In governance, sortition (also known as selection by lot, allotment, or demarchy) is the selection of political officials as a random sample from a larger pool of candidates, a system intended to ensure that all competent and interested parties have an equal chance of holding public office. It also minimizes factionalism, since there would be no point making promises to win over key constituencies if one was to be chosen by lot, while elections, by contrast, foster it. In ancient Athenian democracy, sortition was the traditional and primary method for appointing political officials, and its use was regarded as a principal characteristic of democracy.
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Today, sortition is commonly used to select prospective jurors in common law-based legal systems and is sometimes used in forming citizen groups with political advisory power (citizens' juries or citizens' assemblies).
Athenian democracy developed in the 6th century BC out of what was then called isonomia (equality of law and political rights). Sortition was then the principal way of achieving this fairness. It was utilized to pick most of the magistrates for their governing committees, and for their juries (typically of 501 men). Aristotle relates equality and democracy:
Democracy arose from the idea that those who are equal in any respect are equal absolutely. All are alike free, therefore they claim that all are free absolutely... The next is when the democrats, on the grounds that they are all equal, claim equal participation in everything.
In Athens, "democracy" (literally meaning rule by the people) was in opposition to those supporting a system of oligarchy (rule by a few). Athenian democracy was characterised by being run by the "many" (the ordinary people) who were allotted to the committees which ran government. Thucydides has Pericles make this point in his Funeral Oration: "It is administered by the many instead of the few; that is why it is called a democracy."
The Athenians believed sortition to be democratic but not elections and used complex procedures with purpose-built allotment machines (kleroteria) to avoid the corrupt practices used by oligarchs to buy their way into office. According to the author Mogens Herman Hansen the citizen's court was superior to the assembly because the allotted members swore an oath which ordinary citizens in the assembly did not and therefore the court could annul the decisions of the assembly. Both Aristotle and Herodotus (one of the earliest writers on democracy) emphasize selection by lot as a test of democracy, "The rule of the people has the fairest name of all, equality (isonomia), and does none of the things that a monarch does. The lot determines offices, power is held accountable, and deliberation is conducted in public."
Past scholarship maintained that sortition had roots in the use of chance to divine the will of the gods, but this view is no longer common among scholars. In Ancient Greek mythology, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades used sortition to determine who ruled over which domain. Zeus got the sky, Poseidon the sea, and Hades the underworld.
In Athens, to be eligible to be chosen by lot, citizens self-selected themselves into the available pool, then lotteries in the kleroteria machines. The magistracies assigned by lot generally had terms of service of 1 year. A citizen could not hold any particular magistracy more than once in his lifetime, but could hold other magistracies. All male citizens over 30 years of age, who were not disenfranchised by atimia, were eligible. Those selected through lot underwent examination called dokimasia in order to avoid incompetent officials. Rarely were selected citizens discarded. Magistrates, once in place, were subjected to constant monitoring by the Assembly. Magistrates appointed by lot had to render account of their time in office upon their leave, called euthynai. However, any citizen could request the suspension of a magistrate with due reason.
Lombardy and Venice – 12th to 18th century
The brevia was used in the city states of Lombardy during the 12th and 13th centuries and in Venice until the late 18th century. Men, who were chosen randomly, swore an oath that they were not acting under bribes, and then they elected members of the council. Voter and candidate eligibility probably included property owners, councilors, guild members, and perhaps, at times, artisans. The Doge of Venice was determined through a complex process of nomination, voting and sortition.
Lot was used in the Venetian system only in order to select members of the committees that served to nominate candidates for the Great Council. A combination of election and lot was used in this multi-stage process. Lot was not used alone to select magistrates, unlike in Florence and Athens. The use of lot to select nominators made it more difficult for political sects to exert power, and discouraged campaigning. By reducing intrigue and power moves within the Great Council, lot maintained cohesiveness among the Venetian nobility, contributing to the stability of this republic. Top magistracies generally still remained in the control of elite families.
Florence – 14th and 15th century
Scrutiny was used in Florence for over a century starting in 1328. Nominations and voting together created a pool of candidates from different sectors of the city. The names of these men were deposited into a sack, and a lottery draw determined who would get be a magistrate. The scrutiny was gradually opened up to minor guilds, reaching the greatest level of Renaissance citizen participation in 1378–82.
