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.

4 thoughts on “Democracy by Sortition, Government by Lot

  1. Pingback: Democratic Innovation in Open Government | DemocracySpot

  2. Pingback: Lawrence Lessig on Sortition and Citizen Participation | DemocracySpot

  3. Hello!

    Congratulations on your hard work!

    Our self-produced documentary “I didn’t vote” is now available online with subtitles in English. We assess the current crisis in politics and suggest possible solutions. Please feel free to share this film on your website or Facebook page!

    Thank you. Yours sincerely, Moise Courilleau.

  4. Hello,

    Whether we like politics or not thankyou for knowing the truth – it affects us anyway.
    Good to see another website putting sortition forward.
    I would like to share an essay which fleshs out the detail of a model of sortition. A model which is very careful to trust no-one.

    Democracy by Lottery to Guarantee Gender Equality

    In many countries politics has two houses of government. The proposal here is to replace the one in which the nation’s leader does not stand. In the USA, France and Australia this is the Senate. In the UK this is the House of Lords, and in Germany it is The Bundesrat.

    Democracy we are told is government by the people. What if many of the people aren’t involved ? What if some have a much stronger voice than others ?

    We are finding that voting doesn’t actually lead to everyone’s voice being heard. Many people don’t vote, and many are not able to vote because they are not on the electoral roll. In many countries safety concerns prevent people turning up, and in every country social and family pressures often mean that people cannot express their personal opinion. Vote counting is conducted in private, far away from public scrutiny. Vote counters are appointed in a process that very few people know anything about. Some countries even force you to use a pencil rather than a pen to mark your vote. However, what good is voting if political donations buy the politicians’ ear?

    Democracy is possible without a public vote. Sortition is a system which uses random chance to directly elect parliament members. Sortition is the only form of government to share out authority amongst the group rather than give it away. Modern democracies are finding that politicians are a very separate group of people with little in common to most of the population. Sortition is the only way to bring representation back where it belongs to be spread among all people.

    Sortition is an old system most well-known from the Ancient Greeks, and also from the Venetians and the Florentines. Using random chance rather than a vote to choose the members of a parliament offers a better chance at truly representative government. Currently democracy means voting for a choice of only a handful of politicians. Sortition would mean that anyone over eighteen years old could become a politician. The choice of millions versus the choice of just a handful.

    But what is sortition ? Without specifying the model and how things work sortition could mean just about anything. This essay is about framing a strong model and why its particular features are needed.

    If you could draw people equally from across society into a house of parliament, then the bias of the chosen politicians would be less important. Today bias matters because our parliaments under-represent many groups. Women are under-represented and although some change is happening, the change is slow. Why should the men who are already there be the ones who decide how fast the change is ? Poverty has the attention of many of us, but without power not much is changing. If there could be a parliament with as many poor people as rich people then surely things would be different. Why is there so little effort to represent people from below the poverty line ? If a parliament was half female, half male, and contained people from every type of wealth status, then many really important issues would see quick and effective change. Using a selection system for parliament which guarantees an equal balance in every parliamentary term means that change doesn’t come to a dead halt when elections are held. Gender balance and wealth balance can be held equal forever.

    The most important part of such a mass system is registration. In this model there is none. Many people are currently not on the electoral roll for various reasons. Some people have no stable address. Others simply have not registered a new address. Some have just turned 18, and some are new citizens. Sortition can be framed with a system to not require any registration at all. Only the winners register. Any registration to attend the lottery is without purpose once the winner is chosen. Why waste the resources needed to register thousands of people when only the details of the winner matter. Also the best way to secure personal details is if they are never collected at all. Actually this model gives out many supplementary prizes so 50 people will register, but this is a lot less than thousands. Having no registration gives everyone the maximum chance to participate in the lottery. This sortition is a lottery with a chance to represent people like yourself for three years, making important government decisions while being paid near the top of the payscale. The incentive to participate considerably greater than regular democratic voting as we know it.

