Creating a Framework for Sortition

Dr. Roslyn Fuller is a lecturer in International Law based in Ireland. She is a regular contributor to Irish and international media on world trade, privacy, whistle-blowing and the War on Terror. A great fan of the classics, she has been researching democracy for over a decade and is the author of Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed its Meaning and Lost its Purpose, to be published by Zed Books in November 2015. [Welcome to Equality-by-Lot! -YG]

When I first started researching ancient, democratic Athens, I was struck by the layers of randomness built into the political system. Sure, it wasn’t a utopia, but under Athenian democracy wresting control of the decision-making process was at least a difficult and continuous task, because the thrust of the system worked against what Robert Michels would have termed ‘the Iron Law of Oligarchy’.

Lottery selection for most office-holders, as well as for Athens’ enormous juries was one aspect of that randomness. The more I read, the more I was impressed not just with the practice of sortition, but the way the Athenians went about it: dropping their pinakia (identity-tickets) into baskets, having them shaken up, the presiding official randomly drawing a ticket, that person becoming the pinakia-inserter and in turn randomly drawing tickets, dropping the kyboi, or coloured balls, randomly down the kleroterion’s funnel. The Athenians were clearly determined to bastard-proof their system. In my view, their paranoia was justified, and represented nothing more than healthy respect for the criminal (or oligarchic) mind.

But there’s not much point in creating such a fool-proof sortition system if the overarching politics doesn’t change as well. As we all know, in Athens the process of sortition didn’t run in parallel to a sophisticated and expensive electoral system; it ran in parallel to the Assembly. Whatever else one may want to say about Assembly, it was the national focal point for the issues of the day. Assembly attendance was also somewhat random (if self-selecting) in that it generally depended on who showed up of their own volition. A rhetor never looked out on the exact same Assembly twice, and while the ‘professional’, often affluent, rhetors certainly wielded a great deal of influence, they never did know when some unknown citizen would pop out of the woodwork and carry the day against them. Power was possible; power consolidation more of a challenge.

It was this Assembly that was down with sortition in its various forms. It’s hard to look at Athens and see how sortition could have existed side-by-side with the kind of entrenched and powerful electoral politics practised today.
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Lottery – our cunning little ‘Swiss army knife’?

Randomness – using a lottery – can be a crafty little tool in many ways other than selecting Citizens Juries. How it works depends on human psychology. We know what selection by lottery is meant to do – keep Human Judgement out of it! Or to put it more formally: it is either its ‘sanitizing’ effect (Peter Stone) or the arrationality effect (Olly Dowlen).

But human psychology comes into it as well. Which is more valuable – a gift of 1 Euro or a lottery ticket with a 1 in a 1,000,000 chance of  500,000 Euro?

Easy, say you hyper-rational kleroterians! Take the money.

Not so! The General Public are quite happy to buy tickets every week for such a lottery with an expected loss of 50% of your stake. There’s something about lottery prizes that makes them more valuable than the expected  prize – and can also make a small loss more painful than a large gain. The statistician Jimmy Savage discovered these ‘irrational’ traits of the human mind when developing Decision Theory.
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“They Can Do It All on a Computer”

“They Can Do It All on a Computer”

Google Alerts directed me to this brief article. Not particularly exciting, but I wonder what people think of the idea of random selection taking place entirely on a computer like this. Happens quite a lot, I gather–I think that’s how the Dutch medical school lottery is done. But it’s rather hard to verify that a lottery is fair when it’s just a guy typing commands into a computer in the comfort of his office. Thoughts? Does this matter?