Notes on McGill Sortition Workshop

Here are some brief notes on a workshop on sortition held at McGill University.

“Representation, Bicameralism, and Sortition: With Application to the Canadian Senate”

McGill Sortition Workshop: Randomly Selecting the Canadian Senate

I had the pleasure of attending a fascinating one-day workshop on sortition and replacing the unelected Canadian Senate with a randomly selected Citizen Assembly that was held on December 9, 2016, at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Peter Stone (Political Science, Trinity College Dublin), Alex Guerrero (Philosophy, Rutgers), and Arash Abizadeh (Political Science, McGill) each presented papers on sortition in separate sessions.

In advance of the workshop, Abizadeh did a radio interview (at 21:10) on Ottawa Today with Mark Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe seemed very receptive to the idea of replacing the Canadian Senate with a randomly selected Citizen Assembly. Abizadeh also published an article in the Montreal Gazette in advance of the event.

This event was a timely opportunity to inject sortition theory and practice into current discussion of reforming the unelected Canadian Senate. Canadian Senator Paul Massicotte participated in the public forum and wrote a diatribe—“A randomly selected Canadian Senate would be a disaster”—against sortition following the workshop. Yoram Gat in his post on this insightfully commented on how exceptional such a response is: “It is an indication of the precarious position of the Canadian Senate with its non-electoral appointment procedure that the Senator feels that the proposal to appoint the Senate using sortition requires a refutation. It is a feeling that, as far as I am aware, no elected member of parliament has ever shared in modern times.”

The holding of this workshop was an important step towards mainstreaming sortition, both with citizens at large and within political science and other academic fields. Some workshop participants, consisting mainly of political science academics, remarked that they knew little about sortition before their preparation for this workshop. Being able to point to this workshop at McGill, as well as other events on sortition, such as those held previously at Trinity College Dublin and Sciences Po, helps give proposals such as randomly selecting the Canadian Senate greater credibility and demonstrates rigorous intellectual support. This also helps get others to take such proposals seriously, as Senator Massicotte’s response demonstrated.

Workshop Paper Presentations

GHOI3188.jpgThe workshop papers by Peter Stone, Alex Guerrero, and Arash Abizadeh are posted password-protected and are draft versions not for distribution. Given that, I will not discuss these papers in depth. I will simply provide a quick mention of the topic of each paper for reference; I imagine the authors would be willing to share the papers upon request.

The workshop began with Peter Stone presenting his paper, “Can Sortition Save Democracy?,” an insightful discussion of elections, sortition, and democracy pursued through a critique of David Van Reybrouck’s book, Against Elections: The Case for Democracy. Stone identifies a key weakness in Van Reybrouck’s failure to define democracy or present any theory of democracy. This results in Van Reybrouck ending up trying to combine institutions of elections and sortition, two mechanisms that may fundamentally be at odds with each other.

Alex Guerrero presented a paper, “Considering the Relative Sanity of Electoral and Lottocratic Political Institutions,” that is part of a book he is working on. (Part of this paper draws on his previously published article: Alexander A. Guerrero, “Against Elections: The Lottocratic Alternative,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 42 (2014), pp. 135–178.) Guerrero introduces the concept of “sanity” (“the ability to appreciate and to respond to the world as it is”) as a way to critique first the epistemic virtues of electoral representative government and then the “sanity” of lottocratic representative government (with an appendix to his paper discussing “Expertise and Relying on Expert Testimony in an Epistemically Justifiable Way”). In response to my question on broader use of sortition beyond the legislative bodies of the nation-state, Guerrero mentioned part of his book will discuss lottocracy in global governance. He also said he was open to exploration of the use of sortition in the workplace, including in university governance. He commented that he would not want to see a randomly selected supreme court.

Arash Abizadeh concluded the workshop by making the case for a randomly selected Canadian Senate in his paper, “Representation, Bicameralism, and Sortition: Reconstituting the Senate as a Randomly Selected Citizen Assembly.” He proposes using stratified random sampling to address issues of geographic concern that are reflected in the current senate makeup. He also proposes allowing those selected to opt out if they do not want to participate. (As noted above, more can be found on his views in the above-linked Montreal Gazette article and radio interview, as well as the public forum video linked below.)