    Imagine to chance to freely enter a lottery for a solid desirable wage for three years. Currently most senators are paid at above the 95th percentile wage, which means 95% of the population earns less than them annually. I think a more reasonable and fair wage would be the 90% percentile wage. This across many countries equates to a little above $100,000 USD. Such a wage will obviously be very attractive to nearly everyone. Well to at least 90% of the population. This is more than double the average wage in most countries. Politicians approving their own pay rises has gotten out of hand, ( don’t even start me on the Italians ) and I think it is far better to set the wage using a percentile rank. This means that pay rises only happen for politicians as everyone else also receives them.

    The next important part of our model is the need for integrity in the draw, and that everyone can see this integrity for themselves. Firstly current governments should not be the ones to conduct the sortition draw, and this draw cannot be a private affair in any way. We are looking for new representatives for a new government which represents nothing of the old powerbases. If we want things to be better, if we want to get rid of the current imbalances, then a fresh start is required. A draw conducted like a televised lottery could easily be corrupted. We should not rely on an appointed authority to insure integrity in the draw. Every citizen can do it for themselves. A live draw where all participants turn up in person gives everyone the chance to see the process. All authorities also know that if everyone is watching them that thousands of people and will personally scrutinise every action. Surely this is the best protection against anyone rigging the draw.

    Now in most countries the population is too big for everyone to fit into one stadium, but this is actually an opportunity rather a problem. Rather than chose two hundred people from one large group, the idea is to divide the population into two hundred equal sized groups and then draw one person from each. Dividing the population into many smaller groups ensures each group has a particular voice who is one of them. The entire population can closely identify with at least one new sortition politician because this politician comes from the same small group as them.

    The new senate will have two hundred members. First the population split is by gender to give one hundred male senators and one hundred female senators. Second each of those two groups is split into one hundred sequential wealth groups. Each wealth group represents one step of one hundred up the wealth ladder from poor to rich. So each group will number half of one percent of the whole population. Given the wealth differences between men and women it is far more accurate to split the population by both wage and gender, rather than just wages alone. Wage limits are set for each of the one hundred groups. First the wealth assessment is by wages, then this is also checked against overall wealth. Wealth limits are set for each group. When your wages or wealth pass the limit you pass into the higher group. Asset wealth is important as not all houses and cars should be considered the same. It does matter whether you live in The Hamptons or Detroit. The wealth limits and wage limits should be adjusted over time. Once every three years, the period of government, demographers reset the limits using tax returns and census data.

    In using a random choice there is the major concern of skewed outcomes. If we were to choose all two hundred parliament members from one big group, then this would a leave very probable chance of imbalances. One vote can be the balance of power when the house of government votes. Completely random assignment from one large group could mean that there are 105 men and 95 women members in our new senate. Over many parliaments the average ratio will be equal, but most particular parliaments will not be 100 men and 100 women. An imbalance is actually more probable in a particular parliament than 100 matching 100. Such outcomes are perhaps an even bigger problem when we look at wealth inequality. Some randomly chosen senates would have more rich members than poor, and some senates more poor than rich. One solution is to make votes of the house require a bigger majority than one vote to pass. This could cause stalemates and would definitely reduce the efficiency of change which can be achieved. The better alternative is to ensure an even balance by dividing the population into groups before the representatives are chosen. This way the random choice of candidates from the population cannot give a skewed representation.

    Gender and wealth discrimination have the most important needs to be countered by equal representation. Drawing exact lines between different races and religions is too complicated and not likely to be accurate. Wealth discrimination can be given a solid number. First the population is split in half by gender, then each half is split into one hundred sequential wealth groups. Other needs for equality are taken care of by the randomness of selection which means everyone over eighteen years old has the same chance of selection.

    Replacing a government level is much better than forming a new one. If a new level were formed, then the existing levels of government are sure to have more power. The new boy will be bullied. Many monkey wrenches are sure to be thrown to unfairly undermine sortition in an attempt to ensure the idea does not take hold. Replacing the Senate means the new boy has presence and power, and this is vital. Some countries don’t have a popular vote for the senate at all, in the few that do, many recent voting results have left everyone confused including the politicians. This general distaste of the current system should be used to motivate people towards a new system which offers more inclusive and objective representation.

