Democracy by Sortition, Government by Lot

Personally, I am a strong sympathiser of democracy by sortition.

Historically, the main references to government by sortition refer to Classical Athens and the Florentine Republic in the Early Renaissance.

View of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Picture by jrgcastro on flickr.

For those interested in the Florentine experience, in general less known to the public, here’s a great draft paper [pdf] by Yves Sintomer that he presented during a meeting we had a couple of years ago at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio. In the paper, among other things, Yves describes the experience of the Florentine Republic and contrasts it with recent democratic innovations based on random selection. As to these recent experiments, alongside citizens’ juries,  probably one of the most studied experiments with sortition in recent history refers to British Columbia’s Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.

At a time when citizen participation is considered – at least in theory – an important part of the open government movement, those working in this sphere should pay particular attention to different methods of participant selection (e.g. self-selection, randomized) and what the prospects and limits for each of these different methods are.

An awesome read on this subject is the book Democratic Innovations by Graham Smith. Among other things, Graham looks at the impact that different  institutional designs (and methods of selection) have on the inclusiveness of participatory experiences.

If you are interested in sortition, a good resource to follow is the Equality by Log blog. In the blog I just came across an interesting presentation [PDF] by Yoram Gat on the subject of sortition compared to traditional (i.e. representative) democratic institutions.

Maybe after some of these readings you may become a sympathiser of government by lot as well.

Technology and Politicians’ Promises

Increasingly popular, promise-tracking platforms are software solutions designed to track the extent to which elected officials fulfil their promises made during electoral campaigning. David Sasaki has written an interesting post about these “promise meters”. Given that we are still in the early stages of development of these innovations, a few considerations might be noteworthy.While the cases that David lists focus on candidates for the Executive (e.g. gubernatorial elections), for illustrative purposes I focus primarily – but not solely – on cases in the field of parliamentary informatics. That is, existing or potential solutions for tracking politicians’ promises in parliament.
As David mentions, promises are not always the best metric. This may become even more evident when we consider the issues of collective intelligence and deliberation. To clarify, let us think of parliaments in their simplest form. As the etymology itself indicates, parliaments are in their origin conceived as spaces of dialogue. Such a deliberative component, some might argue, is precisely the epistemic basis that justifies the existence of parliaments as such. From this perspective, the mechanism that leverages the knowledge dispersed amongst the different parliamentarians relies on i) exposure to diverging points of view, ii) the justification of arguments on a rational basis, and ii) the willingness of parliamentarians to change their positions and preferences. From this perspective, a parliament in which its members do not change their preferences may in fact be counterproductive. The same applies to actors from the Executive as they interact with actors from other branches (e.g. Legislative) and levels (e.g. sub-national) of government and society as a whole.
Another question refers to the object of promise-tracking software. Some examples may fall prey to focusing on politicians as opposed to political parties, neglecting the role played by electoral parties in politicians’ behavior. Such oversight is particularly undesirable in the context of electoral systems that tend to foster strong party organizations (e.g. proportional representation), where parties’ directives tend to guide political action more than any individual agenda. This is perhaps one of the reasons for which voting advice applications (VAAs) developed by political scientists, such as theEUProfiler, have structured their design around political parties.
Finally, one could argue that promise-tracking platforms are built under a normative assumption that privileges a “delegate model of representation” over a “party delegate model” or a “trustee model” of representation.  Unintentionally, the discussion surrounding promise-tracking software enters a lively – and still unsettled – debate in the field of political representation theory. Edmund Burke would have loved to be a part of it.
(originally posted on the World Bank’s IC4D Blog)

How to Reconcile Participation and Representation

In On Revolution and other writings, Arendt advocates the form of political organization known as the council system. This aspect of her thought has been sharply criticized or — more often — simply ignored. How, both sympathizers and detractors wonder, could Arendt in all earnest propose the council system as an alternative to parliamentary democracy? The aim of the present paper is to defend Arendt’s position. I argue that her enthusiasm for the council system is an integral element of her thought and defend it against the criticisms it has provoked. Furthermore, I highlight the relevance of her arguments for the current debate about the idea of deliberative democracy. Her thesis that (top-down) party politics and (bottom-up) deliberative politics are antithetical and hence cannot coexist poses a serious challenge to the idea that parliamentary democracy can be made more deliberative while leaving its basic framework intact.

Totschnig, Wolfhart, How to Reconcile Participation and Representation: A Defense of Arendt’s Argument for the Council System (2012). APSA 2012 Annual Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN:

Territorial representation and ideational e-constituencies

(originally posted here)

It is easy to identify an existent and increasing disjunction between representation based on territorial constituencies and the preferences of citizens that, many times, are not circumscribed by any territory. In practice, such a fact leads to a representation deficit, where elected representatives fail to represent – or even to contemplate – preferences of constituents.  In that case, preferences that are dispersed and not contained within a territory have little or no chance of being formally represented. The history of recurrent legislative redistricting ( and gerrymandering) in the U.S is the most visible and institutional acknowledgement of difficulties related to territorial representation.

Such difficulties related to territorial representation tend to become even more present in a context of an interconnected society, where a growing number of old and new interests that were once latent and isolated, become expressed with much more intensity and well beyond geographical limits. Among other reasons, the aggregative possibility that information and communication technologies (ICTs) have given to interests that were previously dispersed renders the gap between constituents’ preferences and the policy outputs of legislatures even more evident.

The bad news is, in such a context, standard solutions such as redefinition of territorial constituencies as a means to deal with the limitations of territorial representation are no longer an option. Moreover, even if some interests can still be represented through territorial constituencies, it is increasingly difficult to claim primacy of territory-based preferences over non-territorial interests.  In short, liberal democracy’s fixation with territorial representation – together with partisan competition – as the only provider of legitimate links between citizens and public authorities is significantly challenged.

Despite the obvious signs of fatigue from liberal democracy (decreasing levels of turnouts, partisanship affiliation) there is also a noticeable renewal of politics  (e.g. activist groups, single-issue coalitions) that are by no means seized by the traditional framework of liberal democracies.  Even if nonterritorial interests are not new to democratic theorists, undoubtedly one can identify the rise of organized interests propelled by the use of ICTs and particularly the Internet, has taken an impressive step –both quantitatively and qualitatively – from the mid 1990s on.

Interesting is to notice that recent researches show that through the use of ICTs – particularly weblogs – MPs are increasingly relating with “e-constituencies” that come well beyond their territorial limits. A research by Nigel Jackson, for instance, suggests that MPs that are using weblogs tend to develop broader, virtual constituencies that are highly interested in politics and that are in competition with the geographic constituency of these MPs who are not and cannot be elected by these “e-constituents”. Such a fact, rather than anecdotal, illustrates well the limits of territorial constituencies. While it stops citizens preferences from being aggregated around one representative, it also inhibits representatives from acting on behalf of an electorate that maybe has more affinity with his preferences than those of his territorial constituency.

One fact is evident and inevitable: the ever growing access to ICTs challenges current representative democratic practices and traditional forms of political participation, with new non-territorial citizen networks, fluid publics and affinity groups constituting major elements of contemporary democracy.  Can ideational e-constituencies complement the system of territorial constituencies as we know it? Maybe not for now, but it is something to think about.