My thoughts on sortition, and the book 'Against Elections' by David van Reybrouck.
Posted on Aug 8, 2020

I recently read Against Elections, by David van Reybrouck, and I found it quite compelling in places. The book argues against electoral democracy as fundamentally aristocratic, and suggests that sortition, the process of selecting people by lot, would make an effective alternative. The book isn’t particularly long; I recommend it.

The first half of the book (primarily) focuses on the history of democracy. It mentions examples of sortition-like systems employed throughout history, from the Athenian model of random assemblies, to Lombardy, Venice, and Florence. A fact that I found surprising was that elections were explicitly considered aristocratic in Greece rather than democratic; hence aristo -cracy (rule of the best), rather than demo -cracy (rule of the people). Of course, the Athenian definition of “citizen” was rather thin, it preceding the idea of universal suffrage.

Venice did not aspire to the ideal of being ruled by its citizens, but they needed to pick a Great Council and a Doge, from a selection of nobles from rival families with competing interests. Sortition wasn’t used on its own in this case: they instead used a curious multi-stage process whereby the existing council was whittled down by voting, and then filled up again by lot. This happened four or five times in total before the council eventually elected a Doge1. J. J. Norwich, in his book A History of Venice, says that this protocol “strikes the modern mind as ridiculous”. However, an extremely interesting analysis by Mowbray and Gollmann, two computer scientists working at HP in 2007, showed that the electoral system has some surprisingly good properties2.

Moving on from medieval Italy, van Reybrouck goes on to explore the modern evolution of democracy, and specifically how elections suddenly became seen as democratic. The belief that they weren’t was maintained as recently as the mid-18th century, with John-Jacques Rousseau writing in The Social Contract, “The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing.” (incidentally, this is the book’s epigraph). The conclusion that he draws (roughly) is that this outcome is the result of a failure of the revolutions in Europe and America to actually transfer power to the people.

Van Reybrouck then goes on to point out that the world we’ve ended up in is a little strange. Literally all “democracies” nowadays use a system derided in antiquity as being aristocratic. Yet “elections” and “democracy” are practically treated as synonyms in the modern world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights goes so far as to say “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage…” (Article 21, Point 3), as if this is the only expression of the public will that is acceptable from the perspective of human rights.

The problems with modern electoral democracy are plainly apparent in 2020, but to break down some of the main issues3:

  • The type of people who want to run for office and have the skill-set to do so successfully, and the type of people who are good leaders and make thoughtful decisions for the good of the people they are entrusted to represented, are not the same. In fact, it can be argued that these traits are negatively correlated4.
  • From a representation perspective, it’s very often the case that (especially for regressive societies), the elected representatives do not look like the population. The ethnicity often skews toward the dominant ethnicity, the gender often skews male, and so on. Especially when a part of the responsibilities of government is the protection of minorities of all types, a minority voice is highly desirable5.
  • The role of the citizenry is selective, not deliberative. By this, I mean that the job of the electorate is to select from one of several options, not to create their own. As such, the agenda is set by political parties, and when some policies receive broad support amongst the people, but no party offers them, this causes a disconnect between the popular will and the political won’t (e.g. rail nationalisation in the UK, gun control in the US). Also, certain issues that would negatively impact political parties as an institution will never be on the table (e.g. electoral reform in the UK and the US).
  • Elections become sport. People begin to care less about issues than they care about how it affects the standing of their team. (Of course, I’m not claiming that I don’t do this; I absolutely do. I try to catch myself doing it and course-correct though, which is probably a good thing.) Scandals used to actually bring down politicians, but recently they’ve been acknowledged tacitly by all sides as the set-pieces of the game of politics; the free-kicks, corners, and penalties that give one party an edge over another.
  • Building on from the last point, politicians become celebrities. The foibles of individual personalities should not be the basis on which we decide what social programs we fund, our approach to the climate crisis, or what rights and protections minority populations receive. But, undeniably, it’s a major factor; and that’s disgusting.

It comes as no surprise that sortition solves these problems to a great extent. But surely neither the quaint Athenian forum nor the uniquely bizarre Venetian system scale well to modern nation-states? Well, of course not. But the idea of selecting a deliberative legislative body by lot has been tried in recent years, with some success. Ireland used a Citizens’ Assembly to great effect when designing changes to their constitution on sensitive subjects such as abortion and marriage equality, which was two-thirds appointed by lot. There are also other cases in Canadian provinces of random citizens’ assemblies being used to advise on electoral reform.

Citizens’ Assemblies seem like a great modification to the current system. Citizens selected by lot to work together on a contentious issue and present their findings to parliament, or the public in a referendum. But their remits are narrow, and their results often aren’t binding. What would a permanent deliberative legislative system look like?

