Sortition in German press, Citizens’ Council website

Just a couple of notable discussions of sortition in the German press from the last couple of months.

The first from the Frankfurter Allgemeine in August is entitled: “Can sortition save democracy?” After mentioning that in Germany, like in many other countries, satisfaction with actually existing democracy has been hovering around 50%, it delves somewhat IN DEPTH into the differences between elections and lot. Not surprisingly, it quotes Aristotle that “sortition” is democratic, while elections are aristocratic. And it discusses historical examples beyond Athens, in particular, the familiar mentions of Florence and Venice. It then discusses both the Irish Citizens Assembly, and the Buergerrat Demokratie citizens’ assembly in Germany–mentioning that the President of the Bundestag supports it and will take its recommendations seriously. It then discusses the Buergerrat Demokratie at length.

The second from the Sueddeutsche Zeitung in September, entitled “An experiment to save democracy,” reports on the new Citizens Council, which amounts to a second chamber of Parliament, in East Belgium. It calls it a “world premier,” and allows readers to vote yes/no to the idea of whether citizens should be able to make laws. So far, the yeahs have it. It emphasizes that David van Reybrouk’s book, as well as the G1000, played important roles in bringing the idea of “aleatory democracy” to that part of Belgium.

Speaking of which, this is the website for the new Citizens’ Council in East Belgium.

Sortition has nearly gone mainstream, and the so-called “Neo-Athenian Revolution” is alive and well.

Minipublics beyond representation

[This serves, in a sense, as my response to the discussion on the French climate assembly post.]

Now that minipublics are no longer limited to local level “experiments” but are regularly involved in consequential political occasions, constitutional amendments (Ireland), long term city planning (Australia, Germany, US), responses to major political crises (France, Iceland, Ireland), institutionalized checks within representative government (East Belgium, Oregon)–to name a few—the question of their “representativeness,” and, more fundamentally, their legitimate democratic role is no longer academic. Given the response rate problem, those who accept invitations to a citizens’ assembly or jury (however scientifically sampled) are different in some respects from those who do not, and the number of participants in any such minipublic will, regardless of sampling, be exceedingly small compared to the population. Sortinistas and participatory democrats have raised the question of how a not entirely representative, unelected minority could legitimately affect political outcomes for the overwhelming majority who do not take part in the minipublic. In contrast to the “allotted citizen,” with the implication of egalitarian empowerment, some would disparagingly label participants in a minipublic chosen by lot an “aleatoric elite”–ignoring the standard implication of non-ephemerality in the term “elite.” But this focus on strict representativity misses the strongest reason for using minipublics chosen by lot in the first place, and it distracts us form their most promising participatory democratic uses.

After summarizing the strongest arguments articulated by both sortinistas and participatory democrats for the strengths and political potential of minipublics, I suggest another dimension on which they can function. Allotted minipublics can serve as unique spaces of political action and contestation, different from the space of electoral struggle, the space of confrontation in protest, or “enclave” spaces within activist groups and political parties. An electoral campaign is mostly fighting, a protest mostly “manifesting” strength or conviction, a party/union/organization meeting mostly strategizing or venting; but a minipublic provides a rare opportunity for the “everyman,” in a time of cognitive and political “bubbles,” to confront or act with a plurality of points of view, no one of which she/he can anticipate.
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IPSA World Congress, 25-29 July 2020

The Call for Papers is currently out for the World Congress of the International Political Science Association. The congress will take place on 25-29 July 2020 in Lisbon. I am currently involved with an effort to assemble a panel or two for this meeting. The focus will be on combining sortition with election and other institutional mechanisms.

The Call for Papers can be found here: If you have any interest in joining a panel like this, please let me know ASAP. The deadline is coming rather fast–10 October, in fact.

The principles of representative government and the French sortitionists

A fun paper paper by Samuel Hayat, “La carrière militante de la référence à Bernard Manin dans les mouvements français pour le tirage au sort”, Participations 2019/HS (Hors Série) [original in French, abstract in English], tells the story of how Bernard Manin’s book The principles of representative government came to play a role in the sortitionist movement in France. The bottom line, according to Hayat’s telling, is that it is all Etienne Chouard’s doing. Hayat also claims that Manin’s book was not the source of the reformists’ interest in sortition but rather that they, and in fact mostly Chouard himself, used the book, with its impeccable academic credentials, as a legitimating force for their position.