In Florence, lot was used to select magistrates and members of the Signoria during republican periods. Florence utilized a combination of lot and scrutiny by the people, set forth by the ordinances of 1328. In 1494, Florence founded a Great Council in the model of Venice. The nominatori were thereafter chosen by lot from among the members of the Great Council, indicating a decline in aristocratic power.
Sortition is most commonly used to form policy juries, such as deliberative opinion polls, citizens' juries, Planungszelle (planning cells), consensus conferences, and citizens' assemblies. As an example, Vancouver council initiated a citizens' assembly that met in 2014–15 in order to assist in city planning.
Sortition is commonly used in selecting juries in Anglo-Saxon legal systems and in small groups (e.g., picking a school class monitor by drawing straws). In public decision-making, individuals are often determined by allotment if other forms of selection such as election fail to achieve a result. Examples include certain hung elections and certain votes in the UK Parliament. Some contemporary thinkers have advocated a greater use of selection by lot in today's political systems, for example reform of the British House of Lords and proposals at the time of the adoption of the current Constitution of Iraq.
- Law court juries are formed through sortition in some countries, such as the United States and United Kingdom.
- Citizens' juries or citizens' assemblies have been used to provide input to policy makers. In 2004, a randomly selected group of citizens in British Columbia convened to propose a new electoral system. This Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform was repeated three years later in Ontario's citizens' assembly. However, neither assembly's recommendations reached the required thresholds for implementation in subsequent referendums.
- MASS LBP, a Canadian company inspired by the work of the Citizens' Assemblies on Electoral Reform, has pioneered the use of Citizens' Reference Panels for addressing a range of policy issues for public sector clients. The Reference Panels use civic lotteries, a modern form of sortition, to randomly select citizen-representatives from the general public.
- Democracy In Practice, an international organization dedicated to democratic innovation, experimentation and capacity-building, has implemented sortition within schools, randomly selecting members of student governments in Bolivia.
- Danish Consensus conferences give ordinary citizens a chance to make their voices heard in debates on public policy. The selection of citizens is not perfectly random, but still aims to be representative.
- The South Australian Constitutional Convention was a deliberative opinion poll created to consider changes to the state constitution.
- Private organizations can also use sortition. For example, the Samaritan Ministries health plan sometimes uses a panel of 13 randomly selected members to resolve disputes, which sometimes leads to policy changes.
- The Amish use sortition applied to a slate of nominees when they select their community leaders. In their process, formal members of the community each register a single private nomination, and candidates with a minimum threshold of nominations then stand for the random selection that follows.
- Citizens' Initiative Review at Healthy Democracy uses a sortition based panel of citizen voters to review and comment on ballot initiative measures in the United States. The selection process utilizes random and stratified sampling techniques to create a representative 24-person panel which deliberates in order to evaluate the measure in question.
Political proposals for sortition
Sortition as part of reworking the state
- John Burnheim, in his book Is Democracy Possible?, describes a political system in which many small "citizen's juries" would deliberate and make decisions about public policies. His proposal includes the dissolution of the state and of bureaucracies. The term demarchy he uses was coined by Hayek for a different proposal, unrelated to sortition, and is now sometimes used to refer to any political system in which sortition plays a central role.
- Influenced by Burnheim, Marxist economists Allin Cottrell and Paul Cockshott propose that, to avoid formation of a new social elite in a post-capitalist society, "[t]he various organs of public authority would be controlled by citizens' committees chosen by lot" or partially chosen by lot.
- L. León coined the word lottocracy for a sortition procedure that is somewhat different from Burnheim's demarchy. While "Burnheim ... insists that the random selection be made only from volunteers", León states "that first of all, the job must not be liked". Christopher Frey uses the German term Lottokratie and recommends testing lottocracy in town councils. Lottocracy, according to Frey, will improve the direct involvement of each citizen and minimize the systematical errors caused by political parties in Europe.
- Anarcho-capitalist writer Terry Hulsey detailed a 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to randomize the election of congressmen and senators, and indirectly, the President of the United States. The key to its success, in his opinion, is that the critical selection of the initial pool of candidates is left strictly to the states, to avoid litigation regarding "fairness" or perfect randomness.
Sortition to replace elected legislative bodies
- Ernest Callenbach and Michael Phillips push for random selection of the U.S. House of Representatives in their book A Citizen Legislature. They argue this scheme would ensure fair representation for the people and their interests, an elimination of many realpolitik behaviors, and a reduction in the influence of money and associated corruption, all leading to better legislation.
