Sortition is a strange but simple kind of democracy. In sortition, a legislative body is constructed by randomly selecting people to hold office.
The typical gut reaction to sortition is bewilderment and skepticism. This FAQ attempts to address typical concerns.
The Sortition FAQ
1.1 How would sortition practically work?
To practice sortition, we follow these steps [4, 6]:
Construct an assembly of citizens using random sampling. Yes, we randomly choose people to participate, in assemblies from 50 to 1000 citizens in size. These folks will be paid full time wages to participate for weeks, months, or even years.
Conduct a “learning phase” where experts present the citizens with information about the topic of discussion.
After the learning phase, the assembly consults with the community by bringing in testimony from interested members of the public.
The assembly then deliberates and discusses amongst each other in the “deliberation phase”.
Then, the assembly formulates proposals that can address the political question.
Finally, the assembly votes on proposals to render a final verdict.
In bicameral sortition, sortition is used to construct one house of a Parliament or Congress. Elected officials would be used to constitute another house. Either house would have veto power over the other’s decisions. In multi-body sortition, the task of legislation is divided up into multiple sortition assemblies .
Assemblies members would serve term lengths from around 1 to 3 years.
1.2 What are the benefits of sortition?
Sortition advocates claim that:
Sortition can construct a descriptively representative legislative body that looks and thinks similarly to the larger public [4, 6, 8]. Such a body would be made up of teachers, engineers, policemen, soldiers, janitors, waiters, and the common people. It would include men and women, genders of all sorts, races and ethnicities of all sorts, and religions of all sorts. The participants would be both young, middle aged, and old, rich and poor.
The practice of deliberation in sortition bodies is capable of healing partisan divides to yield more unified, consensus-based decision making [5, 7].
The combined usage of deliberation, expert input, and public input into the sortition process constructs better informed decisions compared to elected decision making .
The abolishment of elections removes the influence of money in politics [1, 6].
1.3 How would experts be chosen?
In bicameral sortition, the experts are chosen by a joint committee of both elected politicians and lottery-selected citizens. Experts are chosen for every bill that is passed from the elected chamber to the lottocratic chamber [8, 9].
In pure sortition, experts, aides, and bureaucrats are all chosen by the sortition legislature.
1.4 Wouldn’t sortition be random and chaotic?
When random selection is used to select for a single position such as a mayor, the result will be chaotic. However, when random selection is used to select a large body of for example 100-1000 people, the result will actually be remarkably stable. Similarly, when a coin is flipped 1000 times, we can predict with high certainty that about 500 tosses will be heads and 500 tosses will be tails. Therefore, I only recommend the use of sortition for legislative bodies. To select a mayor or president, sortition could be used to construct a selection committee.
1.5 How would people not selected in the lottery participate?
The public can volunteer to speak before the assembly to attempt to persuade. In multi-body sortition, the public can also submit proposals in the form of “Interest Panels” for the sortition assembly to review.
In fully realized sortition, sortition assemblies would be required for local and state governments. With need to draw lots in multiple jurisdictions, the chances would be high that you would participate at least once in your lifetime.
1.6 What examples of democratic lotteries have been conducted in the world?
Hundreds of sortition-based assemblies such as Citizens' Assemblies have already been conducted in Canada , Ireland, France, the UK, Scotland, Mongolia, America, and elsewhere. Again and again, participants of such assemblies have reiterated the claimed benefits of sortition.
2.1 Why would sortition result in more competent legislatures than elected politicians?
A group of randomly chosen people produces a representative sample of the public. This representative sample would approximate the preferences of the larger public in a fashion that no election could replicate. Sortition bodies would therefore be more competent in terms of being descriptively representative of the public. With that, sortition legislatures would be more in-tune with the needs of normal people as opposed to elite, special interests.
Elected politicians in contrast are more competent in their abilities in marketing, rhetoric, persuasion, propaganda, and advertising, which might have correlations to “intelligence”. However I have heavy doubts that this skill set is beneficial to representing your interests. This skill set is instead often used to manipulate and lie.
2.2 But people are stupid!
Sortition fortunately constructs deliberative bodies that are competent. According to top academic journal Science Magazine (2019) ,
“Deliberative experimentation has generated empirical research that refutes many of the more pessimistic claims about the citizenry’s ability to make sound judgments…. Ordinary people are capable of high-quality deliberation, especially when deliberative processes are well-arranged: when they include the provision of balanced information, expert testimony, and oversight by a facilitator.