Hayat’s paper seems to serve as the starting point for Antoine Chollet (“Les postérités inattendues de Principes du gouvernement représentatif : une discussion avec Bernard Manin” by
Antoine Chollet and Bernard Manin, Participations 2019/1 (N° 23)”, [original in French, abstract in English]) and for his claim that Manin’s book was misunderstood by both activists and scholars as a polemic in favor of sortition, when in fact Manin is pretty happy with elections, which he sees as mixing democratic and aristocratic elements.
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The cartelization thesis

A paper by Richard Katz and Peter Mair called “Changing models of party organization and party democracy: The emergence of the cartel party” published in Party Politics Journal in 1995 (and based on a 1992 workshop presentation by the same authors) spurred a body of academic work in political science dealing with the “cartelization” of party politics. In the abstract of a 2009 paper by the same authors (“The Cartel Party Thesis: A Restatement”) Katz and Mair write:

The cartel party thesis holds that political parties increasingly function like cartels, employing the resources of the state to limit political competition and ensure their own electoral success.

The thesis sees this cartelization as a phase in the evolution of party dynamics. Earlier phases were the “cadre party” (19th c.), the “mass party” (first half of 20th c.), and the “catch-all party” (second half of the 20th c.). While the mass parties and the catch-all parties competed for votes by presenting competing policies, the thesis asserts, the cartel parties do not. They huddle around a neo-liberal consensus and offer the public no alternatives.

In their 2005 paper “From Catch-all Politics to Cartelisation: The Political Economy of the Cartel Party”, Mark Blythe and Richard Katz explain the cartelization phenomenon as follows:

We argue that two key changes have occurred that have effectively turned parties from maximising competitors into risk averse colluders: the limits of catch-all politics, and the rhetoric and reality of globalisation.

The first factor, according to Blythe and Katz, is that by the 1970’s the policy competition between parties has produced welfare policy that was at the maximum capacity of the state to provide. Supposedly this was the dominant dimension along which parties were competing, and it has now become impossible to compete along this dimension any longer.

The second factor is a reduction in the ability of states to control the economy due to globalization:

In brief, catch-all parties were creatures of the Keynesian era. States were assumed to have primary responsibility for ensuring jobs and growth and were also assumed to be able to marshal fiscal instruments to those ends.

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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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Paper: No Stratification Without Representation

One fascinating aspect of sortition is that it treats all groups in the population fairly: If a group constitutes x% of the population, the group’s share in the panel will be x% in expectation (that is, on average over many random panels). Furthermore, it is unlikely that, in a random panel, this percentage will deviate much from x%; this event becomes ever less likely the larger the panel is. Unfortunately, there are practical limits to how large sortition panels can get, which means that a certain variance remains. Had the Irish citizens’ assembly been sampled without consideration for gender, for example, a gender imbalance of at most 45 women against at least 54 men would have happened in about 15% of random panels.¹

One way around this problem is stratified sampling. For example, one could fill half of the seats with random women and half of them with random men. As Yoram wrote in an earlier post on this blog, one can still guarantee that every person is selected with equal probability, and thus, that every group will get its fair share of the panel in expectation. Stratification by gender will obviously ensure accurate representation to the genders. But what happens to the representation of other groups?

My collaborators — Gerdus Benadè and Ariel Procaccia — and I studied this question in a paper that we recently presented at the ACM Conference on Economics and Computation. As Mueller, Tollison, and Willett argued as early as 1972,² stratification can greatly reduce the variance in representation for groups that highly correlate with the feature we stratified on. This is good news since correlation is everywhere; for example, stratifying by gender will help to represent opinion groups related to military intervention, gun control, and healthcare.³ We show that there is no real downside to stratification: Even in the worst case, stratification cannot increase the variance of another group by more than a negligible amount. These results hold up to very fine stratifications, where each seat is filled by a random member of a dedicated stratum. This suggests that we should indeed make extensive use of stratification. In a case study on a real-world dataset, we show that stratification can reduce the variance in an opinion group’s representation by a similar amount as an increase of panel size by multiple seats — even if the stratifier does not know the opinion in question!

The main technical difficulty in the paper is working with indivisibilities. For instance, if we split the 99 seats of the Irish citizens’ assembly proportionally by gender, women should get around 50.66 seats. To ensure that every person is still selected with equal probabilities, we need to randomly “round” the seat assignments, giving women sometimes 50 and sometimes 51 seats. This process is somewhat delicate — rounding introduces new variance, which might lead to some unfortunate group becoming much less accurately represented than without stratification. If one uses the rounding procedure suggested in our paper, this is not the case.

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