    The next concern is who conducts the draw. To use current government officials, or to allow a televised draw like lotto are both problematic. A single rigged result is not so bad because this person becomes simply one vote within one hundred and ninety-nine others, but complacency is not a good way to ensure the integrity of the system. There is the need for transparency and integrity in the draw. Trust and fairness is important. A live draw with all the people affected by it in the audience, which is conducted by officials selected by the draw last time the sortition lottery ran is the best way. The very first round of lotteries should use sports umpires because of course there was no previous lottery. They should first attend a draw of their own for selection and random assignment to different positions. It is important that the new officials have as little as possible to do with the old electoral system.

    The lottery itself takes the form of a bingo game. A standard round bingo cage is used with ninety-nine balls inside. The bingo cage relies on gravity and so is easier to check than the more modern perspex globe and blower. Gravity is constant and the blower could be varied. Players enter the venue with no assigned seating. The lottery cards are printed beforehand and have six random numbers ( one to ninety-nine ) on them. Consulting leaders in anti-counter fitting technology is important to ensure that fake cards are not able to be manufactured as the numbers are read out. Each player tries to match all six numbers to get their bingo and win the round. The cards are shuffled in the view of the participants. Each pile is randomly given to a distributor. The distributors are then assigned at random to particular areas. When they reach their area they hand the cards to the participants. No lines are to be used. Rather people gently crowd and receive cards in a more random fashion this way. There is no hurry as the game only begins when everyone is ready, so the order of lines is not necessary and cards can be distributed more randomly without them. The distributors will wear large wizard-like hats to make them very visible. These hats can flash and change colour so that the distributors can clearly signal readiness or anything else. Once cards are received it is very useful if all participants write their name on their card, also writing a description of their clothing would also help ensure that no card-swapping takes place. Families and cousins should separate and sit well apart.

    Balls are drawn from the bingo cage and called. If we pretend there are about thirty thousand people in the stadium, then probability says that the first winner is drawn around the eighteenth ball. Continuing to the twenty-ninth ball will provide about fifty winners. On this twenty-ninth ball about a dozen winners will be chosen. To get exactly fifty winners a special intermediate round is held with just that dozen people. An exact number of fifty is required so that all groups are drawn in the same way. These are some other reasons for fifty also but they are not included here in order to keep this essay shorter.

    Fifty winners are chosen in the first round, who make their way to the seating on the centre stage. Then another round between these fifty is performed with new cards to pick one winner. Holding more than one round to choose a winner means that cheating would be much harder. Using a final round with an audience means that nearly everyone’s eyes are available to check what is going on. Also choosing one winner per ball drawn is easier with only fifty people in the game, the alternative of splitting winners whom achieve bingo together on the same ball from a single round would be unnecessarily cruel to runners up. A tie in the final round may still occur, and this tie should be broken with another round.

    The final round keeps running until the order of the entire fifty is reached. The second placegetter will be needed if the winner has lied about their wage level. This is much easier than holding the lottery again. Also these place-getters can now be offered their choice of a number of positions :- ombudsmen, legal jurors, customs officers, overseers of police integrity, overseers for complaints within the military, animal welfare inspectors, food health inspectors, and officials for the next round of lotteries in three years time. Any job can be added that benefits from the integrity provided by random assignment. All of these jobs should be well paid at between the 60% to 90% percentile wage.

    Only upon wining selection by sortition is your wage and assets are checked (registration). This saves a lot of effort compared to keeping individual records, and preserves privacy much better. Governments have proven over and over again that personal details are not safe. The best way to guard against such danger is to have as few details as is needed. Also compiling less details is less cost and less confusion. Details of the wealth limits are posted well before the sortition lotteries, then each individual works out for themselves to which group they should attend to win the lottery. If they attend the wrong lottery and win, upon registration they will lose selection, and the next runner-up steps up.

    This is just a basic summary of the lottery workings. The maths has been omitted as it is probably boring to most of you. Yes there is a book with all the maths included. Hopefully it will be available soon.

