to add “a whole new part to Australian democracy”.

Like quite a few other prominent advocates for sortition, Gruen’s rhetoric tends to minimize the oppressive outcomes of the current system, and in doing so becomes incoherent. On the one hand, Gruen argues rather forcefully that the electoral system is non-representative and is really about promoting the interests of powerful organizations and people and of certain sectors in the population. However, at the same time, Gruen never tires of iterating his commitment to keeping essentially that same system – which he insists on calling a “democracy” – and emphasizing that his goal is simply “moderating the worst” of this system using citizen juries in one way or another.


The number 1,000 seems to have some kind of charm when it comes to allotted bodies. There is of course the G1000 – “a Belgian platform for democratic innovation” backed by the renown of David Van Reybrouck. But more generally, there is somehow the notion that 1,000 is a good size for an allotted body. Supposedly, 1,000 is how big a body has to be in order to be “representative”. This intuition may be to some extent reinforced by the fact that opinion polls often use (or claim to use) samples of a similar size. There is also the fact that when one is surrounded by 1,000 people there is a feeling of being in the presence of a crowd and one becomes an anonymous, insignificant point in that crowd – and maybe that seems to reflect what membership in a mass community is about.

In fact, the number 1,000 is completely arbitrary. Its use in opinion polling is rather coincidental, and there is certainly no reason to use it when allotting political bodies. Indeed, the feeling of being lost in a crowd of 1,000 people is a strong indication that 1,000 is too many.

As is generally the case when considering the design of allotted bodies (and when thinking about sortition on the whole) it is most fruitful to consider the issue of body size via the model of extending self-representation. For the decision-making body to make policy that represents the interests of the people, two things have to happen:

  1. The body has to be internally democratic. That is, there has to be an equality of political power within the body.
  2. The membership of body has to reflect the population in the sense that its values and world view match those of the population.

Those two conditions generate two conflicting considerations: since large groups of people tend to generate spontaneous inequalities within the group, the first condition implies that the size cannot be too large. The second condition implies that the makeup of the body has to be statistically representative, so that it should not be “too small”.
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Short refutations of common arguments for sortition (part 4/4)

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3.

I conclude this series of posts by refuting three “philosophical” arguments. These arguments purport to provide theoretical bases for the use of sortition.

10. “The Blind break”: The trouble with elections is that it appoints decision makers based on bad reasons – connections, wealth, ambition, etc. Sortition selects decision makers at random, thus for no reasons at all, and in particular for no bad reasons.

Taken at face value, this argument is rather weak. Would having decision makers that were not selected due to bad reasons be enough for producing good policy? Relatedly, this argument provides little guidance for how the decision making body should be set up. For example, what size should be body be? After all, each institutional parameter that would be set would be set due to some reason. Would those reason be good or bad?

Finally, even the claim that selecting at random is selection that excludes reasons is hardly convincing. Having an equal-probability lottery is not a natural default. It is itself a procedural choice which is made for some reason – the very convincing reason that all group members are political equals. If one rejects this reason, one could very well argue that sortition should be rejected.
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The classical unities

According to Wikipedia, it was Italian Renaissance philosopher Gian Giorgio Trissino who came up with the “classical unities” as a prescriptive theory of dramatic tragedy. The three unities are:

  • Unity of action: a tragedy should have one principal action.
  • Unity of time: the action in a tragedy should occur over a period of no more than 24 hours.
  • Unity of place: a tragedy should exist in a single physical location.

When considering how sortition (and elections) can be conducted in a way that would be resistant to manipulation, such unities are crucial, argues Trent Clark in an article in the Idaho State Journal.

Ancient Athens was home to one of the world’s first democracies. The Greek orator and reformer Cleisthenes initiated citizen “voting” in 508 BC. His solution: Give every voter one black stone and one white stone. On each decision, whether to go to war, accept a treaty, send trade delegations, etc., the citizens would cast a stone (white for “yes,” black for “no”) into a jar. The contents of the jar determined the policy of the city. As many as 6,000 Athenians would participate.

In early Athens, serving in government was a civic obligation, like jury duty today. Military assignments were based on skill with weapons and history as a soldier. But other posts were randomly drawn, a process called “sortition.” Tokens with a citizen’s name, or pinakia, were arranged across a large flat tablet or kleroterion. Multi-colored dice were used to select rows and columns, pointing to a random name for each open position.

Cleisthenes found it essential that all this occur at a known location, at a designated time, in public. Citizens needed to see that the process was not rigged or “fixed” by the city’s tribal bosses.