This workshop was co-sponsored by the Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship (CSDC) (http://csdc-cecd.ca/), the Research Group on Constitutional Studies (RGCS) of the Yan P. Lin Centre for the Study of Freedom and Global Orders in the Ancient and Modern Worlds at McGill University (http://www.mcgill.ca/rgcs/), and Groupe de recherche philosophie politique de Montréal (GRIPP) (http://grippmontreal.org/).

Public Forum: “The Senate as a Randomly Selected Citizens’ Assembly”

IMG_6078.JPGAt the end of the day, a public forum was held where Abizadeh made the case for replacing the unelected Canadian Senate with a citizen assembly using stratified random sampling. Abizadeh’s proposal was then critiqued by a “Dragons’ Den” of four panelists. Their bios as listed on a handout are: (1) Paul Massicotte “was appointed a Senator from Quebec in 2003. He serves on the Special committee on Senate Modernization”; (2) Edie Austin “is the editorial page editor at the Montreal Gazette”; (3) Andre Potter “is the new director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. He came to us from being Editor of the Ottawa Citizen, and also has a PhD from the University of Toronto.” The fourth panelist—chosen by random selection from audience members who volunteered to put their name in a jar—was Iwona Sadowska who teaches at Georgetown University.

You can watch the public forum (1 hour, 47 minutes in length) here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8cYIwWdr8s.

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13 Responses

  1. Hi Jonathan,

    Thank you very much for this report. Such workshops are indeed useful both for educating attendees and as reference points in future discussions. For the second function abstracts of the points made in the workshops can be very useful, and your brief summaries here go some way towards serving this purpose.

    A general observation: it seems to me that the role political science academics play in politics is overall quite conservative. The main purpose of established academic narrative is to justify and thus to buttress the status quo. While much of the time this takes the form of straightforward cheer-leading, at other times this works through obfuscation and diffusion. An acknowledgement of problems with the existing system is made but the discussion of those problems and of potential solutions that is then presented leaves the reader quite confused about what are the roots of the problems and what can be done about them. Academics can and should play a more constructive role in addressing the severe problems that the political system generates but such activity is unfortunately, but not coincidentally, at odds with the structure of academic institutions: presenting a strident and operationalizable critique of the established powers and ideology is at odds with having a successful academic career, it seems.

    Specifically regarding the points you mention from the workshop:

    * Peter is of course correct that Van Reybrouck does not present a coherent definition of democracy, much less a coherent theory of democracy. But then again, who does? Avoiding a clear definition of what democracy is seems to be an important occupation of modern political science. Ever since elite-theories of democracy fell out of favor in the 1970s, no coherent theory has been presented and we are expected to be satisfied with platitudes as a replacement. As far as I am aware, the speakers in this workshop are no exception in this respect: I am not aware that any of them present a clear view of what democracy is and how it can be achieved and evaluated. While Peter posits that sortition and elections are fundamentally at odds with each other, Abizadeh, for example, says there is “something beautiful” in “balancing” the two. So as often happens the academic discussion leaves us mired in confusion.

    * I think we should be suspicious of analysis of the troubles with the current system as stemming from epistemic difficulties of those with power, as Alex Guerrero’s definition of the term “sanity” implies. The problem with oligarchical government (electoral or otherwise) is not that it is ineffective, but that it effectively pursues elite interests at the expense of the interests of those outside the elite. (This, by the way, points the way toward a straightforward definition of democracy: “government serving equally the interests of all members of the group”. Of course, this definition would be merely the starting point of a theory of democracy, not a self-contained theory by itself.)

    Of course not having read Alex’s paper I do not know the thrust of his argument but the “living in a bubble”, “gridlock”, “no cognitive diversity” is quite a common line argument in the “democratic reform” genre in general. It is completely without merit.

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  2. Yoram,

    >The main purpose of established academic narrative is to justify and thus to buttress the status quo. While much of the time this takes the form of straightforward cheer-leading, at other times this works through obfuscation and diffusion.

    Here we go again, everyone is an establishment lickspittle apart from Citizen (Yoram) Smith. This is getting really boring and undermines the credibility of this public website, given that the Citizen in question is also the site convenor.

    >a straightforward definition of democracy: “government serving equally the interests of all members of the group”.

    That’s is the most eccentric definition of democracy I’ve ever come across. As Terry pointed out previously, the interests of all members of the group could (in theory) be equally served by any system of government, including monarchy, aristocracy or an artificial intelligence.

