Voting, sortition and power

Behind debates about forms and procedures of representation in political decision-making are the more fundamental questions about collective power, for what purposes ought coercive power be exercised and by what means. That in turn raises the question: who should have a say in what decisions, and about what constitutes having a say. A lot of discussion of the relative merits of representation by sortition or by voting ignores these questions with unfortunate results.

Historically in our Western traditions of democracies arose from struggles against monarchies and aristocracies in which the vast majority were subjects of the sovereign. Even as late as the First World War, that notion lingered on. Even in Australia the standard form of praise for those killed in the war was that they died “For King and Country”. We were Australian citizens, but subjects of the King of England, our sovereign lord.

One strand of various democratic traditions has seen democracy as the transfer of sovereignty from the monarch to the people. The old sovereign achieved and sustained power by force of arms. Of course wise monarchs tried to win the loyalty of their subjects by adorning their power in various ways and taking good care of their subjects. In return, grateful subjects sang God Save the King with joy and enthusiasm. The central activity of the monarchy remained war, and success in war was so glorious a thing as to override all other considerations. One sort of democracy saw the nation, the people, as the new incarnation of sovereignty and its power. That conception is alive and kicking in Donald Trump and his admirers. Emotionally it is very powerful. It is easily rejuvenated in new trappings to meet the needs of each age and culture.
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Why sortition is not enough

In over forty years of advocating sortition, the reaction I have most frequently encountered is: “No thanks. I’m not surrendering my vote to a faceless ragbag of the sort of people I have to put up with every day. Politicians may be full of faults, but at least they have gone through a selection process that ensures they aren’t complete idiots.”

I reply that it is not a question of personnel, but of structured roles and the way they work. Most people do attempt to meet the requirements of the roles entrusted to them. Not everybody succeeds, but in a representative sample they will do at least as well as a corresponding sample of voters at the task of making the right decisions. One of the basic defects of voting is that people are reduced to choosing what is on offer, and it is often the case that none of the options on offer is satisfactory, because the party system subordinates considerations of policy to the wheeling and dealing of the struggle for power. Sortition removes policy from any such struggle.

One would expect people who have no career at stake to look at proposals on their merits, as they affect people like themselves rather than as a matter of political tactics. But that is not enough. Already in the early 1980s when I wrote Is Democracy Possible? I realised that even very intelligent open- minded people often don’t understand the problems of minority groups such as Aboriginal people or the long-term unemployed. The advice of experts is often of limited value; based on theories that concentrate on one aspect of a problem, where the difficulty is how to relate incommensurable aspects of that problem.
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Podemos adopts sortition in its Valencia region branch

A post by Tomas Mancebo. English translation by Pablo Segundo.

Internal elections were held at the end of May 2017 in the Valencian Community branch of the Spanish party Podemos. The alliance called “A Tide to Deepen Change” (Una marea per aprofundir el canvi / Una Marea para Profundizar el Cambio) composed of three inner groups: Democratic Deepening (Profundización Democrática), Valencian Tide (Marea Valenciana), and Deepen the Change (Aprofundir el Canvi), won the General Secretary post for Antonio Estañ, and set the branch’s new Organizational Statutes.

The new organizational model introduces more internal democracy in this regional branch: new participation mechanisms, preferential voting methods, and sortition for the selection of members of key directorial boards, committees and assemblies. These organizational innovations were pushed for by the group “Democratic Deepening” (Profundización Democrática), that has been championing new organizational and democratic mechanisms as the key to real change since the founding of the Podemos Party.

Salvador Mestre, co-founder of “Democratic Deepening” had a key role in securing the alliance between the three groups. He explains:

“The goal of ‘Deepening Democracy’ has always been to couple organizational efficiency with the integration of the different areas, sectors and spaces inside and outside the Party, as we understand this is a strong need for a new party like Podemos. The only option is to push for innovation. We seek to integrate the plurality and diversity of the 15M Plazas [the Spanish spontaneous political street assemblies that exploded in 2011], their transversality and abundance of ideas, inside a flexible and multi-purposed structure, permeable to the collaborative and creative energy of activists, supporters and social movements. It’s funny how part of this innovation is based in the age old mechanism of sortition, but quite probably Van Reybouck is right when he affirms that sortition is the only chance of medium-term survival for our political systems called ‘democratic’ in spite of their representative character, survival that has to be a renewal and a true evolution towards real democracy. In the 15M Plazas we cried for ‘Real Democracy NOW!’ and it is evident that sortition must be an important answer to that call.”

