Kofi Annan endorses sortition

In a speech titled “The Crisis of Democracy” given to the 2017 Athens Democracy Forum, former Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan has endorsed the use of sortition as a tool for “mak[ing] our democracies more inclusive”. Tucked between two other pieces of advice, to harness new technologies and management techniques in order to make our democracies more effective and to champion democracy against its enemies who are spending billions to undermine it, both in practice and through misinformation, Annan says:

[W]e need to tackle inequality, both economic and political. As I have said, increasing inequality is one of the drivers of resentment, especially since economic equality leads to political inequalities as well, as several studies have confirmed. There is a growing perception that the priorities of the extremely wealthy take precedence over the well-being of the middle class thanks to campaign contributions and lobbying. At the other end of the spectrum, the poor and minorities are, or at least feel, excluded from the political system. Governments must respond by redistributing fairly the benefits of globalisation by restricting tax avoidance and evasion schemes, and most importantly, discouraging tax havens. Fortunately, democracy is one of the only systems in which the concerns of the majority can overturn the interests of the wealthy if the majority harnesses the mechanisms at their disposal. But this demands more participation, not less.

This means that we need to make our democracies more inclusive. This requires bold and innovative reforms to bring in the young, the poor and minorities into the political system. An interesting idea put forward by one of your speakers this week, Mr. Reybrouk, would be to reintroduce the ancient Greek practice of selecting parliaments by lot instead of election. In other words, parliamentarians would no longer be nominated by political parties, but chosen at random for a limited term, in the way many jury systems work. This would prevent the formation of self-serving and self-perpetuating political classes disconnected from their electorates.


Wariboko: Election by lottery: A new approach to Nigerian democracy

Nimi Wariboko, Walter G. Muelder Professor of Social Ethics at the School of Theology at Boston University, writes:

Electioneering is warfare in Nigeria. Billions of naira are invested in campaigns and conducting elections. War and money have not yielded wise leaders for the country. Is it not time for us to generate creative ideas on how we can peacefully and cheaply select citizens for offices? I suggest that we complement our system of election with lottery. We reserve one-third of all seats in the state Houses of Assembly, House of Representatives, and the Senate for delegates to be filled by lot. Every four years, we put the names of all eligible citizens in a given constituency in a computerised urn or other mechanism and pick out a winner to represent his or her constituency at one level.
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Athens as a democratic precedent

Athens of the fifth and fourth centuries BC is often brought up in discussions and polemics about sortition, both in support of the idea and against it. However, since this is often done in rote or knee-jerk manner rather than as reasoned argument the results provide more insight about modern conventional views than about the mechanism of sortition. It is therefore of interest to make an orderly account of the properties of the Athenian system as they are relevant to the question of using sortition in a modern political system and then use this account to evaluate the relevance of the system to the modern debate: the lessons that can be drawn from the historical record, if any, and whether in fact Athens should be a prominent part of the discussion of sortition today.

The historical facts

The institutional arrangements in Athens are pretty well known. My understanding is that the main source for the details is Aristotle’s The Athenian Constitution, but the general institutional picture and the conventional political theory behind them is clear from multiple sources. In addition some background facts about the Athenian society can be established including both facts about the demography of Athens and about the conventional ideology of the Athenians. For our purposes, the following points (“stylized facts”) are the relevant ones:

  1. Athenian citizenship was very restrictive. Of a population of about 300,000 people, only 30,000 were fully enfranchised citizens (adult males of Athenian ancestry). The rest were women, children, foreigners and slaves.
  2. Despite some vestiges of formal political stratification among the citizens, conventional Athenian ideology saw citizens as deserving equal political rights and in practice no formal distinctions were enforced.
  3. The set of Athenian citizens was largely made of two groups – small farmers and city-resident workers. There were two elite groups: landed Aristocracy, and the wealthy city bourgeoisie.
  4. The rich were taxed by the city and money was given in various ways to the poorer citizens, but significant economic inequality persisted in Athens.
  5. The day-to-day governing of the Athenian city was carried out by the Council – a body of 500 citizens allotted yearly. The council oversaw a large number of magistrate boards, each made of ten 10 citizens allotted yearly. There were also a few specialized offices (military generals and high financial officers) that were elected.
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Sortition in Current Affairs

A June 26 Current Affairs article must be the most pro-sortition editorial to appear in mainstream media in recent history. More importantly, it oozes with wit that justifiably pillories America’s “intolerable” Congress. The arguments here are familiar but are combined in an unforgettably entertaining way.

It begins with the sad shape of Congress.

The data confirm that Congresspeople have a lower approval rating than marketing executives and bubonic plague.

Second, it points out that Congress is not “representative” in the demographic sense.

Take our current Congress, which is 80% male, 95% college-educated, and 50.8% millionaires. The population it “represents” is 50% male, 30% college-educated, and 5% millionaires. That’s not even close

It then moves on to the evidence that “representation of interests” is a fantasy, citing Gilens and Page.

If your Congressman (or Congresswoman, but probably Congressman) puts forward the kinds of policies that you yourself would wish to see advanced, why does it matter whether you and he happen to have wildly different backgrounds? That would be an excellent argument, if Congress usually put forward policies that Americans agree with. Alas, it does not. One Princeton study estimates that, statistically speaking, the preferences of 90% of the American electorate have a “near-zero” impact on policymaking. And a number of highly-publicized legal reforms with a broad popular mandate, such as closing the gun show loophole, have never made it anywhere near the President’s desk. How is that possible in a “representative” Congress?

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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.

The Paradox of Democratic Selection: Is Sortition Better than Voting?

Book chapter just uploaded to academia.edu 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

Criteria for the application of sortition in a political system


Representation by sortition is defined as “democratic” while representation by election is defined as “aristocratic”. Sortition is a democratic instrument because this way people are represented by “their peers” while in an election-based system people are choosing “the best” as “leaders” (= electoral aristocracy).

To illustrate the aristocratic nature of the electoral system, we can take the example of (what may be a somewhat romanticized description of) pirate ships. A hundred years before the French Revolution, pirate ships were run on lines in which liberty, equality and fraternity were the rule. On a pirate ship, the captain was elected and could be deposed by the votes of the crew. The crew, and not the captain, decided whether to attack a particular ship, or a fleet of ships.

The ancient Greeks (circa 400 BC) used the electoral system for the designation of “the best” as military generals. The legislative institutions, however, were based on democratic instruments: representation by sortition and the people’s assembly. Using an electoral system for legislative institutions mainly finds its origins in the Roman Republic [1].
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