    Most senate members will only serve one term. It is possible under this model to allow returning candidates. Firstly they can win the sortition lottery again. They participate as normal and so have the same slim chance of winning as anyone else. Their second chance comes through nomination. Any lottery winner can nominate a previous serving candidate of their choice instead of serving in the new parliament themselves. This previously serving candidate must come from the winner’s own specific wealth-gender group. Only three terms are allowed for each candidate in total.

    As years of experience with modern sortition build up, people may feel that both houses of parliament could be replaced with sortition. This would mean two houses of two hundred members each. Without a popular vote for parliament this leaves us with a leader to choose. We can use the two hundred candidates that have already just served a three year term. As the candidates are truly representative and not driven by party politics then they can effectively represent a popular vote, and so do the voting rather than a mass popular vote. The leader for the next three years is chosen from among the two hundred. They would have a closer knowledge of who the candidates are and how they work, and so can arguably make a better choice than the public. They know the person through their own experience rather than through a media lens or a political campaign, which of course often represents a distorted view. Currently the popular vote has the bias from who bothers to turn up to vote, or who is allowed to vote. Moving away from a popular vote means that the bias of media barons and political donations could be put in the trash-can where they belong.

    A leader chosen like this should only serve one term. The current practice of long serving leaders increases the chances of corruption. With longer to learn how integrity is enforced, and longer to build a public profile which presumes no-one may ask questions, then it becomes easier to beat measures meant to ensure honesty with deception. Friendships with business leaders grow over time. This can make better more efficient leaders, but it also gives the chance of more corrupt ones.

    In this new senate the transition between newly chosen leaders can be much smoother and more congenial than current politics allows because party alliances are removed. The new leader will join the next parliament with its two hundred newly chosen candidates, and so become the two hundred and first vote ( some candidates may not be new as they achieved nomination from a lottery winner ). This makes a nice number to ensure all votes have a result.

    This new senate has much greater freedom to get the job of government done. Party politics is no more. More diverse views can be freely represented because there is no need to tow the party line. Members will be less stressed by party pressures and so be more relaxed, attentive and intelligent. Without party meetings and back-room manoeuvres politicians will have considerably more time for the real business of representing their people. Most members will only serve one term and so there is no career to protect. We the public really can expect much more honourable behaviour is possible from our politicians.

    In our new senate no party loyalty is required. Members need not be nursing leadership ambitions, and there is no need to climb a ladder through the party to achieve position. Currently many honourable people are put off serving by the way politics is conducted. The only way to change the conduct is by changing how people get there. Selecting candidates by lottery means the that bias of politicians characteristics compared to the general population is only that they bothered to turn up for the lottery.

    We are all very frustrated with our current system which is called democratic. The need for political campaigns means corruption through bribery. Campaigns mean that the voters get ignored because the important voice is that of the sponsors and donors. These sponsors and donors are our real leaders. Yes the politicians are just puppets. Puppets to give us a show and divert us from the truth. Every country can give examples of bribery and laws being bypassed by those at the top. Culture and race clearly don’t change this aspect of human nature. Power corrupts universally. Things really aren’t democratic. The people don’t really have much voice. It is the nature of humans from any race to not see the struggles of those below them well enough to feel empathy. It is proven by history that the thrill of authority and mastery is stronger.

    This select wealthy group at the top sponsoring political parties are not elected. They live lives quite insulated from the rest of us. They can choose which laws they obey. The rest of us pay our bills and taxes or we go to jail, yes for increasingly smaller offences. Yes behaving as we do now has gotten us into quite a mess. Politics is biased rather than representative because of the power of money. This bias means those in poverty and those without jobs are copping a very bad deal. Their lack of representation means that change is not likely. Poverty and unemployment really shouldn’t exist. Even for the employed workers the threat of losing a job makes us take undesirable actions. Most nations and perhaps every nation has the wealth to prevent these problems. They remain unsolved because of the bias of rich donors. If you have thousands of dollars to bribe politicians then problems like poverty, unemployment, poor education, poor health care and the problem of expensive lawyers are all well below your station. Why would you care for the problems of commoners? You wouldn’t bribe a politician to look after the poor.

    The End.

    Copyright © 2016 Charlie Douglass

    Please let me know what you think.


    charlie douglass

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