“During the formation of the alliance sortition had to be explained, defended and motivated. It was accepted as a superb method to integrate the party bases within the executive party decisions, and among other measures we agreed for a significative part of the Directorial Board to be drawn by lot.”
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El partido político Podemos-Comunidad Valenciana introduce el sorteo en su organización

A post by Tomás Mancebo. An English version is here.

En la tercera semana del pasado mes de mayo, se celebraron elecciones internas en Podemos de la Comunidad Valenciana (CV). Una alianza de tres corrientes denominada Una marea per aprofundir el canvi (Profundización Democrática, Marea Valenciana y Aprofundir el Canvi), consiguió triunfar al salir elegidos tanto su candidato a la Secretaría General, Antonio Estañ, como su modelo de organización interna para el partido en esta región. El nuevo modelo organizativo introduce más democracia interna en el partido, sobre todo por la influencia ejercida en la coalición por el grupo «Profundización Democrática», que desde el principio de la constitución de Podemos como partido político apostó por propuestas innovadoras. Se refuerzan los mecanismos de participación, se proponen sistemas de votación preferencial y, sobre todo, se prescribe el sorteo profusamente para designar miembros de varios órganos y espacios.

Salvador Mestre, co-fundador de «Profundización Democrática», ha desempeñado un papel fundamental en el proceso de confluencia con las otras dos corrientes internas Transcribimos unas declaraciones de Mestre cuando contactamos con él: “el objetivo de «Profundización Democrática» siempre ha sido aunar la eficacia organizativa con la integración de todos los espacios, ámbitos y sectores tanto internos como externos, pues entendemos que esta debe ser la aspiración de una organización política nueva como Podemos. Eso nos lleva necesariamente a una exigencia de innovación. La idea que nos guía es integrar la pluralidad y diversidad de las plazas del 15M, su transversalidad y riqueza de ideas, dentro de una estructura versátil y flexible, permeable a toda la energía colaborativa y propositiva de la militancia, de los simpatizantes y de los movimientos sociales. Es curioso que, como parte de esa innovación, echemos mano de un recurso tan antiguo como el sorteo, pero la realidad es que quizá Van Reybouck tenga razón cuando sostiene que el sorteo es la única posibilidad de supervivencia a medio plazo de los sistemas políticos que han venido llamándose democráticos a pesar de su cariz tan representativo. No solo de supervivencia, sino de renovación y de evolución realmente democrática. En las plazas del 15M pedíamos “Democracia Real Ya” y es evidente que el sorteo debe ser parte importante de la respuesta a ese clamor.
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Sortition-related proposals in Belgium and Switzerland

In Belgium, Christie Morreale, a senator, proposes a Peonidisesque scheme where blank votes would be translated into allotted MPs.

In Switzerland “Génération nomination” is starting to collect signatures for putting its sortition-related proposal on the ballot. According to the proposal, 50 out of the 200 members of the Swiss national council would be selected by lot.

A Dutchman offers sortition to the Scots

Dr Jasper Kenter, an ecological ­economist at the Scottish Association for Marine Science and Honorary Fellow of the University of Edinburgh, writes in The Scotsman:

Being Dutch, Westminster politics and ­elections horrify me. […] In Holland, […] [c]oalition agreements mean ­ministers can get on with their jobs without being threatened by reshuffles. They are even expected to have expertise relevant to their post.

Yet, proportional representation faces the same issues as first past the post: policies in the long-term interest of society are hard to sell because of short-term impacts. This is exacerbated by the commercial and political interests of media, with power to sway opinion by triggering fear, anger and envy, deluding people into thinking the extraordinary is more ­common.

For example, air pollution leads to 40,000 deaths a year, far more than terrorism and homicide. Addressing this would require policy overhauls and investment opposed by ­powerful lobbies, so we stick our heads in the sand.

Another example: preserving healthy ecosystems is the most important thing we can do for future generations – but the UK’s environment department has had more severe cuts than any other, with barely anyone noticing.

There is a solution: replace MPs with randomly selected citizens called up for parliamentary duty, a ­system called sortition. Imagine ­parliament being a true reflection of the public, with mothers and teachers thinking through education and childcare, health workers influencing how to run and fund the NHS. MPs would be ­independent of wealthy donors and no need to be popular, so would be better at making difficult decisions.

They would be supported by an office providing independent expertise, like the current Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology. By changing a third of MPs at a time, experience could be passed on.

In Scotland, there is an ideal opportunity to try sortition: Holyrood does not have a ­second chamber and, regardless of Indyref2, will receive more powers after Brexit, so arguably needs one.