Back to the Future for a Real Democracy | Conway Hall Talk | Brett Hennig

A sortition talk I gave in London (on 11 March 2018) as part of Conway Hall’s “Thinking on Sunday” series has been edited and published – you could consider it an extended version of my TEDx presentation


Suzuki: The solution we need is a system where politicians are drawn from a hat

Canadian scientist and environmentalist David Suzuki has given up on the electoral system and proposes to replace it with a sortition-based system. Some excerpts from an interview with the National Observer:

Q: Trudeau’s called the pipelines a “trade off” for the national carbon plan. Earlier this month, he was in Nanaimo saying we can both build Kinder Morgan and hit the Paris targets.

DS: That’s such a lot of bullshit! this is just political doublespeak: ‘We’ve got to keep burning more oil, more fossil fuels, in order to meet our reduction targets.’ What are you talking about? That’s such a crock of shit!

Q: So how can citizens hold our democratic leaders accountable?

DS: I was asked to give a talk to the Senate last year on the 150th anniversary of Canada. What I said is, ‘We elect people to run government, but their problem is they only look to the next election.’ They can’t look down and say, ‘Jesus, we have to spend $50 billion a year for the next fifteen years to deal with climate change,’ because they know someone else will take credit for it. They won’t be in office then. So that kind of view is not in their thinking.

So I said, ‘You guys are the Senate. You’re not elected. You’re appointed for life! You’re the ones to think of sober second thought, and think in terms of one generation, two generations from now. You’re the guys who should be doing that.’

They didn’t do a goddamn thing. But I really think that would be a huge opportunity, if we’ve got that bicameral system.
Continue reading

Video of Workshop on Citizens Juries and Sortition

This past March, a deep-dive workshop on Citizens Juries, Citizens Assemblies, and sortition was put on by members of Democracy R&D at the Innovations in Participatory Democracy Conference in Phoenix, Arizona. I have posted the full video recording of the workshop as a playlist on YouTube.

The full-day event was geared toward practitioners and included:

  • An overview of sortition and its increasing use around the world by David Schecter (newDemocracy Foundation) – Part 1
  • A walk-through of how to convene Citizens Juries by Kyle Bozentko (Jefferson Center) – Part 2
  • A discussion about the challenges of trying to scale sortition-based practices like Oregon’s Citizens Initiative Review without losing integrity of the process, led by Tyrone Reitman (Policy Jury Group and formerly Healthy Democracy) – Part 3
  • Engaging Q&A with people working in different contexts and countries – in all videos and especially Part 4

Jury citoyen

The original post comes from: The post below is in French (for Yoram to practise :) but there is an English version here:

La démocratie prend trop de temps au citoyen ordinaire et devrait être laissée à un petit nombre de personnes soigneusement sélectionnées. Telles étaient les pensées des fondateurs de nos démocraties modernes. Ils ont décidé que nous devrions élire les personnes qui détiennent le pouvoir entre leurs mains. La sélection aléatoire permettrait aux gens de décider pour eux-mêmes – beaucoup trop dangereux selon eux. Les fondateurs savaient que la sortition permettait la démocratie et que les élections favorisent l’aristocratie. C’est pour cette raison qu’ils ont choisi les élections. Mais décider en utilisant le hasard semble …. mmh…. aléatoire… Jury Citoyen ou Citizen Jury également appelé Minipublics se penche sur cette question.

Deux personnes qui ont proposé ou proposent d’utiliser plus souvent le Jury Populaire en politique. Segolène Royal et Loïc Blondiaux (source : Wikimedia).

Utiliser un dé pour décider serait stupide. Choisir au hasard une seule personne pour décider serait également stupide. Choisir quelques personnes – aussi peu que quinze personnes – pour donner un avis sur un sujet précis est une excellente idée. Les politologues et le grand public se penchent sur cette question dans de nombreux pays comme l’Irlande, le Canada, l’Australie, l’Islande ou la France. Partout les effets sont similaires : les personnes sélectionnées changent souvent d’avis après les longues discussions pendant les quelques week-ends où le rassemblement a lieu ; elles s’impliquent davantage dans la politique et prennent davantage conscience de l’intérêt publics. Partout, ils fournissent de nouvelles orientations qui peuvent être suivies ou non par les politiciens. Mais pourquoi ne peuvent-ils pas prendre des décisions exécutives ?

