Against sortition

This is a short piece with some thoughts on sortition. It is not a fully fleshed out post yet, it may grow into an essay later.

As David van Reybrouck describes in his brilliant book Against Elections, citizen assemblies are an increasingly popular tool to formulate policy and regain citizens’ trust. However, we contend that citizen assemblies contain some fundamental flaws that mean they may well undermine our existing democratic structures, rather than strengthen them. They are unrepresentative unless the number of sortitioned citizens is so enormous to make meaningful dialogue next to impossible. And they set up an assembly with its own form of legitimacy, rivalrous to parliament, while it mainly repeats the flaws of our parliaments which we should fix. Sortition is more likely to exacerbate the problems with democracy than to solve them.

How does sortition work?

Citizen assemblies are typically appointed through sortition and depend on the strength of deliberative democracy to formulate policies. You randomly select a group of people, and you put them together. You provide these people with experts, who make various arguments and show various facts, and the assembly can discuss what the definition of the problem is, and what solutions may exist for this problem. 

Problems with sortition

I think there are multiple problems with sortition:

– A major, often overlooked issue, with is that with a small number of sortitioned citizens, the assembly is unlikely to be representative. Especially if people are allowed to drop out after having been sortitioned, the assembly is even less likely to be representative. Remember how well professional pollsters were at predicting the election of Trump and a majority voting for Brexit? Those estimates were based on massive samples, pooled together, sifted through for how representative they were, and they fundamentally failed to predict what citizens actually wanted. Why? Because getting representative samples is really hard, especially if people may decline to participate in the process. To ensure representativeness, 150 citizens just does not cut it. We can of course invite many citizens to a sortitioned assembly, and force them to attend (much like jury duty), but if the number of citizens gets too large, deliberation is no longer possible. To ensure that real deliberation takes place in a sortitioned assembly, one would need committees (just like in elected assemblies). These committees would be even smaller, and consequently even less representative.

– I do not think that the widespread lack of trust in parliament and government will be abated by introducing citizen assemblies. It is not the appointment process of our politicians which has gone awry, it is all the informal institutions, which we used to use between and around elections to create bonds of trust, accountability and good policy, which have atrophied. Think of parties, high quality journalism and civil society.

– Some supporters of citizen assemblies display, what I call, peak enlightenment liberalism: they believe that if we just put people together in a room, and let them deliberate to find the ‘reasonable’ solution, all will be well. The citizen assembly will announce the solution to the populace, and the populace will just accept the solution, because, after all, it is the ‘reasonable’ solution. This is not how politics works, and it completely ignores all those informal institutions and organizations (parties, media, civil society) I just mentioned. You know what all successful historical cases of sortitioned-based government have in common? They were all city states. So many social ties and a strong civil society which brought sortitioned rulers and citizens together existed, which helped citizens to influence policy-making and built trust among citizens that sortitioned legislators knew what they were doing. In this what the formal institutions (a sortitioned assembly) was built on and dependent on informal institutions. In polities the size of modern nation-states we cannot depend on such local informal networks. We need informal networks that tie the local into the national. This is one of the reasons political parties emerged. Sortition provides no platform for a similar development.

– Other supporters of sortitioned citizen assemblies correctly point out that communication about the assembly and its procedures is key to implement policies proposed by the citizen assembly. Citizens will only support the outcomes if they feel they have been part of the policy progress, and know why certain decisions were made. When this is lacking, citizen assemblies fail. 

– Ironically, this is exactly what is lacking in our parliamentary democracy now. We already have vehicles for including people in the policy process to build legitimacy: to repeat, mass media, civil society and political parties. However, those are failing, as supporters of sortitioned citizen assemblies point out, but citizen assemblies provide no alternative for them. Replacing the appointment mechanism of our representatives in the legislature is not going to rebuild those crucial informal institutions necessary for self-government. 

