New Scientist letter

I was lucky enough to get the following letter on sortition published in New Scientist, (not quite as I penned it). I’m hoping there will be an exchange of letters, so if anyone wants to comment, there is an opportunity.

Letters should be sent to:


Letters to the Editor, New Scientist,
110 High Holborn, London WC1V6EU

They like them to be short (250-300 words maximum). Be sure to include your full postal address and telephone number, and a reference (issue, page number, title) to articles. In this case you should include “Campbell Wallace (Letters, 20 May, p53)…” if you comment on my letter; or, if you comment on another letter, the name of the writer and the date of publishing.

As published:

Dave Levitan (22 April, p 24), and Alice Klein (p 25) rightly deplore politicians such as Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull, who disregard scientific evidence in favour of policies chosen for short-term electoral advantage or to further special interests. But the problem is a consequence of the electoral system itself, which repeatedly brings to power people unfit to use it.

Since the 18th century we have assumed that elections are both necessary and sufficient for democracy, and that without them tyranny results. Yet the Greeks of Aristotle’s day knew that elections could lead to oligarchy, not democracy, and that a democratic alternative existed. Athenian democracy selected decision-makers by lot to get a statistically representative sample of the whole community: this is called “sortition“. It is perfectly feasible to design a system with the means to ensure that those chosen are well-informed on each issue that comes before them. Sortition would end the reign of big money, greatly reduce corruption, and would make intelligent decisions, taking into account the interests of all.

It’s high time we abandoned the myth that elections equal democracy.

Sortition – doing democracy differently | Brett Hennig | TEDxDanubia

I gave a TEDx talk on sortition a few weeks ago – the video has just come out…

Sortition as a direct democratic system to appoint a real citizens representation, also called “citizen jury“


According to historical sources our political system was developed AGAINST democracy (sovereignty of the people). An “Electoral Aristocracy” was installed (18 century). Nevertheless, this can be seen as a positive evolution compared with ruling by inheritance.

Later on some “democratic” elements were installed, for instance “free” or so called “democratic” elections with universal suffrage, the equality principle, freedom of speech, freedom of organisation, free press, … but some of them were weakened or eliminated afterwards.

But a “democratic element” is not yet a “democracy”. Freedom of organisation may be a “democratic element”, without it a democracy can not exists, on his own it is no democracy. This way “free elections”, to appoint a governor for instance, can be a democratic element but on his own it is by no means a democracy.
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Participation Toolkit

A book named “Participatory methods toolkit: a practitioner’s manual” was published in 2005 by the King Baudouin Foundation and the Flemish Institute for Science and Technology Assessment (viWTA).

This toolkit has a “citizens jury” part that may be of interest to us.

Page 21:

4) Participants


In some methods, the participants are supposed to be representative of the population at large. However, this may be unrealistic to achieve perfectly in practice. Purchasing random sampling phone numbers may prove financially unviable.

In this case, the advisory committee and project management will need to establish recruitment criteria and decide on another method, such as newspaper advertising. In newspaper recruitment, panellists are somewhat self-selected because they have to initially respond to an advertisement. In any method of recruitment an element of bias is introduced at the selection stage by the preferences of the selection committee. Recruitment is usually done three to four months prior to the first activity.
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Lysander Spooner, trial juries, and legislative juries

Lysander Spooner (1808-1887) was a prominent 19th century American legal theorist, abolitionist (abolition of slavery), and competitor with the U.S. Postal Service until they shut him down. A biography and collection of his work are here.

Spooner continues to be cited in the U.S., including for example by Justice Scalia writing for the Supreme Court majority in 2008 in District of Columbia v. Heller.

Spooner was a strong advocate of “jury nullification.” He argued that trial juries have the right and duty “to judge of the justice of the law, and to hold all laws invalid, that are, in their opinion, unjust or oppressive, and all persons guiltless in violating, or resisting the execution of, such laws.” (An Essay on the Trial by Jury, published in 1852, page 5.)