- Étienne Chouard, a French political activist, proposes replacing elections with sortition.
- Select, through sortition, a large legislative body (such as the U.S. Congress) from among the adult population at large. C. L. R. James's 1956 essay "Every Cook Can Govern".
- Terry Bouricius, a former Vermont legislator and political scientist, proposes in a journal article "Democracy Through Multi-body Sortition: Athenian Lessons for the Modern Day" how a democracy could function better without elections, through the use of many randomly selected bodies, each with a defined role.
- Graham Kirby proposed using sortition to reform the UK House of Lords in Disclaimer magazine.
- In his 2017 presidential election platform, French politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise lays out a proposal for a sixth republic. The upper house of this republic would be formed through national sortition. Additionally, the constituent assembly to create this republic would have 50% of its members chosen in this way, with the remainder being elected.
Sortition to choose legislative juries
- Simon Threlkeld, in the 1998 journal article "A Blueprint for Democratic Law-Making: Give Citizen Juries the Final Say" and later articles, proposes that laws be decided by legislative juries rather than by elected politicians or referenda. The existing legislatures would continue to exist and could propose laws to legislative juries, but would no longer be able to pass laws. Citizens, public interest groups and others would also be able to propose laws to legislative juries.
Sortition to decide the franchise
- Simon Threlkeld, in the 1997 journal article "Democratizing Public Institutions: Juries for the selection of public officials" and later articles, proposes that a wide range of public officials be chosen by randomly sampled juries, rather than by politicians or popular election. As with "convened-sample suffrage", public officials are chosen by a random sample of the public from a relevant geographical area, such as a state governor being chosen by a random sample of citizens from that state.
- "Convened-sample suffrage" uses sortition to choose an electoral college for each electoral district.
Sortition to supplement or replace some of the legislators
- "Accidental Politicians: How Randomly Selected Legislators Can Improve Parliament Efficiency": shows how the introduction of a variable percentage of randomly selected independent legislators in a Parliament can increase the global efficiency of a Legislature, in terms of both number of laws passed and average social welfare obtained (this work is in line with the recent discovery that the adoption of random strategies can improve the efficiency of hierarchical organizations "Peter Principle Revisited: a Computational Study").
- Political scientist Robert A. Dahl suggests in his book Democracy and its critics (p. 340) that an advanced democratic state could form groups which he calls minipopuli. Each group would consist "of perhaps a thousand citizens randomly selected out of the entire demos", and would either set an agenda of issues or deal with a particular major issue. It would "hold hearings, commission research, and engage in debate and discussion". Dahl suggests having the minipopuli as supplementing, rather than replacing, legislative bodies.
- The House of Commons in both Canada and the United Kingdom could employ randomly selected legislators.
- The ratio of legislators decided by election to those decided by the lottery is tied directly to the voter turnout percentage. Every absentee voter is choosing sortition, so, for example, with 60% voter turnout a number of legislators are randomly chosen to make up 40% of the overall parliament. Each election is simultaneously a referendum on electoral and lottery representation.
- Political science scholars Christoph Houman Ellersgaard, Anton Grau Larsen and Andreas Møller Mulvad of the Copenhagen Business School suggest supplementing the Danish parliament, the Folketing, with another chamber consisting of 300 randomly selected Danish citizens to combat elitism and career politicians, in their book Tæm Eliten (Tame the Elite).
Sortition to replace an appointed upper house
- The upper house of a parliament might be selected through sortition. Anthony Barnett, Peter Carty and Anthony Tuffin proposed this to the Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords in the UK in 1999.
Representation of the population
A modern advocate of sortition, political scientist John Burnheim, argues for systems of sortition as follows:
Let the convention for deciding what is our common will be that we will accept the decision of a group of people who are well informed about the question, well-motivated to find as good a solution as possible and representative of our range of interests simply because they are statistically representative of us as a group. If this group is then responsible for carrying out what it decides, the problem of control of the execution process largely vanishes.
This advantage does not equally apply to the use of juries.
Cognitive diversity is an amalgamation of different ways of seeing the world and interpreting events within it, where a diversity of perspectives and heuristics guide individuals to create different solutions to the same problems. Cognitive diversity is not the same as gender, ethnicity, value-set or age diversity, although they are often positively correlated. According to numerous scholars such as Page and Landemore, cognitive diversity is more important to creating successful ideas than the average ability level of a group. This "diversity trumps ability theorem" is essential to why sortition is a viable democratic option. Simply put, random selection of persons of average intelligence performs better than a collection of the best individual problem solvers.