– If citizen assemblies become truly important, they may even further undermine these informal institutions. For instance, because policy decisions and career paths will no longer depend on the hard work of organising self-government (an interactive process between elites and citizens) within parties, but on what comes out of the citizen assemblies, political parties will stop being vehicles to unite people based on shared interests and preferences. Consequently, people will focus less of their attention there. However, we have no experience anywhere of modern mass democracy without political parties. Undermining them is a revolutionary move.

– Alternatively, citizen assemblies may be used, but be inconsequential, when the results are ignored by the government. In that case, having held a citizen assembly took a lot of time and effort, but it still undermines people’s trust in parliamentary government. After all, the citizen assembly is still a rival for legitimacy within the political system, ignoring it harms the legitimacy of parliament.


2 thoughts on “Against sortition

  1. Dear Joes,

    Thank you for starting us off on this subject. It’s a big and complicated subject, so even more than usual, it’s a bigger challenge to get started than to react to what someone has already said.

    1. Setting the terms of discussion
    As you explained, the essence of sortition is to assign office on the basis of random selection rather than election, co-optation, appointment, hereditary succession, etc. Sortition is not a new idea and was used most prominently in both legislative and judicial organisations of city states in ancient Greece and mediaeval to renaissance Italy, as well as in the judiciaries of many countries to this day.

    Though sortition has some use today, representative democracies have eschewed the use of sortition for policymaking bodies. The creation of ad-hoc sortition-selected bodies with largely or completely advisory power is a new phenomenon which has spread among democracies over the last few decades. It is these assemblies which I will call Citizens’ Assemblies. Together with the advent of these Citizens’ Assemblies have come calls for the establishment of more permanent sortition-selected bodies endowed with real formal powers, proposals which come as a reaction to representative democracies perceived failings in contemporary politics.

    As should already be clear, sortition can be used in a variety of ways that are quite distinct. To have a proper discussion about the merits of sortition, we need to define clearly what it is we’re talking about. We could talk about sortition as a selection method in general, but I feel like the variety of cases is too great to make many generalisations. One specific scenario would be the wholesale replacement of representative (i.e. elected) bodies with sortition-selected ones[1]. That would be a very different proposition from having some election-sortition hybrid, for example in a bicameral model. It’s even more different still from the common pattern of Citizens’ Assemblies, whose power has usually been no more than give advice (which could be ignored), with a few exceptions where their proposal was submitted to a binding referendum. Even in the case of those Citizens’ Assemblies, we could argue about their use in different ways (as you allude to) and in reaction to different subjects. Thus, even though it is clear from some of your arguments that you mainly mean to critique Citizens’ Assemblies, I would like to ask you to clarify a bit.

    2. Representativeness
    For now, I want to focus on one issue[2], which seems to be your biggest concern: representativeness. I certainly won’t doubt that modern citizens’ assemblies have not been on the scale that would be needed to satisfy polling standards or scientific studies, but I do think you make it very black and white. Representativeness is a spectrum: a body is not either representative or not, but can be more or less representative of a wider population. There are also as many yardsticks by which to measure representativeness as there are relevant differences between different people (actually, more, since different people will value different kinds of representativeness differently). So what yardstick(s) should we use? And how ‘representative’ is sufficient? Relative to what?

    It seems clear to me that citizen’s assemblies are the foil of elected assemblies –they are meant to complement them, to fill in where elected politicians come short. In the things for which ordinary people criticise modern legislators, a citizen’s assembly will certainly be more representative of the general population: for instance, sortition will mean fewer lawyers, fewer millionaires, no career politicians, and more young people. Indeed, the main argument for sortition in the ancient and mediaeval city-states was not representatives, but equality – sortition offered citizens an equal chance to take direct part in governing, whereas elections always advantage those who are already rich and powerful[3]. Moreover, women, minorities, and the poor are underrepresented in most country’s legislatures. Sortition will probably do better in most cases, even with just 150.

