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
The 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”
At 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.