Well, some people have advocated for the “upper house” of a multi-house parliament to be randomly selected. In fact, this was an option put forward by many members of the public and some influential reformers as a way to reform the House of Lords in the UK. And, in fact, this has actually happened in a European federal entity! As of 2019, the devolved German-speaking region of Belgium (with, admittedly, a small population), has a permanent citizens’ assembly, with no restricted remit. This has rightly been hailed as historic, and here’s hoping it goes well.

Obviously, sortition has its apparent disadvantages. Firstly there’s the general point that it’s harder to criticise a system that we don’t already have, because there may well be unforeseen consequences that we, well, can’t foresee. More specific criticisms exist as well, notably those of incompetence, lack of enthusiasm, and unaccountability.

The criticism of incompetence is that people selected by lot aren’t selected for the trait of being good at lawmaking. It is certainly true that the average person’s statecraft ability is probably poor. Advocates of sortition recognise this and consider it extremely important to ensure that deliberative bodies have access to experts, including relevant domain experts and lawyers. The results of citizens’ assemblies also go some way, in my opinion, to disproving this point.

Voters in modern society are notoriously unenthusiastic. Just over half of Americans vote in the presidential election, for example. But might this have to do with the relatively low impact that one individual vote has? Might the fact that the power of election is distributed deterministically and evenly, giving each individual a tiny amount of influence, mean that people take that influence less seriously? Apart from by moralistic chest-beating about social duty, it is difficult to convince people that their vote matters (especially when they’re in a “safe seat” in poorer electoral models, and it therefore really doesn’t). It is easy to argue that small groups of people tasked with a deliberative task take that task more seriously, and a good example of this would be juries (which, in the UK, we select randomly). This also goes some way to disproving the charge of unaccountability, although there is more to be said on this.

Van Reybrouck finishes the book with a look at a sortition model proposed by Bouricius6. I won’t go into it too much (although it is interesting and I suggest people read it, it’s not pay-walled). Essentially, the idea is to create several sortition-selected bodies with different functions, and select them in different ways7. One body would be for selecting topics and remits, another for creating legislation on those topics, a third for checking and amending the legislation (and checking it for coherence), a fourth for voting on the legislation, and so on. There would also be oversight bodies, comprised of people who previously served on the other bodies. All appointments would be relatively brief, especially the voting-on-the-legislation body. This further dampens the unaccountability charge, as any changes to law would be reviewed by multiple different groups who never see each other. When people have less power individually, they don’t need to be held as accountable.

I like sortition and think it has great power to alleviate many of the deep and worsening issues our electoral system faces. It’s difficult to see it being used in a major way (i.e. replacing upper houses or government entirely by sortition) any time soon, but it isn’t far-fetched to imagine it being used more and more. The main obstacle is likely to be the reluctance of the political class to endorse greater public participation, which is why it is such good news that politicians in places like Ireland and Belgium seem to be overcoming that. I highly recommend van Reybrouck’s book as an engaging (if admittedly, simplistic in places) look at sortition. If you want some other sortition media to consume, then Malcolm Gladwell recently did a podcast episode about it (which can be found here, or on any good podcatcher). It has all the broad-strokes and “grand unifying theory” vibes that anything by Malcolm Gladwell normally does, but it’s an interesting look at the application of sortition on a more local scale: in this case, school councils in Bolivia.

  1. The person who drew the ballots? The first young boy whom the youngest member of the inner council of state saw, after he finished praying at St Mark’s Basilica on election day. This boy was called the balotino.

  2. M. Mowbray, D. Gollmann (2007): Electing the Doge of Venice: analysis of a 13th Century protocol. A copy can be found here.

  3. I’ve deliberately picked issues which are not specific to First Past the Post, or any particular electoral system. These problems are endemic to all electoral-representative systems.

  4. Douglas Adams: “It is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it… anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”

  5. Of course, this can be fixed to an extent by requiring parties to fulfil quotas in the candidates that they put up for election, but even then those candidates often face a disadvantage among the voters, who statistically are likely to have some implicit bias.

  6. T. G. Bouricius (2013): Democracy Through Multi-Body Sortition: Athenian Lessons for the Modern Day. A copy can be found here.

  7. We should select these different bodies in different ways, it is argued, because different selection methods have different benefits and drawbacks. (Do we let people opt-out of selection? How much time is needed for the job? Should there be an electoral phase to whittle down the body and select for enthusiasm and competencies (as in Venice)? etc.) Using bodies selected by different means lets us match up these advantages and disadvantages to those jobs where they are more beneficial and less harmful.