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 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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Hartz-Karp: Unlike the Athenians, we don’t believe that every citizen is capable of participating in important decision-making

Janette Hartz-Karp, a professor at the Sustainability Policy Institute at Curtin University, has a sortition advocacy piece in The Conversation. It covers well known ground: history, diversity, deliberation, applications in Australia, etc.

The opening of the “What’s the obstacle to reform?” section is interesting:

So why isn’t deliberative democracy happening more often? Simple. Those in power are wary about sharing their power.

Unlike the Athenians, we don’t believe that every citizen is capable of participating in important decision-making. We assume most people are too self-interested to make decisions for the common good.

This seems to conflate two different ideas:

  1. Resistance by the elite,
  2. Anti-democratic sentiments in the population.

The first idea is clear and presents a general phenomenon. Power concedes nothing without a demand.

The second idea, however, is more intriguing. How resistant are the people themselves to democratic rule? If they are, why? An empirical study of this question could be useful.

The article also generated a lively conversation in the comments.

Let citizen juries decide Canada’s election rules

My article in response to Justin Trudeau (Canada’s prime minister) breaking his electoral reform promise on February 1, and more generally about the absurdity of politicians deciding the rules they are elected under. (Trudeau, before and after the 2015 Canadian election repeatedly promised to make it the last one held under first-past-the-post.)

It is neither democratic nor desirable that the prime minister and the House of Commons keep deciding Canada’s election rules. There is a far better alternative.

In Classical Athens, the birthplace of Western democracy, much of the decision-making was done by juries chosen from the citizens by lottery. A modern version of Athenian juries could be used to decide election rules today.

Politicians should not decide the rules they are elected under because fair and democratic decision-making requires that those who decide do not have a conflict of interest. Election rules are far too important to our democracy to be compromised by the strong self-interest of politicians in rules that favour themselves.
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McCormick: The new ochlophobia? Populism, majority rule and prospects for democratic republicanism

Contributors to this blog who argue the case for full-mandate, voluntarist sortition will find support for their arguments in a forthcoming book chapter by John P. McCormick, author of Machiavellian Democracy. According to McCormick, electoral representation involves rule (primarily) by the rich, whereas democracy by lot is rule by the poor — a perspective that he derives from Aristotle, mediated by Machiavelli, Montesquieu [and Marx]:

The hoplites of ancient Greece and the plebeians of Republican Rome established institutions that granted ultimate legislative authority to the majority qua the poor . . . Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic exhibited primary institutions intended to insure that the poor would rule over or share rule equitably with the rich. (pp. 2-3)

Given this dichotomy it matters little which individuals are selected by preference election or sortition, as the two mechanisms will privilege (respectively) economic elites and the poor, and the resulting political decisions will (presumably) reflect the preferences of these two socio-economic groups.
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