    Representativeness won’t be perfect in such a case, but is it reasonable to compare with perfection? In terms of public legitimacy, an assembly of 150 is likely to do just fine. Juries enjoy wide public acceptance around the world as part of the judiciary, even though they typically only consist of around a dozen people (and they wield actual power). If there is an issue with some particular dimension of representativeness, quotas or other mechanisms can be devised to ensure some descriptive representation aspect is done well, as is sometimes done with legislatures. The Brit. Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on electoral reform, for instance, was made up of one man and one woman from each district – ensuring both gender parity and geographic spread.

    Anyway, why care about representativeness? As I already pointed out, elected legislatures fail on all kind of measures of representativeness, often salient ones. If you would reply that legislatures have a different basis for legitimacy, that is probably true – election is said to confer a mandate or the consent of the governed, or at least to ‘represent’, but specifically with regard to ideology. If you think this basis for legitimacy is stronger than ‘representativeness’, make that argument. But if you argue for representativeness as being the best measure of a regime, you must measure legislatures by it as well. As I argued, sortition assemblies are probably going to score better.

    If you think both types of legitimation – ‘mandates’ and ‘representativeness’ have a claim, I would have thought complementing the elected legislature with one chosen by sortition could be a great compromise, a ‘best of both worlds’. From this perspective, one could perhaps critique it by saying it offers the sortitioned chamber too little formal power. Some of your arguments feel like they tend in this direction (you can tell me if you agree or not!), for example saying that politicians can just ignore a citizen’s assembly’s recommendations. Is that really an argument against sortition in general?
    This train of thought takes us back to where I began: we first need to set the terms of the discussion. I’ll leave the choice to you – I only ask that you be very clear about it. I have more to say, but I’ll leave it until my next reply.


    [1] something few have proposed, but is still worth mentioning
    [2] An issue that happens to be relevant to all forms and uses of sortition, so it seemed particularly appropriate.
    [3]Bernard Manin’s 1996 ‘Principles of Representative Government’ is the book to read on this topic


  2. Dear JD,

    Thank you for your comment. To start, let me clarify why I care about a particular type of representation, namely ‘preferential representation. First and foremost, I think legislatures are bodies which make collective decisions. I think that collective decisions should align with the preferences of the electorate. ‘Performative representativeness’, i.e. people looking like the electorate are in the assembly, means fairly little to me, if it leads to policy that is not aligned with what voters want. There are a ton of white cis-gendered heterosexual men with college degrees in Dutch parliament, yet I do not feel represented well. I think the risk of serious misalignment is very high unless the sortitioned assembly is too large to allow deliberation. Such a large assembly would then have to be sorted into smaller sub-committees, which would massively increase the risk of misalignment of preferences again. Making the collective decision-makers more representative in terms of personal characteristics is something I am definitely not against, but it should not come at the expense of the alignment of policy with preferences. Does this clarify my stance?

    Your second question is then, how could we measure representativeness? This is, of course, a difficult question, but one that supporters of sortition would also have to answer. Conceptually, my interpretations were laid down above. Empirically it is a harder question to answer. Measuring preferences is impossible, we can at most deduce them. Surveys could play a role in this, although I think they are not very good at it. Elections are themselves a way to measure preferences, and because there is skin in the game, perhaps they reveal preferences. All this makes it hard to say: oh, that’s 9 representative, which is more than the 6 representative we see over there. However, assuming there is a certain distribution of preferences in a population, we know that a small sample will be bad at approximating that distribution. Meanwhile, a proportional electoral system will be much better at approximating that distribution, I think. What do you think?

    However, my main issue with sortition is not actually its lack of representativeness of preferences. It is that I do not think it solves the problems many liberal democracies face, while coming with potential risks. The ‘vehicles for including people in the policy process to build legitimacy’ are atrophying. The main reason electoral democracies fail to be representative, is when this happens. Sortition offers no solutions for this problem, if anything, it may undermine these informal institutions and networks. That is my main worry.


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