Compared to a voting system – even one that is open to all citizens – a citizen-wide lottery scheme for public office lowers the threshold to office. This is because ordinary citizens do not have to compete against more powerful or influential adversaries in order to take office, and because the selection procedure does not favour those who have pre-existing advantages or connections – as invariably happens with election by preference.
Random selection has the ability to overcome the various demographic biases in race, religion, sex, etc. apparent in most legislative assemblies. Greater perceived fairness can be added by using stratified sampling. For example, the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform in British Columbia sampled one woman and one man from each electoral district and also ensured representation for First Nations members. Bias may still exist if particular groups are purposefully excluded from the lottery such as happened in Ancient Athens where women, slaves, younger men and foreigners were not eligible.
Greek writers who mention democracy (including Aristotle, Plato and Herodotus) emphasise the role of selection by lot or state outright that being allotted is more democratic than elections. For example, Plato says:
Democracy arises after the poor are victorious over their adversaries, some of whom they kill and others of whom they exile, then they share out equally with the rest of the population political offices and burdens; and in this regime public offices are usually allocated by lot.
The idea that democracy is associated with sortition remained common in the 18th century. Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu writes in The Spirit of the Laws, "The suffrage by lot is natural to democracy, as that by choice is to aristocracy."
Sortition may be less corruptible than voting. Author James Wycliffe Headlam explains that the Athenian Council (500 administrators randomly selected), would commit occasional mistakes such as levying taxes that were too high. Additionally, from time to time, some in the Council would improperly make small quantities of money from their civic positions. However, "systematic oppression and organized fraud were impossible". These Greeks recognized that sortition broke up factions, diluted power, and gave positions to such a large number of disparate people that they would all keep an eye on each other making collusion fairly rare. Furthermore, power did not necessarily go to those who wanted it and had schemed for it. The Athenians used an intricate machine, a kleroterion, to allot officers. Headlam also explains that "the Athenians felt no distrust of the lot, but regarded it as the most natural and the simplest way of appointment".
Like Athenian democrats, critics of electoral politics in the 21st-century argue that the process of election by vote is subject to manipulation by money and other powerful forces and because legislative elections give power to a few powerful groups they are believed to be less democratic system than selection by lot from among the population.
Empowering ordinary people
An inherent problem with electoral politics is the over-representation of politically active groups in society who tend to be those who join political parties. For example, in 2000 less than 2% of the UK population belonged to a political party, while in 2005 there were at best only 3 independent MPs (see List of UK minor party and independent MPs elected) so that 99.5% of all UK MPs belonged to a political party. As a result, political members of the UK population were represented by one MP per 1800 of those belonging to a party whilst those who did not belong to a party had one MP per 19 million individuals who did not belong to a party.
Additionally, participants grow in competence by contributing to deliberation. Citizens are more significantly empowered by being a part of decision-making that concerns them. Most societies have some type of citizenship education, but sortition-based committees allow ordinary people to develop their own democratic capacities through participation.
Loyalty is to conscience not to political party
Elected representatives typically rely on political parties in order to gain and retain office. This means they often feel a primary loyalty to the party and will vote contrary to conscience to support a party position. Representatives appointed by sortition do not owe anything to anyone for their position.
The most common argument against pure sortition (that is, with no prior selection of an eligible group) is that it takes no account of skills or experience that might be needed to effectively discharge the particular offices to be filled. Were such a position to require a specific skill set, sortition could not necessarily guarantee the selection of a person whose skills matched the requirements of being in office unless the group from which the allotment is drawn were itself composed entirely of sufficiently specialized persons. This is why sortition was not used to select military commanders (Strategos) in ancient Athens. By contrast, systems of election or appointment ideally limit this problem by encouraging the matching of skilled individuals to jobs they are suited to. By submitting their qualifications to scrutiny beforehand, either by the electorate or other persons in positions of authority, those manifestly unqualified to hold a given position can be prevented from being elected or appointed to discharge it.
[Socrates] taught his companions to despise the established laws by insisting on the folly of appointing public officials by lot, when none would choose a pilot or builder or flautist by lot, nor any other craftsman for work in which mistakes are far less disastrous than mistakes in statecraft.
