Sortition Experiment

Debates on this forum and elsewhere lead me to conclude that there are, broadly speaking, three schools of the thought regarding the political potential of sortition:

1. The Blind Watchmaker

According to this school of thought, outlined in Oliver Dowlen’s Political Potential of Sortition and Peter Stone’s Luck of the Draw, sortition is primarily a mechanism to defend the institutions of government from corruption and partisan influences. Although historically associated with democracy there is no necessary connection as sortition could be applied to the selection of members of any group – democratic, oligarchic, aristocratic, associational or otherwise. Such an argument requires no empirical confirmation as it is true by definition (if it didn’t work then the process would not have been properly randomised). Chance (an arational process) precludes intelligent design, hence the (Dawkins) Blind Wachmaker allusion.

True believers, however, claim that sortition can also be used to produce representative democracy, but the claims here are divided into two camps:
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Online Petitions go live on Directgov

The Guardian reports:

A new public e-petitions service has gone live on the Directgov portal, replacing the previous e-petitions system on the Downing Street website.

The new website went live on 29 July and is being operated by the Government Digital Service. The government said that public petitions which secure the backing of 100,000 signatures will be eligible for debate in Parliament.

Sir George Young, the Leader of the House of Commons, said: “The public already have many opportunities to make their voices heard in parliament, and this new system of e-petitions could give them a megaphone.
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One of Bill McClellan’s readers writes in

Google Alert netted another fine catch:

Democracy seeming like Greek to U.S.

Bill McClellan
stltoday.com, July 29, 2011

Not long ago, I wrote a column in which I suggested we select our leaders through a lottery [Stupid vs. immoral? Let’s leave governing up to chance, June 8, 2011]. We would avoid tiresome campaigns and the lies and misrepresentations therein, and we would rid ourselves of campaign contributions and the time-honored practice of buying influence and favors.

It was a whimsical idea. Or so I thought. But one of the joys of writing a newspaper column is hearing from people who know more than I do about the subjects I write about.

David C. sent me this note: “Today’s column made me think of ancient Athens, one of the most thoroughgoing democracies in western history (at least for those who weren’t slaves). They had a system of government very similar to your idea of government by lottery. As the Marxist historian C.L.R. James wrote in his essay, ‘Every Cook Can Govern’: ‘Perhaps the most striking thing about Greek democracy was that the administration (and there were immense administrative problems) was organized upon the basis of what is known as sortition, or, more easily, selection by lot. The vast majority of Greek officials were chosen by a method which amounted to putting names into a hat and appointing the ones whose names came out.'”

Citizen Juries institutionalized in Oregon

From America Speaks July newsletter:

Last month, our movement saw a new victory with the institutionalization of Citizen Juries in Oregon.

On June 16, Governor Kitzhaber—with strong bipartisan support from the state House and  Senate—signed in legislation continuing the Citizens’ Initiative Review (HB 2634).  This law establishes the legal framework to provide Oregon voters with reliable, high-quality, citizen-driven information about ballot measures. When future ballot issues arise, a random sample of Oregonians—peers of the voters—will engage in pro/con deliberation and will summarize their findings in a one-page citizen statement. On the day of the election, all voters see a printed version of the citizen statement in the voter pamphlet.

Edip Yuksel: Lotteries elections: Disinfecting democracy from lobbies

In 1998, Edip Yuskel, “an Islamic reformer”, wrote an article proposing selecting Congress using sortition:

Every citizen who meets the qualifications enumerated in Article I, sections 2 and 3 of the Constitution could become a candidate by filling out a simple application form. This application can be automatically done during voter registration. Every registered person will have an equal chance of becoming a member of Congress. The election or selection can be conducted by mechanical devises or computers with sufficient security and supervision.

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Poll finds most Americans think their government is a plutocracy

A poll taken in May asked some pointed questions about who people feel controls government and benefits from its policies. The answers were in line with previous findings.


CBS News Poll. May 20-23, 2011. N=1,020 adults nationwide.

“How much say do you think people like yourself have about what the government does: a good deal, some, or not much?”

A good deal Some Not much Unsure
% 9 21 69 1

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Government quality and government selection

[M]en err in two ways, either by ignorance or by malice.

Francesco Guicciardini, Dialogue on the Government of Florence

A model of government quality and government selection mechanism quality

The two chief desirable characteristics of government are

  • representativity (r): the government is representative when its efforts are aimed at promoting the general interests (rather than personal or narrow interests), and
  • competence (c): the government is competent when it is able to enact effective policy in accordance with its aims.

A representative, competent government enacts policy that effectively promotes the general interest.

Modeled in this way, the quality of a government is a function of its representativity and its competence, q = q(r,c), increasing in both arguments (e.g., q(r,c) = r c). The quality of a mechanism for selecting a government is measured by its tendency to produce high-quality governments.
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