Article X. Sortition, Anyone?

“…the appointment of magistrates by lot is thought to be democratic, the election of them oligarchic.”

— Aristotle

Often at this point, or well before, someone will venture, “OK, we surely don’t want to be saddled with a political system that, when not bogged down in partisan gridlock, produces irrational, if not insane, collective policy choices.  But what can we do?”

Someone is sure to answer, “We need real election reform and stricter campaign finance laws.  We need to make the polls more accessible to the general public.  We need to make the congress more accountable.  We need to champion rights of felons who have served their time and paid their debt to society.  We need to make computer voting machines more audit-able.  We need to…”

“Please,” someone else, hopefully, interrupts.  “We’ve repeatedly attempted, and failed, to rationalize our election system since the ’60s.  We’ve jousted with campaign finance reform over and over, yet gaping loopholes remain everywhere. Show me anything substantial we’ve achieved that hasn’t actually played into the hands of the oligarchs — either by squandering our time and energy, or by actually moving us farther from the goal of full participation in our own governance.  Congress will never consider genuine reform of an election system that worked so well to put them into office.  They’re NOT going to make any changes that jeopardize their chances of being re-elected.  And, in light of Citizens United, election finance reform isn’t likely to get anywhere, anyway. We need to stop wasting our energy building sandcastles on the beach that the tide of oligarchs will easily wash away or work around.”

“OK.  OK. I agree.  We don’t want to run around on the beach building sandcastles that the bums in power ignore or use to their own advantage.  We’d rather throw the bums out!  But the incumbent bums hold a monopoly on power.  They have gerrymandered themselves into near-perpetual incumbency.  They have written laws that minimize the chances that they can be successfully challenged by outsiders without deep pocket backers.  They have written laws that permit them to extort oceans of money from special interests.  They rarely vacate their seats until assured a comfortable ride through the revolving door to a well paid special interest lobbying job.  And they oversee the system of government that protects and promotes their personal interests ahead of the interests of those who elected them; transforming otherwise accountable civil servants into glad-handing self-servants.  Besides pressing for election reform and campaign finance reform what else is there that we can do?”

“Well, if I understand the essence of the problem as described in previous articles, we must finally address the fundamental flaw in our constitution that not only fosters faction and oligarchy, but militates against fully participative democracy.  A flaw that would have been obvious to ancient Athenian democrats, but that most of the founders did NOT view to be a flaw since they had NO intention of creating a democracy.  A flaw that most people on the planet, today, who advocate for democracy do not understand to be a flaw.  Elections!”

“Holy crap.  Are you saying that we need do away with election contests as the means of selecting representatives to congress?  That we need to find some other method?”


“What other method?”

“It’s time we considered sortition.”



“What’s that?”

“A form of lottery.  Not a lottery in the sense of Power Ball or other state operated games of chance, but a lottery much like that used by court systems throughout the United States and other nations around the world to select impartial juries.”

“Talk about insanity.  You must be nuts to think there’s a chance that’ll ever fly around here.”

“Then let’s give up the charade, and admit that we’re not serious about democracy.  Sortition formed the foundation of democracy in ancient Athens.  It nourished the democratic roots of city states such as Florence and Venice during the Italian Renaissance.  It informed many political thinkers and democratic revolutionaries during the Enlightenment.  And it continues to this day as the foundation of impartial citizen jury selection the world over.  If we’re not even willing to consider sortition as a means of curing the debilitating ailment that is crippling our democracy, then it seems we’re just not serious about democracy.”

“OK.  Tell me more.”

“Well,  rather than my running much farther beyond where my knowledge can carry me, I suggest that you have a look at some of the excellent books and papers to be found among the Reference Materials listed in the sidebar, and/or the blogs listed under Blogroll (also in the sidebar).”


And, now that you have slogged through my 10 articles I would be interested to read whatever comments you might care to share, and respond as appropriate.   Just click on the “Comments” link at the bottom of this page.

Thanks, and best wishes.

— iGregor

Published in: on October 27, 2010 at 07:00  Comments (6)  
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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great piece, agree 100%, but as always the devil is in the details. You rightly draw an analogy between sortition and the selection of juries, the only problem being that juries are only one element, albeit a crucial one, in the conduct of a trial. What would be the equivalent, in your model, of the competing advocates (defence and prosecution) and who would determine whether or not the case came to trial? (“case” in this context being a legislative bill). And who would be responsible for executing the verdict?

    Apart from that I think you mean “sow” not “sew” and “lack of interest” rather than “disinterest” in an otherwise masterfully-crafted text.

    • Thanks, Keith. Concur w/your devil in the details comment. And concur that an impartially selected jury is only one crucial element of a trial case. But I don’t so much mean to suggest that a trial is perfect guide to how rectification of misrepresentative democracy might proceed. Rather I’m inferring, as many others before me, that we already make extensive use of sortition in the way we select impartial juries — which merely demonstrates that sortition is not as off-the-wall as might be thought on first examination.

      Thanks for the typo/editorial assists, too.

    • >What would be the equivalent, in your model, of the competing advocates (defence and prosecution) and who would determine whether or not the case came to trial? (“case” in this context being a legislative bill). And who would be responsible for executing the verdict?

      simply apply sortition. so from a pool of eligible lawyers allot the defense and prosecution counsels. from a pool of eligible judges, allot a judge. how are they assigned to cases now anyway? as for which cases to take, the AC should decide just as the supreme court decides which cases to hear. and of course, citizens can take ‘cases’ to the AC by referendum.

      • I didn’t intend that you should take the analogy quite so literally. What I was asking was who should decide on the agenda of the sovereign assembly, who should argue for and against the proposed legislative bills and then who should execute the will of the sovereign assembly? I think we need a more considered response than just “simply apply sortition”.

  2. What we have to do people, is get rid of this garbage in the house, and both parties and the Lobbyist, and funding, and gerrymandering districts. It is very simple to do this.

    Have each state change the way they CHOSE THERE REPRESENTATIVES, AND THE CONSTITUTION, doesn’t say HOW, only that they be CHOSEN and that is in the second paragraph of the Constitution. They should be Chosen by balLOT, By LOT, why because it is the most FAIR and Democratic,and HONEST way, Every State, and Every City and town that has a Court house uses it to select their Juries.

    We will have no more Rich and Super rich running our Government or Fat-Cat Corporations. It will only be you and me and the Citizens of the United States.

    By the way the word BALLOT really means Ball Lot, That is the way the Greeks Chose there Council of the 500.They wrote their Name on a ball, then dropped their ball into a big tub, and felt the Gods chose the winner. Democracy started by Election By Lot, and it is only fair to the Citizens of America That the States chose there Representatives by LOT!

    Democracy started this way, and now it’s time for America to follow, and have a SANE nation again.

    Once the House and the parties know we are after their ASS, then they might wake up.

  3. Interesting take on the etymology, but is it true? I think you might be conflating the balls used in Italy for registering a secret vote with the balls used in the Athenian lottery.

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