Deliberation can overcome polarization, echo chambers, and extremism. Democratic deliberation promotes “considered judgment” and “counteracts populism”:
The communicative echo chambers that intensify cultural cognition, identity reaffirmation, and polarization do not operate in deliberative conditions, even in groups of like-minded partisans. In deliberative conditions, the group becomes less extreme; absent deliberative conditions, the members become more extreme.
2.3. How would sortition be accountable?
Members of a sortition-assembly remain accountable to each other, to other government bodies when checks/balances are present, and to future assemblies. For example if one person wishes to pass corrupt legislation in a body of 1000, they must convince 500 more people to go along with this corruption. If they fail, they risk imprisonment and punishment by the majority. Even if they manage to convince 500 people, they risk punishment by future assemblies that could launch investigations or impose punishments.
In the case of bicameral sortition, the elected body would also act as a check against corruption.
Because assembly members serve finite terms, they must live under the decisions and precedents they have committed.
2.4. What incentives would exist to encourage people to competently serve?
The same mechanism that holds sortition accountable can also be used to democratically establish minimum thresholds of competence. Although I would recommend low competence thresholds, rules may be imposed such as imposition of regular work hours and standards of conduct (forbidding for example showing up to work drunk).
2.5 Why would random people be better than rule by meritocracy or rule by experts?
In a monarchy, government serves the interests of a king. In a democracy, government serves interests of the people. In a technocracy (rule by expert), government serves the interests of technocrats.
The interests of a technocrat aren’t necessarily your interests. You most likely won’t be one of these few experts chosen to rule. Therefore by probability, democracy would probably better serve your interests than a technocracy.
2.6 What about jury duty?
The jury system is a disempowered version of democratic lotteries. It naturally sounds ridiculous to determine the guilt or innocence of a defendent by an election. Why? Because normal people do not know the facts of a specific case, they would vote guilt/innocence based on their prejudices and ignorant judgement. Jury duty allows a subsample of people to learn the facts of the case in detail in order to make an informed decision.
As elections are incompetent at rendering judgments in a court case, the same arguments suggest that elections are incompetent at rendering judgments about politicians. Most normal people do not have a good understanding of either the politicians or their policies during an election. The objective of sortition is to take a subsample of people to learn the facts in detail, in order to raise the competence of political decisions.
That said, there are many criticisms of the American jury system. Jury systems use about 13 jurors which is too small of a sample size to be representative of the American public. I would suggest much larger bodies of 100 to 1000 people for a legislature. Moreover judges and lawyers strictly control essentially all information that is given to jurors. Jurors have no powers to launch independent investigations or set the agenda of the court. The jury system is highly prejudicial - lawyers are given broad powers to discriminatorily strike down any juror for any reason. For example, court lawyers oftentimes strike down other lawyers, or policemen, or any profession which they believe they cannot control. Therefore juries are not randomly sampled but are heavily biased. Finally, jurors are paid terribly and are constantly disrespected by the Court wasting their time. I recommend that legislative jurors be well compensated for their time.
3.1 How does sortition remove the influence of money in politics?
Since 2400 years ago in ancient Athens, philosophers such as Aristotle claimed that elections were oligarchic in nature . Elections throughout history typically select the richest, most powerful, and most affluent of society. Elections have always been popularity contests whether it be for your high school class president or in a national election. All elected processes therefore have a bias in favor of the interests of the elected wealthy and affluent as opposed to the interests of everyone else.
In modern politics, money is used to buy signatures to get on the ballot, buy advertisements, and buy strategists and marketers. Dark money is used to help campaigns. Sortition is capable of completely sidestepping this process as, whether you spend a dime or a fortune in sortition, everyone has an equal shot at being selected.
3.2 How would sortition prevent authoritarian takeovers by personalities such as Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Recep Erdogan, or Rodrigo Duterte?
Unlike elections, sortition does not amplify the power of authoritarian personalities. Hugo Chavez has the exact same chance of winning the democratic lottery as you or me. After service, sortition forbids serving a subsequent term. Such mechanisms make the accumulation of power more difficult.
