Ostfeld: The Case for Sortition in America

Jacob Ostfeld makes a radical, uncompromising argument for sortition in the Harvard Political Review. Some excerpts:

The political realities of 2020 have laid bare that these flaws are structural to American democracy itself and have existed since its founding. Our system is not broken; it is functioning exactly as was intended. The system was always built around undemocratic institutions. The Electoral College, which allowed President Trump to be elected despite losing the popular vote, was created to protect the interests of slaveholding aristocrats in the South. Members of Congress are able to sustain decades-long careers in Congress despite consistently low approval ratings because of millions of dollars in lawful donations from Wall Street firms — donations which were made legal in the first place by a 5-4 decision from the nine lifetime-appointed justices on the Supreme Court. None of the undemocratic systems governing us today are subversions of the Constitution. On the contrary, they are all perfectly legal.

How, then, do we save American democracy? Sortition.

In simplest terms, sortition means appointment by lottery. In America, sortition would mean replacing Congress with assemblies made up of randomly chosen American citizens; elected representatives are entirely eliminated. Almost every responsibility of the legislative branch is delegated to a randomly subset of the population. Laws are written, discussed, and passed by ordinary people. Federal judges are interviewed and confirmed by ordinary people.

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The New Flemish Alliance does not want to see democracy turning into a “lottocracy”

A translation of an article from the Belgian La Libre.

Government reform: The New Flemish Alliance does not want to see democracy turning into a “lottocracy”
November 25, 2020

The government reform undertaken by the De Croo government cannot be a pretext for turning parliamentary democracy into a sortition-based system, warned on Wednesday the head of the N-VA (The New Flemish Alliance) in the Chamber of Representatives, Peter De Roover, during a discussion in the Constitution Committee on the presentation regarding political directions by the ministers for institutional reforms.

The new government drew up for the upcoming year a “platform of dialog” regarding the future of the Belgian federalism along the lines of that which is planned regarding the future of Europe. A “large scale consultation involving citizens, in particular young citizens, as well as civil society, universities, experts, and local authorities” will be undertaken, indicated the document by ministers David Clarinval and Annelies Verlinden.

The way in which citizens would be involved in the process raised questions among the nationalist opposition which asked whether the Vivaldi Coalition is going to resort to sortition, a method which was promoted over the last few years by some intellectuals. “I have more confidence in a body that was elected by the citizens than in a panel of allotted citizens”, emphasized De Roover who would not like to see democracy replaced by a “lottocracy”.
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The French Citizen Climate Convention: a provisional analysis

It has been about 5 months since the French Citizen Climate Convention has published its proposals, and with acrimony setting in about the de-facto shelving of much of its work, various conclusions are being drawn about the CCC process. As usual, the conclusions almost invariably confirm the existing notions of the analyst. My analysis is no different in this sense: it seems to me that to a large extent each party to the process has played its expected role and thus the outcomes are quite predictable. I will highlight however two points that have been established empirically that should not have been taken for granted regarding how things would turn out.

Here are points about the CCC process that in my opinion are worth noting:

1. The process was launched as a government response to the Gilets Jaunes, a mass movement whose agenda was not just anti-government but also anti-electoralist. A popular initiative process (Referendum d’initiative citoyenne, or RIC) and to a lesser extent sortition were a major part of the discourse of the Gilets Jaunes. The rise of the Gilets Jaunes movement was triggered by what the government presented as environmentalist policy – increasing the gas tax. Thus having a non-electoralist process for generating environmental policy proposals was a direct capitulation to GJ demands. This origin of the body as a direct, stop-gap response to mass protest is very different from the origins of other allotted bodies, such as the Irish constitutional conventions. Such bodies, even if they were in some way a response to public disaffection with the status quo, were constituted in a much more carefully controlled manner by established power.
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Carolan: Ireland’s Constitutional Convention: Behind the hype about citizen-led constitutional change

A 2015 paper by Eoin Carolan, Professor and Director of the Centre for Constitutional Studies at University College Dublin, takes a skeptical look at the conventional claims around Ireland’s Constitutional Convention which led to the legalization of same-sex marriage. (Note that later there was also a different allotted body constituted in 2016 which was called a “Citizens’ Assembly” and which led to the legalization of abortion.)