The same argument is also made by Edmund Burke in his essay Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790):
There is no qualification for government but virtue and wisdom, actual or presumptive. [...] Everything ought to be open, but not indifferently, to every man. No rotation; no appointment by lot; no mode of election operating in the spirit of sortition or rotation can be generally good in a government conversant in extensive objects. Because they have no tendency, direct or indirect, to select the man with a view to the duty or to accommodate the one to the other.
In case demographic stratification is not rigorously put in place, there is always the statistical possibility that sortition may put into power an individual or group that do not represent the views of the population from which they were drawn. This argument is mentioned by Isocrates in his essay Areopagiticus (section 23):
In contemporary times, moral and reasoning and justification is paramount. This makes the randomness be less of a problem since the process of social filtering through positive, deliberative process filters incompetence.
[It was] considered that this way of appointing magistrates [i.e., elections] was also more democratic than the casting of lots, since under the plan of election by lot chance would decide the issue and the partizans of oligarchy would often get the offices; whereas under the plan of selecting the worthiest men, the people would have in their hands the power to choose those who were most attached to the existing constitution.
This argument applies to juries, but less to larger groups where the probability of, for example, an oppressive majority, are statistically insignificant. The modern processes of jury selection and the rights to object to and exclude particular jurors by both the plaintiff and defence are used to potentially lessen the possibilities of a jury not being representative of the community or being prejudicial towards one side or the other. Today, therefore, even juries in most jurisdictions are not ultimately chosen through pure sortition.
Those who see voting as expressing the "consent of the governed", maintain that voting is able to confer legitimacy in the selection. According to this view, elected officials can act with greater authority than when randomly selected. With no popular mandate to draw on, randomly-selected politicians lose a moral basis on which to base their authority. As such, politicians would be open to charges of illegitimacy, as they were selected purely by chance.
Moreover, the logistical constraints of sortition and deliberation encourage that governing bodies be kept small, limiting participation Since it is statistically unlikely that a given individual will participate in the deliberative body, sortition creates two groups of people, the few randomly-chosen politicians and the masses. Identifying the source of sortition's legitimacy has proven difficult. As a result, advocates of sortition have suggested limiting the use cases of sortition to serving as consultative or political agenda-setting bodies.
In an elected system, the representatives are to a degree self-selecting for their enthusiasm for the job. Under a system of pure, universal sortition the individuals are not chosen for their enthusiasm. Many electoral systems assign to those chosen a role as representing their constituents; a complex job with a significant workload. Elected representatives choose to accept any additional workload; voters can also choose those representatives most willing to accept the burden involved in being a representative. Individuals chosen at random from a comprehensive pool of citizens have no particular enthusiasm for their role and therefore may not make good advocates for a constituency.
Unlike elections, where members of the elected body may stand for re-election, sortition does not offer a mechanism by which the population expresses satisfaction or dissatisfaction with individual members of the allotted body. Thus, under sortition there is no formal feedback, or accountability, mechanism for the performance of officials, other than the law.
Before the random selection can be done, the pool of candidates must be defined. Systems vary as to whether they allot from eligible volunteers, from those screened by education, experience, or a passing grade on a test, or screened by election by those selected by a previous round of random selection, or from the membership or population at large. A multi-stage process in which random selection is alternated with other screening methods can be used, as in the Venetian system.
One robust, general, public method of allotment in use since 1997 is documented in RFC 3797: Publicly Verifiable Nominations Committee Random Selection. Using it, multiple specific sources of random numbers (e.g. lotteries) are selected in advance, and an algorithm is defined for selecting the winners based on those random numbers. When the random numbers become available, anyone can calculate the winners.
David Chaum, a pioneer in computer science and cryptography, proposed Random-Sample Elections in 2012. Via recent advances in computer science, it is now possible to select a random sample of eligible voters in a verifiably valid manner and empower them to study and make a decision on a matter of public policy. This can be done in a highly transparent manner which allows anyone to verify the integrity of the election, while optionally preserving the anonymity of the voters. A related approach has been pioneered by James Fishkin, director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford, to make legally binding decisions in Greece, China and other countries.
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- Sortition as a sustainable protection against oligarchy Conference by Etienne Chouard
- Random-Sample Voting - white paper and technical summaries by Chaum et al.
- Why a citizen’s parliament chosen by lot would be ‘perfect’ - from the international service of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation
- Why elections are bad for democracy - essay by David Van Reybrouck
- Simon Threlkeld - articles proposing that randomly sampled juries decide laws, and choose public officials.
- Evaluation grid for sortition proposals at the legislative_level