Re-envisioning Democracy? Unpacking the Sortition Debate
In 1989, Francis Fukuyama presented his famous “End of History” thesis, positing that we had reached the teleological conclusion of a long evolutionary process that had culminated in the global acceptance and entrenchment of democracy.
Thirty years later, with Freedom House announcing in its Freedom in the World 2019 report that global freedom has declined for the 13th consecutive year, in both authoritarian regimes and long-standing democracies alike, claims of the perpetual ascendancy of democracy look somewhat more dubious.
With democracy seemingly in retreat, many are contending that change is necessary if our democracies are to survive the populist tides and the host of other forces arrayed against them. While proposals are numerous and diverse, one particularly interesting idea has been the call to improve our democracies through the use of an age-old tool: sortition. This blog aims to delve deeper into what this idea is, the arguments surrounding it, and the big questions that still need to be answered.
What Is Sortition?
Sortition refers to a system in which public decision-makers are not chosen by election, but instead empanelled from amongst the general public through the drawing of lots. Perhaps seeming outlandish in the modern day, this process of random selection dates back to Athenian democracy, which privileged citizens’ juries in its law-making process. Contrary to the modern fixation on elections as the key procedural element of democracy, thinkers like Plato argued for lot as the essence of democracy, with elections instead tied intrinsically to aristocracy (1992). Montesquieu echoed the same sentiment thousands of years later in Spirit of Laws (1989, p. 13). Even Rousseau, in The Social Contract, argued that wherever possible offices should be filled by lot (1947, p. 97).
From the twentieth century onwards however, mainstream discourse has moved away from the subject. Practice, too, has historically declined to extend more than scattered and minimal invitation to sortition. Much of the West has incorporated randomly selected juries into criminal justice systems and the like, but not the process of law-making itself. Now however, the idea is returning to discussion, with public advocacy like David van Reybrouck’s Against Elections and increased academic discussion, with Politics and Society for example even devoting a special issue to the subject in 2018. The concept has also seen modest application in initiatives like California’s What’s Next California project or Belgium’s G1000 exercise. Closer to home, Canada has made use of sortition-selected Citizen’s Assemblies in developing electoral reform proposals in both British Columbia (2004) and Ontario (2006).
The Argument For Sortition …
Proponents contend manifold ways in which the use of sortition can fundamentally improve political systems. These arguments are primarily premised around the ability to address equality of political representation and ensure the integrity of the deliberative process.
The first of these issues is easily understood: modern electoral systems have largely failed to produce parliaments which are representative of the population. Instead, elected legislative bodies embody existing divisions of power, traditionally over-representing the ‘elite’, and under-representing women, minority groups, and lower-income citizens. By creating a playing field of absolute equality, random selection removes institutional barriers and is therefore statistically more likely to ensure the bodies more fully reflect those they would purport to represent (Burnheim, 1985). Systematic efforts can further ensure representation of diverse interest groups as desired: for example, the British Columbia Citizens Assembly for electoral reform selected from separate pools of men and women to ensure equal gendered representation, and allocated additional seats chosen specifically from amongst indigenous peoples. It is clear how increasingly diverse representation could be seen as advantageous by theorists seeking a solution to growing sentiments of disconnect between citizens and ‘decision-making elites’.
The second of these arguments suggests that current processes also heavily limit free and impartial deliberation. Malkopoulou discusses how institutionally established practices under electoral systems often have “distorting effects on parliamentary decisions” and “hijack the democratic purpose of representative politics” (2015, p. 232). This can include issues from partisan posturing and party discipline, to the way in which the influence of financial backers in the electoral process privileges their ability to influence decisions (Gastil & Wright, 2018); in contrast, a properly managed sortition chamber, drawn from across social classes and without concern for re-election, would inherently be less biased towards financial powers and less beholden to special interests (Malleson, 2018; Wright, 2018), less vulnerable to rent-seeking efforts (Lockard, 2003), and a bulwark against partisan factionalism (Downlen, 2009). Sintomer also specifically cites an advantage in using a sortition-based body to deal with issues prone to conflicts of interest, such as when crafting rules and performing oversight for electoral bodies or elected officials (2018).