The article suffers from the standard pro-status-quo bias of showing no recognition of the urgency of the need to address the problems with the existing system. As usual, recognition of problems with the established system is phrased in terms of “public perception”, “disenchantment”, “disillusionment” and a “crisis of confidence”, rather than in terms of the facts of ongoing consistent systemic atrocious policy. Thus, while the paper rightly subjects the Convention process to a series of critical examinations, it seems to assume that the status quo is a legitimate default alternative. That said, I find that the article asks good questions, makes good observations and is generally very useful.


Ireland’s Constitutional Convention is one of a number of recent examples of ordinary citizens becoming involved in constitution-making processes. These participatory experiments are often praised by democratic scholars. That has been the case with the Convention, which has already been cited as an example for any future process of constitutional change in Britain. This article argues that the Irish experience has been oversold. The process in fact suffered from a number of serious limitations that undermine its claims to either representative or deliberative legitimacy. The approach taken to its composition, agenda, expert advice and evidence was problematic in several respects: opaque, apparently ad hoc and with inadequate attention to the risks of bias and manipulation by elite actors. The Irish experience provides a warning about how the symbolic value of the ordinary citizen can be exploited for political purposes.

Partitioned Sortition: Ensuring Proportional Representation despite Random Selection

This post was withdrawn at the request of the author. You can still read the post on the author’s blog.

Extinction Rebellion claims the Scottish Citizens’ Assembly on the climate is rigged

The Scottish Citizens’ Assembly on the Climate Emergency is an allotted body created by the 2019 Climate Act that is mandated to answer the question “How should Scotland change to tackle the climate emergency in a fair and effective way?”.

The Extinction Rebellion organization was part of the process of setting up this body and its procedures. It has now quit the process claiming that the process has been rigged. “Rather than enabling a full spectrum of opinions to be heard, so people can come to their own conclusions, and make their own assessment of the value of current policy and targets, business as usual has been allowed to creep in and then take over.”

In an op-ed written by Extinction Rebellion members, they explain that civil servants have control over the design of the proceedings and those civil servants are happy with the status quo. In terms of how the rigging is done, they say:

Deliberations won’t be allowed to start until people have fully understood the difference between adaptation and mitigation responses, and the different government policy frameworks at a national and international level.

Those of us who have been talking about climate in different communities for years know very well this background understanding is not only not necessary – there’s a huge risk of disengagement from the very people we need to hear from.

People need to understand enough of the science, especially in terms of real-world impacts, but then need to judge for themselves the effectiveness or otherwise of our response so far: have the powerful’s many fine words led to any changes on the ground?

A practical and transparent method to sort

In this short post, I introduce a method that might interest readers from this blog. I present a practical method that randomly pick people without the need for a trustworthy third party. Before describing it in more details, I want to insist on its two main features.

The method is practical because it only requires a basic computer (a smartphone largely suffices). Computers cannot generate random numbers because they are deterministic, however they can produce long sequences of numbers that do not repeat themselves for a long time. If you don’t know how the computer generated sequence work it is difficult to predict the next outcome. The numbers in this sequence will constitute our set of random numbers.

How could we generate the set without a trustworthy party? A malevolent individual can let the computer run until they obtain the desired results. If you know the initial number of the sequence and how the sequence works the result becomes entirely deterministic. We call this number the seed and this number will entirely determine our set of random numbers. We use this property to generate an impossible to forge sorted list of members. But how do we pick this seed?

Our method uses a stock market index. This has two interesting properties, firstly it is impossible to predict (otherwise tell me so we can become rich fast :) and every market agrees on it. This guarantees true randomness. Secondly, everybody will be able to reproduce our sortition if they have the seed value, the member’s list and the script we used. This guarantees transparency and accessibility.

We will employ this method in our association (l’Association Française pour la Sortition) to constantly renew our board. I already wrote the code using the CAC40 index to perform this task, it is free, open-source and you can access it you can follow this link: https://framagit.org/PersonnePirate/sort.

Sicard: Replacing representative democracy with participative democracy is dangerous, Part 2/2

This is the second and final part of a translation of an article by Claude Sicard published in July 2020 in Le Figaro. The first part is here.

In order to put an end to the Gilets Jaunes revolt, Macron embarked in January 2019 upon what he called the “Great National Conversation”. This has consisted of organizing huge meetings in city halls with the participation of mayors and the local elected politicians, and urging the population to share their comments in person in during the meetings or through an online platform. Macron himself made many animated appearances in these meetings all over the country, which usually lasted more than four hours. Macron would take off his jacket and respond to all the questions addressed to him. Meetings took place in more than 10,000 municipalities, and 1.9 million comments were made. The “Great Conversation” was concluded with a press conference on April 25th, 2019. On that occasion Macron said: “I wished to meet you in order to draw the main lessons from the Great National Conversation and to propose to the nation directions for a new way that our citizens are looking for, a new way for our republic”. He has described the Great Conversation as “an unprecedented exercise for contemporary democracies”. This was therefore a mass popular consultation whose goal was to orient the actions of public institutions over the coming years.

