Sortition in an Electoral World
From "The Trouble With Elections: Everything We Thought We Knew About Democracy is Wrong," Chapter 1.5
While this book will constantly contrast election and sortition, showing the superiority of sortition by most measures, it is not a one for one substitution — simply replacing elected legislators with members selected by lot. A sortition-based democracy would need an entirely different set of institutions and processes. Multitudes of randomly selected panels would each deal with distinct policy domains and different aspects of the law-making process, rather than having a single group of legislators that handle all issues and legislation — setting agendas, drafting bills, advocating for or against those bills, and then judging whether to adopt them. This all-purpose, omni-legislative design is a hand-me-down from the elite parliaments constructed to counterbalance the monarchy. It was not designed nor intended to be used by a democracy. The expansion of the voting franchise over time to include men without substantial property, women, and people of all races, is often described as “democratizing” legislatures. However, expanding the franchise has not changed the fundamental nature of such chambers. They remain to this day a bastion of elite rule over the population. This book will demonstrate why such bodies are incapable of genuine deliberation or democratic lawmaking. An all-purpose omni-legislation chamber is ill-advised for elected lawmakers, and even more so for a democracy rooted in lottery selection.
Both tools – election and sortition – will likely have a role to play for many years to come. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a society advancing to sortition without maintaining a parallel system of elections for a substantial time. While I have published several journal articles and book chapters describing how a democratic system could function without any elections, a step-by-step replacement seems the most plausible transition for some time to come. Countless events of the past, including the Macedonian Empire’s destruction of Greek democracy, and the decision of the leaders of the American colonies to use election and not sortition, have restricted what steps we can realistically take today. This “path dependence,” as social scientists call it, simply means we must start from where we are. Societies rarely get a blank slate on which to write a completely new design. Familiarizing more people with the concept of sortition as an alternative democratic tool and expanding its use is a good near-term goal. It is tempting to focus on Congressional elections as an archetype of electoral failure, but sortition could play a beneficial and more immediate role in state and local government, enterprise democracy at the workplace, home-owners’ associations, oversight of non-governmental organizations, and even of international entities. Sortition is also being advocated by researchers such as Aviv Ovadya as a tool for governing emerging artificial intelligence (AI) systems and social media content moderation.
Sortition is rapidly becoming mainstream globally. In a 2017 speech titled “The Crisis of Democracy," Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, identified random selection as a potential means of fostering inclusion and
“prevent[ing] the formation of self-serving and self-perpetuating political classes disconnected from their electorates.”
Sortition may seem radical, but in many places around the world it is rapidly becoming a reality.
A WORD ABOUT WORDS
Certain words and terminology will occur frequently in this book. The meaning of the word democracy is contested ground. While the ancient Greeks who invented the word used it to describe a system based on lotteries and direct participation, today it is almost always refers to some system of elections. Sometimes a modifier is attached, such as representative, developed, liberal, or western, but it also often appears without any qualifying adjective. Though I wish I could restore the word democracy to its original definition, the effective meaning of common words is fundamentally determined by those who read or hear the words based on their years of experience and culture, rather than by the writer or speaker (and here I am disputing Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland, who tells Alice that words can mean whatever we choose them to mean).
It would be reasonable to refer to these systems as elective oligarchies, rather than democracies, since so few members of society are actually involved with ruling the rest. Elected lawmakers are roughly one tenth of one percent of the population. The other 99.9 percent of the population only gets to play a minimal role in helping to choose between the teams of elites on offer who would rule over them, but are not allowed actual self-rule. Within this minuscule pool of elected lawmakers, ninety percent are at the local level (such as city councils and select boards) with very limited powers and authority, as set by state and federal lawmakers or constitutions. Many elected lawmakers serve continually term after term, constituting a political class. This squarely fits the definition of an oligarchy as the rule by a few over the many. Of course, this ignores the largely hidden and unofficial powers of the wealthy and corporations, who effectively determine, or at least powerfully influence, the boundaries of what laws and policies the elected lawmakers will even consider. Thus the term plutocracy, rule by the wealthy, may also fit.
However, constantly referring to what are commonly called “developed democracies” as “elective oligarchies” would come off as strident and frankly confusing (“is he referring to countries with token elections like North Korea?”) Since this book is about competing concepts of “democracy,” for the remainder of this book, when I am referring to existing electoral systems of selecting rulers, I will generally use some term that makes this clear, such as “electoral governments.” However, when I am quoting or paraphrasing others, who have written about such elective systems by using the word democracies, I will let the word stand, rather than constantly dispute their terminology. When I am referring to what I believe are more bona fide democratic systems – ones where everyday people engage in self rule by taking turns ruling and being ruled by their fellow citizens through the use of democratic lotteries — I will use an explanatory modifier such as “sortition-based democracy,” or “democracy by lot.”