"The Trouble With Elections: Everything We Thought We Knew About Democracy is Wrong," Chapter 1.3
“Sortition” refers to the process of selecting public officials, usually for a deliberative body, by random lottery. This practice was central to the flourishing of democracy in ancient Greece for centuries, and is currently experiencing a resurgence in the form of citizens’ assemblies. Modern implementations typically use a scientific stratified sampling procedure similar to that of public opinion surveys.
Lottery selection plays only a small role in modern electoral democracies. We rely on the principle of random selection (rather than election) in the jury selection process when potentially taking away a person’s liberty. The lottery principle is used to create a deliberative body that fairly and impartially represents the community. Juries have been viewed as such a vital bulwark against the danger of an oppressive state that the right to a jury trial was incorporated into the American Constitution. Outside of this court context, lottery selection has been rather rare in modern democracies. However, in the past couple of decades, many hundreds of jury-like citizens’ assemblies have been empaneled through sortition (also known as “democratic lotteries”) to tackle public policy issues all around the world.
The classical Athenians’ best-known democratic tool was the ecclesia, their mass Assembly. Around six thousand, out of a population of thirty to sixty thousand eligible male citizens attended. However, the Assembly was not the sole, nor even the defining feature of ancient Greek democracy. Many non-democratic Greek city states, such as Sparta, also had such assemblies, but, unlike Athens, their agenda was controlled by the elite.
Sortition was sacrosanct to the Athenian democrats, who considered it far more democratic than elections. Most Athenian magistrates, the courts, legislative panels and the administrative Council of Five Hundred, which set the agenda and prepared proposals for the Assembly, were selected using this random lot procedure.
The drawing of lots can be used to accomplish certain tasks while adhering to key principles. Depending on the task, these principles might include fairness, impartiality, political equality, and defense against bias, corruption or tyranny. Sortition can also be used to create a statistically representative sample from a population. Deliberation by such representative “mini-publics” has been a key feature of modern citizens’ assemblies.
Mass assembly democracy among all citizens is unworkable on the scale of a modern nation state. However, both election and sortition are able to overcome this problem of scale. Ancient Athenians believed elections inevitably favored wealthy, well-connected individuals over average citizens, and thus elections sacrificed the principle of equality. Only a handful of public offices requiring unique characteristics, such as military generals, were filled by election.
Sortition predominated in Athens for roughly two centuries. The view that elections are inherently oligarchic, whereas selection by lot is especially suited to democracy, persisted for over two millennia. From the time of Aristotle up through the Age of Enlightenment with political theorists like Montesquieu and Rousseau in the eighteenth century, it was understood that sortition was a fundamental tool of democracy, while elections were a tool for aristocracy.
However, sortition is merely a tool. If all citizens participate as equals in the lottery, it is democratic. But if only a subset of wealthy families are allowed to participate in the lottery, it is aristocratic. Numerous medieval and Renaissance aristocratic Italian city-republics, such as Venice and Florence, combined sortition and election into a complex multi-level process. Sortition played a crucial role in overcoming factionalism and protecting against tyranny. There were many variations from city to city, and within any given city over time.
Sortition was also a means of avoiding corruption due to a concentration of power, assuring true equality of opportunity, and affirming the right of the citizenry to self-govern. The ancient Athenians, and many Renaissance Italian city states, believed the equal chance to serve was a cornerstone of political equality. In addition to sortition, the Athenian approach to self-governance also mandated relatively short terms and rotation of office. This can be generalized as the principle of rule and be ruled in turn. Designers of “modern” republics, beginning with the founders of the United States and the French Republic, distrusted democracy, equating it with mob rule. They rejected sortition and democracy in favor of election to facilitate rule by a “natural aristocracy,” as opposed to a hereditary one.
