Sortition Introduction for 21st Century Democracy Conference in Alexandria, Egypt

The Way Forward – by Terry Bouricius

This is the original full draft of an introductory presentation intended to prepare participants of the 21st Century Democracy conference hosted by the Library of Alexandria for the subsequent day’s sessions largely focused on sortition. Due to earlier panels running overtime, this full speech was never presented, and only a few key points were made in an introduction the next day. Note that some underlining and ALL CAPS appear as emphasis aids for reading the speech aloud.

Discussions about the problems of democracy tend to focus on the problems of the elections.

A fundamental point that needs to be understood is that elections are not the same thing as democracy, and are at best one tool for approaching the democratic ideal. Clearly, a system of free and fair elections is a vast improvement over a dictatorship or one-party state. But the ideal of democracy goes far deeper.

The democratic ideal can be summed up as government of, by and for the people. But modern democracies all have government BY a political class that is distinctly different than the people (mostly male, older, wealthier, better educated, etc.)… and whether that government is truly FOR the people is always a matter of debate.

John Adams, one of the founders of the United States wrote in 1776 that a legislature “should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason and act like them.”

The ideal of democracy is that the government should make the same decisions that the people as a whole would make IF they could all have the time, motivation, information, attention, expert advice, access to conflicting points of view, fact-checking of faulty assumptions, and good facilitation. Obviously it is impossible to have all of the people do this on even one issue, let alone the vast number of public policy decisions made every year. But we know exactly how to achieve this ideal by combining the principles of scientific sampling to select a statistically accurate representative mini-public, with good decision-making procedures. The random selection of public officials like this is known as “sortition.”

This would be government BY the ordinary people, rather than by a political class with only the CONSENT of the people.
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Sortition and 21st Century Democracy

Sortition and 21st Century Democracy

David Schecter’s presentation at the “Democracy for the 21st Century” conference, Library of Alexandria, Egypt, December 11, 2015

This conference began with a quote from John Kennedy – “the great enemy of truth is not the lie, but the myth.” I believe that the great enemy of truth about democracy is the myth that there is only one democratic way to choose representatives — through elections.

As Dr. Ismail Serageldin suggested, we have been confusing one means of choosing — elections — with democracy itself. And as Dr. George Ishak said, “In the 21st century, we should find new ways to select representatives.” Sortition is one of those ways. Actually, it is not a new way, it’s a very old way. It was used more than elections in ancient Athens, and people wrote about it here in Alexandria 2,000 years ago.

My colleagues, Terrill Bouricius and Oliver Dowlen, have described specific proposals for incorporating sortition into political system design. I would to talk about a whole set of proposals, and a menu of options.

I have been researching proposals like these, and I have also co-authored one. I have found 18 such proposals so far, and I have had the pleasure of corresponding with the authors. They come from Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, South Africa, the U.K., and the U.S. Together, they represent many new possibilities for democracy.

My talk will have three parts. First, I am going to review the rationale for the use of sortition and “mini-publics” – that is, representative samples of the public. I am also going to respond to some common objections to this idea. Second, I am going to describe a menu of options for incorporating mini-publics into political systems. Third, I am going to pose some important questions that have not yet been addressed within these proposals.
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