In the following passages Spooner is talking about trial juries. Although he never mentions the possibility of legislative juries, his line of reasoning is to a large extent strikingly applicable to them. By “legislative juries” I mean juries that can veto and repeal the laws the government passes, and pass laws the government does not support.[i]

Lysander Spooner (italics and bold are as in the original, block quote function not used because it may change everything quoted to italics):

“By such trials [where juries do not judge the law] the government will determine its own powers over the people, instead of the people’s determining their own liberties against the government; and it will be an entire delusion to talk, as for centuries we have done, of the trial by jury, as a ‘palladium of liberty,’ or as any protection to the people against the oppression and tyranny of the government.” (Ibid., 10.)

“The authority to judge what are the powers of the government, and what the liberties of the people, must necessarily be vested in one or the other of the parties themselves—the government, or the people; because there is no third party to whom it can be entrusted. If the authority be vested in the government, the government is absolute, and the people have no liberties except such as the government sees fit to indulge them with. If, on the other hand, that authority be vested in the people, then the people have all liberties, (as against the government,) except such as substantially the whole people (through a jury) choose to disclaim; and the government can exercise no power except such as substantially the whole people (through a jury) consent that it may exercise.” (Ibid., 10.)
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The Paradox of Democratic Selection: Is Sortition Better than Voting?

Book chapter just uploaded to by Anthoula Malkopoulou

Sortition, or the selection of political officers by lot, has its antecedent in the direct democratic tradition of ancient Athens. Its transfer into a modern context of representative democracy poses rightful scepticism not only about the practical difficulties, but more so about the theoretical inconsistencies that arise. Modern systems of political representation are based on the aristocratic idea of ‘government by the best’, who are to be selected through a competitive call for candidates (Manin 1997). Sortition, on the other hand, replaces this aristocratic criterion of competition and evaluative election with the democratic mechanics of direct and equal distribution of political office by chance. Hence, the very expression ‘democratic (s)election’ includes a paradoxical contradiction in terms, between the democratic concept of equal access to public office and the aristocratic idea of government by the (s)elected best. My aim in this chapter is to shed some light on this contradiction by critically discussing the benefits and pitfalls of using sortition today, comparing it throughout the chapter with voting and the general effects of electoral representation.

Full text

Constitutional reform: could the Irish approach be useful also for Italy?

More from Improving Democracy:

Constitutional reform in Italy
Italy has incurred a stalemate situation similar to that in which Ireland found itself some time ago relating to a project of constitutional reform. On December 4th 2016 Italians were called to vote on a constitutional reform, previously approved by Parliament, but without the necessary qualified majority, for definitive approval. The electoral turnout at the referendum was quite high in relation to similar prior experiences, recording a vote of over 65% of people eligible to vote. As for the outcome: 40,88% of the voters voted “YES”, while nearly 60% voted “NO”.


Could the Irish approach be a viable solution for Italy?
Here is precisely where the Irish approach, based on the creation of an advisory body of citizens, may come to rescue the opportunity of change and assure alignment with the real thoughts and feelings of the people.

In Ireland, after the economic crisis, citizens developed a sense of mistrust towards the political parties. There has been a strong movement pressing to change parts of the Constitution, which in that country always requires final approval through a referendum in the end. The political parties, on the other hand, were unable to come to an agreement. The Labour Party in its 2011 program for elections included the promotion of a Convention on the Constitution with the intent of involving citizens directly in the process. After the elections, the program was approved by Parliament. The Convention, proudly referring to itself as “a new venture in participative democracy in Ireland” on its own web site, was formed at the end of 2012 and started its work in January 2013. The body was formed by 100 people, 66 citizens randomly selected and broadly representative of the Irish society, 33 parliamentarians, nominated by their respective political parties and an independent chairman skilled in coaching complex assemblies. The Convention had a mandate to debate and elaborate specific proposals on 8 constitutional issues, plus 2 to be autonomously selected by the Convention itself. Parliament was committed to debate the proposals in the following four months and to prepare the consequent bill for approval through referendum.

Full text: 1, 2 (PDF).