Although the ancient Greeks used sortition to appoint most of their magistrates (typically administrative and executive officers in panels of ten), sortition is most appropriate for legislative and judicial bodies, where judgment, rather than execution, is the focus. Sortition bodies may be used to craft proposals, or for approving or disapproving proposals prepared by others, or evaluating performance of executives. But even in cases where expertise is needed, randomly selected bodies have certain benefits over elected bodies. Ordinary citizens have an interest in seeking out bona fide policy experts, as opposed to consulting mostly with special interest lobbyists or partisan loyalist campaign and public relations experts.
In discussing representation, it is important to make a distinction between the legislative and executive functions of government. While these two functions are often intermixed (a president proposes and may veto laws, ministers in parliamentary systems have both legislative and executive roles), I will focus on the legislative function as the primary domain of representative democracy. The framers of the American system of government focused on the legislative side, giving relatively few powers explicitly to the executive. Over the centuries, more and more power has accrued to the office of the president, to the point that it is now frequently referred to by scholars as the “imperial presidency.”
I would not propose to select an executive, such as a mayor, governor, or president, by random selection from among all citizens. No one person can be representative of the whole, plus an executive must possess specific skills. However, random selection could play a beneficial role, as it did in many Renaissance city-states. For example, it might make sense to have a statistically representative subset of the society function as a sort of hiring committee to recruit an executive, similar to the way that a city council appoints a city manager. A process with a smaller group (i.e not the whole electorate) can avoid money-tainted campaigns, and directly interview and evaluate potential executives up close, rather than from quick ads designed to prick emotions.
Sortition is now being used in innovative implementations around the world. The size, design, powers and procedures of these panels selected using democratic lotteries varies, as does the name – variously known by names such as citizens’ assemblies, planning cells, policy juries, or mini-publics. I will discuss some of these exciting innovations in subsequent chapters. I hope to show that with appropriate design and implementation, sortition can be superior to elections as a central tool for democratic popular self-rule.
The practice of drawing lots long predated the invention of Greek democracy. For example, Athens did not practice primogeniture inheritance (where only the eldest son inherits the father’s property), so lotteries were used to distribute inheritances. In Athens, the lottery was a practical human tool, rather than, as in some other cultures, being viewed as a way of “letting the gods decide.” In one ancient Greek story, the gods themselves resorted to the use of lots to decide which god should rule which domain (Hades got the underworld, Poseidon the sea, and Zeus the sky). So they weren’t leaving it to some other gods to decide; they were avoiding a fight by leaving it to chance. Homer’s epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey, which predate Greek democracy by centuries, mention drawing lots to make selections from among larger groups of soldiers or sailors. Lotteries had also been used previously to choose office holders from among narrower sets of wealthy elites in Greek aristocracies (Malkin 2023).
Woodruff, Paul. 2006. First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Venice provides probably the most stable, yet incredibly convoluted example of how lottery and election could be combined. The Most Serene Republic of Venice (its official name) survived as an independent republic for over a thousand years. From 1268 until 1797, when Napoleon conquered Venice, the leader (‘Doge’) of Venice was selected in essentially the same manner. There were 10 rounds of alternating election and sortition. Initially, from among the Grand Council (all males over the age of 30 from the aristocratic families) 30 members were selected by lot. A second lottery reduced this 30 down to a 9-member electoral college. These 9 would nominate 40 men, each of whom needed votes from at least 7 of the 9 members. 12 of these 40 nominees would then be selected by lot, who in turn would choose 25 men, each of whom needed at least 9 of the 12 to approve. The 25 would then be reduced by lottery to 9, who would nominate 45 men with votes from at least 7 of the 9 members. From these 45, 11 were selected by lot. These 11 chose 41 men with at least 9 votes from the 11 electors. These 41 men finally elected the Doge, who had to receive at least 25 votes, and served for life. While this seems ridiculous, it was intentionally designed to promote compromise and protect minority interests through repeated supermajority requirements, while using random selection to shield against manipulation and corruption of well-connected families. This practice of using a small electoral college to elect the ruler was also followed by the Holy Roman Empire, and was later incorporated into the American Constitution (Mowbray and Gollmann 2007).