Les mini-publics sont trop souvent des boîtes noires. La sélection aléatoire se fait souvent derrière d’épais rideaux. De plus, il est facile de faire pression sur quinze personnes. Ces deux arguments réduisent de beaucoup la légitimité d’un Minipublic. Je plaide dans ce blog pour la transparence et propose des moyens de rendre la sélection aléatoire plus fluide. Il faut consulter des experts, le Minipublic a besoin de demander leurs avis, mais pas de les laisser décider quoi que ce soit. Les modérateurs/animateurs/facilitateurs jouent un rôle clé et devraient être sélectionnés en utilisant la sortition ;) Les politiciens professionnels et les journalistes affiliés adorent critiquer les membres du Jury populaire. Le Figaro a montré une photo des gens du Jury Populaire pour démontrer à quel point Nuit Debout était devenue farfelue.

Pourtant, ces jurys fournissent d’excellents avis et certains proposent que nous utilisions les Minipublics pour nommer nos dirigeants exécutifs. J’irai ici encore un peu plus loin, peut-être pourrions-nous utiliser les Minipublics pour prendre des décisions exécutives ?

The programmable voter, or, elections are not what they used to be

Mark Zuckerberg was hauled in front of Congress to answer for the “Cambridge Analytica scandal”. In the hearing he remorsefully promised that his top priority is now “making sure no one interferes in the various 2018 elections around the world”.

At face value this is a meaningless (and somewhat self-important) promise – there is nothing to distinguish “interference” from plain old campaign propaganda. And indeed at some level the whole spectacle was nothing more than a show – nothing concrete can be expected to be gained or lost. Presumably Facebook will make some changes to the way information (or misinformation) flows through its servers and the result will be that some pieces information (or misinformation) will be amplified and others suppressed. But, of course, Facebook already processes information in some way and this existing way also inevitably discriminates between pieces of information. What Facebook does or will do with the information it handles is completely up this private, unaccountable, opaque organization, motivated by its business and political interests, and there is thus little reason to expect any fairness or equality in the way it handles information. Thus no substantive change can be expected.
Continue reading

Sortition in eight flavors

In four screenplays, a short stage play, a long essay, a novella and a novel I consider the pros and cons of using sortition (random selection) to ensure that policy-making bodies accurately represent the people they serve.

The Fight for Random – wild magical realist screenplay

Random Takes Off – political action drama screenplay

Democracy at Random – road trip screenplay addressing eugenics and income

Random Takes Baltimore – municipal version of “Random Takes Off” screenplay

Next Step for Democracy – a short comedic educational stage play

Why Elections Are the Problem and How to Make Democracy Real — annotated essay

On the Citizen House: A Disquisitional Fiction – a disputatious novella

The Common Lot: A Novel – as stated

Detailed descriptions at

Robin Cohen: Beating the Cambridge Analyticas

Robin Cohen, Senior Research Fellow at Kellogg College and Emeritus Professor of Development Studies at the University of Oxford, writes in OpenDemocracy about his concerns following the “Cambridge Analytica” scandal:

We are now all aware of how our electoral systems have been manipulated by harvesting our digital footprints and preferences. Targeted messages, images and false information are then deployed to support or denigrate particular candidates, with no verification and no disclosure of the source of the posts.

We need to change the game to outsmart the Cambridge Analyticas. The best way to do this is vastly to increase the pool of candidates, then select our representatives by lot. This is technically known at sortition, or demarchy.

The system has many advantages, but in this context it would make digital electoral fraud uneconomic and, indeed, pointless. Allocation of offices by lot now gets an increasingly respectful hearing from political theorists [See, for example, Peter Stone ‘Sortition, voting, and democratic equality’, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 19 (3), 2016, 339-56, DOI: 10.1080/13698230.2016.1144858]. There is even a Sortition Foundation set up to promote the idea worldwide.

Here are just some of the advantages:

  • Corrupt, power-hungry or narcissistic politicians will be stopped in their tracks.
  • A public service ethic will be enhanced.
  • As the pool of talent will be massively enlarged there is a good chance that we will get better public servants compared with those who are self-selected or supported by special interest groups.
  • Party loyalties will be diminished, limiting block votes (whipping) and encouraging individual judgement.
  • Given random selection, our representatives will be more representative of the population. There will be no need for women-only shortlists or positive discrimination to include hitherto excluded minorities.

There are two obvious objections to sortition. First, unsuitable people might be drawn by lot. Second, it is generally acknowledged in the literature that the system works best in small communities or assemblies. How damaging are these objections?
Continue reading