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  3. Hi Yoram,

    Who would you recommend reading who you think does succeed in “presenting a strident and operationalizable critique of the established powers”?

    Regarding academia, I think a root problem is the governance structure. An undemocratic system of knowledge production will lead to undemocratic outcomes (elite capture, racism, sexism, classism, etc.). There is a need to apply sortition to university governance.

    Below are examples of identification of this problem, but they lack operationalizable solutions.

    Pierre Bourdieu, “The Racism of ‘Intelligence'”:

    https://books.google.com/books?id=-k5EzNg-uKEC&pg=PA177&lpg=PA177&dq=%22racism+of+intelligence%22+bourdieu&source=bl&ots=Rnr1ea1sDR&sig=ntJzPmFueIZod0UfF3QPmwEbo8Y&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjEsKT6hYvTAhUs04MKHcy7DrkQ6AEIMTAE#v=onepage&q=%22racism%20of%20intelligence%22%20bourdieu&f=false

    Duncan Kennedy at Harvard Law School, “Legal Education as Training for Hierarchy”:

    http://duncankennedy.net/documents/Legal%20Education%20as%20Training%20for%20Hierarchy_Politics%20of%20Law.pdf

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It is now clear what David Van Reybroeck stands for and why he is embraced by politicians http://www.senate.be/event/20150922_representatieve_democratie/act_nl.pdf :

    The workshop began with Peter Stone presenting his paper, “Can Sortition Save Democracy?,” an insightful discussion of elections, sortition, and democracy pursued through a critique of David Van Reybrouck’s book, Against Elections: The Case for Democracy. Stone identifies a key weakness in Van Reybrouck’s failure to define democracy or present any theory of democracy. This results in Van Reybrouck ending up trying to combine institutions of elections and sortition, two mechanisms that may fundamentally be at odds with each other.

    In our proposition we also use elections but it is clear who has the last say and we don’t use mixed assemblies (as proposed by DVR). http://blogimages.seniorennet.be/democratie/attach/137395.pdf and the criteria http://blogimages.seniorennet.be/democratie/attach/142906.pdf

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  5. Paul,

    >trying to combine institutions of elections and sortition, two mechanisms that may fundamentally be at odds with each other.

    Athenian democracy was based on two different egalitarian principles, equal speech (isegoria) and equal decision right (isonomia). In a small polis, both principles can be instantiated by direct democratic institutions, but in a large modern state both require representative mechanisms. A good case can be made for election as the modern equivalent of the former and large randomly-selected juries for the latter. The two mechanisms are only at odds with each other when the very different functions of each form of representation are conflated. There will be no progress in this debate until this conceptual confusion is resolved — Hanna Pitkin made it crystal clear fifty years ago, but we all need to read her book.

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  6. In sum sortition is suitable for the judgment role (isonomia), but what is the theoretical foundation for claiming that policy advocates should be randomly selected? Although these are two entirely different functions this doesn’t mean that they are any more “fundamentally at odds with each other” than are the attorneys and jury in a criminal trial. What representative principle could possibly apply to the selection of advocates other than election?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Jonathan,

    > Who would you recommend reading who you think does succeed in “presenting a strident and operationalizable critique of the established powers”?

    That’s a great question. I think that there aren’t many such presentations. Even people that I admire greatly, like Chomsky and Glenn Greenwald, who do present systematic and convincing critiques of the status quo, do not present a convincing reform agenda.

    The closest such presentation I can think of is Etienne Chouard’s. I haven’t read him very extensively because my French is limited and of what I have read I believe that there are parts of his agenda that I disagree with, but in general he is a reliable thinker and offers a reasonable radical reform agenda. He has a non-negligible following in France and it is even likely that his work has had significant influence on the recent proposals by prominent French politicians to introduce sortition into the French political system.

    > Regarding academia, I think a root problem is the governance structure. An undemocratic system of knowledge production will lead to undemocratic outcomes (elite capture, racism, sexism, classism, etc.). There is a need to apply sortition to university governance.

    I agree. Hierarchical structures promote elitist thinking and vice versa. I would note, however, that elitism does not imply racism, sexism and classism necessarily, because it could (and in modern times does tend to) rest solely on “meritocratic”, “objective” distinctions rather than the more traditional distinctions of race, sex and class.

    > Below are examples of identification of this problem, but they lack operationalizable solutions.