In contrast, elections favor personalities that are able to accumulate wealth, affluence, and power which politicians use for marketing. Political campaigns are also used by politicians to establish their cults of personality. Elections construct the institutions the authoritarians then use to take over government.
3.3 Why wouldn’t the experts or bureaucrats take over?
In a sortition assembly, experts must compete with other experts, other assembly members, bureaucrats, and interested members of the public for speaking time.
It is quite possible that exceptionally persuasive and skilled experts might dominate the assembly. Yet a similar possibility might happen in elections where the election is dominated by a charming politician.
Yet in a deliberative sortition assembly, a politician must sustain persuasion for hundreds of hours - days or months of time - in order to draft, review, and pass legislation to their desired specification. The politician must then sustain persuasion again and again, one bill after another. In my opinion such sustained persuasion is significantly more difficult than elected politicians dominating countries through electoral demagoguery.
3.4 What is stopping sortition assembly members from being corrupt?
Asides from the accountability mechanisms mentioned in Section 2.3, any additional checks on corruption must be constructed by the assembly through legislation and criminalization.
We can imagine some simple legislation to prevent corruption. I would institute “Sting Operations” where undercover police occasionally attempt to bribe assembly members. Assembly members who successfully resist and report sting operations would be rewarded money. Assembly members who fail would be kicked out and prosecuted. Assembly members would also be rewarded for reporting actual bribe solicitations.
3.5 What about political parties?
Sortition has been observed to diminish and dismantle the power of political parties. Historian Mogens Herman Hansen asserted that political parties essentially did not exist in Ancient Athens where sortition was practiced . Anthropologist Alpa Shah also observed an absence of party politics in Indian tribes that practice sortition today . Political theorists believe that because in sortition there is less need to concentrate power and obtain resources for the need of winning elections, there is also less need to construct political organizations such as parties.
4.0 About Democracy
4.1 Is sortition democratic?
Political theorist Robert Dahl argued that democracy is the result of the “logic of equality” . Sortition achieves political equality through the equality in the probability of being chosen to serve .
By limiting the number of people able to participate in the legislative process, sortition assemblies are able to deliberate and make informed decisions. As a tradeoff, sortition does not allow the entire public to participate in the decision making process .
4.2 Isn’t democracy mob rule?
In terms of a literal mob, no, democracy and sortition is not mob rule. Mobs do not take votes. Mobs do not construct institutions, constitutions and procedures. In mobs, minorities of people act under the anonymity of the mob to perform heinous acts.
4.3 What about Rights?
Unfortunately there is vast disagreement on what our rights ought to be. Democracy and majority rule can establish which rights the law should protect.
4.4 Why not other democratic reforms?
There are many proposed democratic reforms such as proportional representation, “democracy dollars”, liquid democracy, approval voting, ranked choice voting, and campaign finance reform. All of these reforms lack a solution to the problem of voter ignorance - including my own ignorance. We must contend with the fact that voters are generally ignorant and incapable of adequately monitoring a politicians’ performance. The vast majority of our monitoring capabilities come from unreliable proxies such as recommendations and endorsements from other politicians, celebrities, or news media . With these unreliable proxies - fake news, conspiracy theories, astroturfing, and media sensationalism dominate the news cycle rather than actionable political information.
In contrast to these other reforms, sortition can solve the problem of voter ignorance by giving citizens the time, resources, and payment to do the difficult job of evaluating policy and evaluating bureaucrats.
The movement towards this new kind of democracy is small but growing. If you’re interested in helping out, please take a look at organizations such as “Democracy without Elections” or the “Sortition Foundation”.
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Hansen, Mogens Herman. The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes (J.A. Crook trans.). University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.
Dahl, Robert A. On Democracy, 2nd Ed. Yale University Press, 1998.
Fishkin, J. When the People Speak. Oxford University Press, 2011.
J Dryzek et al. The Crisis of Democracy and the Science of Deliberation. Science, 2019.
A Guerrero. Against Elections: The Lottocratic Alternative. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 2014.
America in One Room. Stanford Center for Deliberative Democracy. https://cdd.stanford.edu/2019/america-in-one-room/
A Abizadeh. Representation, Bicameralism, Political Equality, and Sortition: Reconstituting the Second Chamber as a Randomly Selected Assembly, Perspective On Politics, 2020.
Gastil, Wright - Legislature by lot: envisioning Sortition within a bicameral system
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