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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Le Parisien Magazine: For or against allotting senators?

Nicolas Priou, January 18th, 2017

Appoint some of the senators by chance. That is one of the proposals of Arnaud Montebourg, for “rebuilding the lost confidence” between the citizens and the institutions. More precisely, the candidate for the primary of the left (on the 22nd and the 29th of January) would like to allot 100 senators in an assembly reduced to 200 members. This means on citizen for each department, drawn from the electoral registry, as is already the case for judicial juries.

A system created in ancient Greece

The goal? “Assure the involvement of citizens in the political system” and making the Senate “a chamber with oversight powers over the public purse, public commitments, political promises to the public, and European decisions”. The idea is as old as the Athenian democracy – or rather klerocracy, as the Greeks called the political system where the representatives of the people and the rulers are selected by lot. But this method is rarely applied other than for selecting juries. More recently, it was Iceland that went farther. In response to the financial crisis of 2008, an assembly of 1,000 allotted citizens was formed to create the basis for a new constitution. Which was eventually rejected. In France, in addition to Arnaud Montebourg, various think tanks, philosophers, and researchers have been promoting the idea of sortition of senators for several years, proposing different numbers of people designated by lot. But are the French people ready?
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Monbiot: Sortition is “a formula for disaster”

George Monbiot, a Guardian columnist and a regular critic of the status quo, has finally opined about the potential of the use of sortition to address the ills of the established system. He is not too enthusiastic:

There are plenty of proposals to replace representative democracy with either sortition (randomly selecting delegates) or direct democracy (referendums and citizens’ initiatives). Such systems might have worked well in small city states with a limited franchise (sortition was used in ancient Athens and medieval Venice and Florence). But in populations as large and complex as ours, these proposals are a formula for disaster. It’s hard to see how we can escape the need for professional, full-time politicians. (Perhaps, in a fair and accountable system, we could learn to love them.)

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Canadian Senator advises against an allotted Senate

Paul J. Massicotte, a senator representing De Lanaudière, Quebec, responds to a piece by Prof. Arash Abizadeh advocating changing the selection procedure of the Canadian Senate to sortition.

Massicotte offers a modern version of the Socratic argument against sortition:

Who wants to play hockey for Team Canada at the next Olympics? Who knows — there could be plenty of openings if the NHL won’t let its players take part in the 2018 Winter Games. But imagine if Team Canada just randomly grabbed people from the lineup at Tim Hortons for its Olympic hockey squad. The results would obviously be disastrous. So, why would we expect anything better if we replaced the Senate with an assembly of citizens picked at random?

Forget skill and hard work — this may be your lucky year if your name is drawn from a hat.

Sounds silly, right?

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. With some luck, however, it may not be too long before arguments against sortition are offered by elected parliamentarians in the French-speaking world.