    Looks interesting – thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks, Yoram. I’ll read more on Etienne Chouard.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m glad this Montreal event was posted at this forum before it took place because that is how I found out about it and was able to go.

    At the Q & A at the panel discussion/debate after the workshop I asked Abizadeh if he agreed that an allotted Senate should have the final say about election rules, given the conflict of interest elected politicians have. He said he agreed, but did elaborate, not even a little. Other than that he did not suggest than an allotted body should have the final say in any aspect of lawmaking.

    At the workshop I asked Abizadeh what he thought about the Senate being chosen by jury rather than being allotted. He did not answer that question.

    (As some of you know I believe that minipublics, not politicians, should have the final say in lawmaking, and also propose that a wide range of public decision-makers, including the Canadian Senate, be chosen by jury rather than by politicians or popular election. The only good and democratic options for the Canadian Senate in my view are either 1) it becomes a jury or juries, or 2) is chosen by jury, or 3) a combination of these two approaches with part of the Senate being chosen by jury and playing an advisory role, and the other part being made up of juries that play decision-making roles.)

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  10. Just so everyone knows, there is another issue with the Canadian Senate apart from the method used to choose the senators: regional/provincial representation.

    The Senate is regionally and provincially representative rather than based on rep by pop. (Yes, all the senators are chosen by the PM but each of them is supposed to reside in and represent one particular province or territory.)

    No reasonable person could regard the existing allocation of senators to the provinces as fair.

    The four western provinces (B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba) have a total of 24 Senators (6 each), but the four eastern provinces (Newfoundland, P.E.I. Nova Scotia, New Brunswick) have a total of 30 (two have 10, one has 4, one has 6), even though the four western provinces have several times the population of the four eastern ones. The population of B.C. alone is about twice the combined population of the four eastern provinces. The population of Alberta alone is over 1.5 x that of the total population of the four eastern provinces. The two remaining western provinces each have a considerably larger population than any of the four eastern provinces.

    There is no plausible basis on which this can be considered fair representation, certainly none the western provinces will accept.

    This puts a major monkey wrench in the way of senate reform because the “underrepresented” provinces don’t necessarily want a more legitimately or democratically chosen senate (which could also be a more effective and influential senate) unless they are going to be fairly represented in it, and of course the allegedly “overrepresented” provinces are not interested in having their representation reduced in comparison to the other provinces, and also Quebec is not interested in having its representation reduced in comparison to the other provinces.

    The allocation of senators by province and also the method of selecting senators cannot be legally changed without the consent of 7 provinces comprising over 50% of Canada’s population.

    Senators per province: http://cs.mcgill.ca/~rwest/wikispeedia/wpcd/wp/c/Canadian_Senate.htm

    Population by province: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Canadian_provinces_and_territories_by_population

    Legal requirements for changing the provincial allocation and method of selection for the Senate: http://www.lop.parl.gc.ca/Content/LOP/ResearchPublications/2011-83-e.pdf

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  11. I made a small typo in my above comment at 8:40pm (sorry about that).

    Just to clarify, in response to my question asking if an allotted senate should have the final say on electoral law (rather than it being decided by the House of Commons) Arash Abizadeh said “Yes absolutely.” Just those two words. (It is at 1 hour 26 minutes in the video of the panel.)

    That of course was the correct answer ;o), though brief.

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  12. Hi Jonathan – I just read “The Racism of ‘Intelligence’” you linked to: it is very good, I think. The issue goes beyond IQ, and beyond education-based justification of power, however. The entire notion of meritocracy – distributing power and rewards in general based on some perceived objective merits of the powerful and rich – is an elitist notion that should be rejected.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Yoram,

    >The entire notion of meritocracy – distributing power and rewards in general based on some perceived objective merits of the powerful and rich.

    That’s an eccentric definition of meritocracy. This is more standard:

    Meritocracy (merit, from Latin mereō, and -cracy, from Ancient Greek κράτος kratos “strength, power”) is a political philosophy holding that power should be vested in individuals almost exclusively based on ability and talent. Advancement in such a system is based on performance measured through examination and/or demonstrated achievement in the field where it is implemented.

    Although there is a connection between education and wealth it is a contingent rather than necessary one and the link has been eroded considerably by public-sector education. Conall Boyle is right to advocate the use of lotteries when the difference in ability of candidates is hard to evaluate, but that doesn’t mean giving up on the principle entirely.

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