… And the Argument Against
The advocates of sortition are not unchallenged however: there are many who raise serious and legitimate concerns. The most common concern raised against sortition is that of competence: Malleson, argues that despite other merits, an elected body would almost certainly possess an advantage when it comes to the competency of its membership (2018, p. 412). The argument is not novel; the same concern can be found as far back as Xenophon’s Memorabilia, which argued the task of statecraft too complex and too important to trust to those in society lacking the specialized expertise of experienced politicians (1923, p. 17). Empirical evidence is less definitive; whether due to increased problem-solving diversity or other factors, expert observers have generally actually reported relatively high quality of deliberation in these exercises (Lucardie, 2014, p. 148; Levine, Fung & Gastil, 2005), though a limited number of cases makes meaningful generalization difficult at this stage.
More existential concerns are rooted less in terms of the efficacy of sortition bodies, and more in public perception and their effect on public discourse. At the forefront is the question of legitimacy; while Burnheim for example has argued that society would inherently accept the decisions of a body that represents the population (1985, p. 124), this claim is hard to back up without evidence. A lack of public mandate strips the body of the ability to claim public consent, and could easily lead to the decisions of such a body being decried as illegitimate. Distanced from public decision-making except in the rare cases in which one might be called from amongst the population to serve, it is argued that a system of pure sortition may also lead to lower civic engagement, with less public discourse and less desire amongst citizenry to become informed upon issues of public concern (Malkopoulou, 2015, p. 244).
The Sortition Debate Moving Forward
As should be clear, the debate around the merits of sortition continues, and a dearth of empirical evidence further limits the extent to which debate can reach a resolution at the moment. What is clear is that sortition has perhaps a number of benefits to offer, while at the same time carrying a number of risks. Thus, the focus of debate at the current moment is moving away from “is sortition good or bad”, towards the question of how best to incorporate sortition in order to leverage its strengths while minimizing its weaknesses.
The proposals being put forward can be grouped along three main typologies, but only two of these are seen as widely feasible. The first, and perceived less viable, class refers to those proposals, like that of Burnheim, that would entirely replace current governing institutions with sortition bodies, giving them primary powers over law-making. Second are those proposals which would incorporate sortition into existing institutions, such as by converting one house in a bicameral legislature into a sortition-elected body, and granting tangible, but subordinate, powers. Thirdly and finally are those that would create new bodies to operate in advisory or ancillary capacities, or on issue-specific bases, armed with primarily soft power rather than hard.
What separates the perceived more viable 2 and 3 from 1 is the recognition that the best way to maximize the strengths and minimize the weaknesses of sortition bodies is to implement them alongside elected ones, augmenting rather than replacing existing institutions. The difference between these two lies in the struggle to balance making these bodies relevant without making them too powerful. This is the key area in which much of the current work is focused, with an emphasis on examining how bodies might interact in each of these cases (see Vandamme et al, Gastil & Wright, and Bouricus).
There is a lot remaining to be studied with greater research needed across the board. What levels (municipal, provincial, federal) are these approaches best suited to? What kinds of problems should be dedicated to these bodies? How do you manage disagreement between elected and non-elected bodies?
What is clear is that as modern democracy seems to be further in retreat, the discussion of sortition, with its potential value in protecting civil liberties, discourse, and minority rights, will only become more prominent, and answering these questions more important.
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Dowlen, O. (2009). “Sorting out sortition: A perspective on the random selection of political officers.” In Political Studies 57, pp. 298-315.
Freedom House. (2019). Freedom in the world 2019: Democracy in retreat. Retrieved from https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/Feb2019_FH_FITW_2019_Report_ForWeb-compressed.pdf
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Wright, E. O. (2018). “The anticapitalist argument for sortition.” In In Politics & Society 46 (3), pp. 331-335.
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