That was followed by a second step. Following the coronavirus crisis, on May 25th, the “Health Conference at Ségur”. The crisis required great dedication from health professionals in order to make up for grave weaknesses of our public hospital system. It was therefore necessary to take their many demands into account without any further delay. Macron saw himself as forced to try to address as well as possible those demands, having been the first praise the exceptional dedication of the health personnel during the crisis, going as far as calling the first responders “national heros”. Macron initiated another great consultation, this time among 300 principal actor in the health sector. This was a second exercise, then, in participative democracy. The goal of this consultation was particularly ambitious. The prime minister defined it as follows in his opening speach: “To construct together the future of the hospital, to heal a system that was blocked and impoverished, and build a new health system organization in each territory”. The participants were given an incredibly short period for reforming our public health system: a month and a half at the most.
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Reporterre: The members of the Citizen Climate Convention rebel against Macron, Part 3/3

This is the third and last part of a translation of an article published by Reporterre following the aftermath of the French Citizen Climate Convention. Part 1, Part 2.

The situation mystifies the citizens. “We were sent to the front because government has to take responsibility”, says Willaim Aucant. “For us it is out of the question to re-debate our measures. We simply want to explain to those measures to all the actors”, he explains. The task is not simple. “France in its totality” is much more discordant than the allotted “France in miniature”.

“We are getting to a time when the citizens are going to come to reassert themselves”

“The government’s strategy is very clever”, observes Yolande Bouin. “While the cameras are trained on 150 regular folks, the executive short-circuits government bodies and civil society. We find ourselves the only ones speaking on the issue and the environmental organizations are completely marginalized. It’s absurd! We would like to have the doors of the ministries open to the activists, they know much better than us about the climate!” She regrets “the lack of countervailing powers and of oversight to monitor the actions of the executive”. The balance of powers is tilted. “The government dominates the discussion”, she emphasizes. In the media, the comments of the ministers are picked up more often than those of the citizens. The voices of the Convention’s guarantors, Cyril Dion and Laurence Tubiana, who are increasingly critical of the government, and of political supporters, like Matthieu Orphelin and Éric Piolle, do not get heard either.

“We are tired”, admits Grégoire Fraty, former president of the Association of the 150. “This experience, enriching as it is, has lasted for over a year. We all have jobs, family lives, it is complicated to find times in the evenings and the weekends for meetings and lectures”, he says. “It’s good to be in the midst of it, but at the end of the month that’s not what puts food on our tables.”

The citizens have not official standing, no legal existence. This weakness has already been observed by several legal experts such as Arnaud Gossement. “It is necessary to create a legal status for engaged citizens”, says Grégoire Fraty. As of now the citizens remain waiting. “For the moment, we do not boycott and do not throw a fit, but we would like to see things said clearly, truthfully and plainly”, he says.
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Reporterre: The members of the Citizen Climate Convention rebel against Macron, Part 2

This is the second part of a translation of an article published by Reporterre following the aftermath of the French Citizen Climate Convention. Part 1 is here.

There are some signs that the Convention is becoming an opposing force to the government. On October 14th about ten citizens, coming from all over the country, set up a protest in front the National Assembly. They protested nothing less than an “act of treason”. Yolande Bouin, who arrived early in the morning from Douarnenez (Brittany) was angrier than ever. In front of an audience of journalists and reporters she announced:

The government is openly jerking us around. I have the feeling of having participated in a big scam to greenwash the President and to buy him some time. Still, 4 or 5 million Euros have been spent on this.

One of her companions, Isabelle Robichon, said she has the impression “of being taken for a sidekick”. Pierre Ruscassie, another citizen, laments “this series of small steps of reversal”. A week before, the MPs of the coalition voted for a law that re-authorized the use of neonicotinoides and for an emergency law that sharply violated environmental rights. “It’s a mess”, says Matthieu Sanchez to Reporterre. “Right now, it’s like fireworks. We don’t know anymore where to look. Between the comments of some ministers and the anti-environmental laws, we can’t work in a reasonable manner anymore.”
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