Sorting out sortition

The predictably low turnout of the UK’s recent local elections highlights the extent of Britain’s ongoing democratic deficit. Solving this by sortition - in which the populace are called upon to govern via a lottery - has been disregarded as a naive and idealistic fantasy. But Matt Hall argues this solution is more valuable and viable than its critics have suggested. 

‘Britain’s political system is plainly in trouble. Even the majority who regard our country as democratic think Parliament fails to do its job properly. Most of us think the wrong people have too much power, and the right people tell lies.’ YouGov, Democracy on Trial, March 2012

Tony Curzon has recently argued that such fundamental flaws in British democracy should compel voters to ‘re-occupy the political system’ and wrest the helm from the ‘power-addled apparatchiks’ of political parties and professional politicians. The recent YouGov survey into the travails of parliamentary democracy, suggests that many concur, but how would ordinary Britons start on such a daunting task?

One solution that has been growing in support, in numerous political contexts (See The Athenian Option), is the replacement of elections and politicians with the random selection of ordinary people, people like you, to play a role in governing our local areas, cities and the country as a whole – a system known as sortition. There is a small collection of studies from the 17th Century On the Nature and Use of Lots to OurKingdom author Keith Sutherland's Peoples Parliament, published by imprint books in the series on Sortition and Public Policy.

Although a seemingly radical measure, criminally low turnouts in recent local elections in Britain, and the growing public perception that democracy in its current form is no longer delivering, must force us to examine an alternative which offers numerous benefits, including: the instant engagement of the populace in politics, representation of the views of the people as a whole rather than simply those of the elite, and the introduction of a selection process for political office that cannot be manipulated by money, power or status.

Despite the obvious benefits, unlike the various guises of voting reform or increasing the number of referenda, sortition has never been considered a serious antidote to the ills of electoral democracy. Too radical say some. Too naive say others. Familiar complaints, but is this really the case? In this article I'd like to provide some counterpoints to the main arguments against sortition.

1.Sortition would select individuals without the skills to fulfil political office

Political office is about making decisions. Decision making is based on values, interests and aims, not upon a unique set of professional skills. The role of those in power is to sift through evidence and expert advice and make strategic decisions about the future. Public juries made of ordinary men and women have been making decisions about evidence in Britain’s judicial system since the 13th Century. Sortition would simply extend such a system into British politics. The competency of ‘ordinary’ individuals in decision making is not simply theoretical, but is backed up by current research which shows that a) random collections of ‘limited ability’ individuals outperform the problem solving abilities of collections of the ‘very best’ individuals b) that a diversity of abilities significantly reduces group decision making errors. Indeed, trials of decision making in randomly selected groups in Britain & the United States, Australia, and China have in fact demonstrated that with deliberation, ordinary people are more than capable of making nuanced, intelligent, political decisions.

2. By abolishing the election sortition would render political officers unaccountable

Sortition shifts the focus from retrospective punishment through the ballot box – ‘punishment’ when the damage of poor decisions made for the benefit of vested interests is long since irreparable - to making better, more representative decisions in the first instance. Under sortition, political officers would be a) more competent at decision making (see above) b) instantly more representative of the populace at large and c) therefore more likely to act in line with the public interest.

With the random selection of political officers, rule by a wealthy elite beholden to the unaccountable forces of party doctrine and big business would be rendered a thing of the past. At a stroke this would improve the ethics of politics, with evidence from the United States suggesting that people with less wealth are less prone to lying, cheating and stealing than the wealthy elite. In instances of poor decision making by the political officers selected at random, the individuals would of course face the judgement of their peers and communities. But as a randomly selected body would more closely reflect the will of the people, poor decision making would be a collective error.

With sortition, the very notion of political accountability would begin to shift away from blame of distant others towards shared responsibility.

3. Sortition would require compulsion of unenthusiastic participants

4. Sortition would entail serous disruption to people’s lives

5. Sortition would require large organisational changes in the structure of governance in Britain

The remaining common arguments against sortition are largely complaints against the logistics of implementing the system, rather than the legitimacy of the system itself. More than 400,000 people are selected at random for jury service each year in the UK. The judicial system has effective processes for briefing and summoning participants, maintaining the enthusiasm and conduct of participants and managing disruptions by allowing deferral of duty for personal circumstances. It would take a large organisational change, but similar processes could be instigated in local, regional and national politics, as well as processes for selecting a statistically representative number of people (<1000 for a national body), determining periods of service, defining the methods for introducing policies for debate. The deficiency is not in the system of sortition but in the political will needed to implement such changes.

Rather than its radical nature or naivety, the real barrier to sortition is the fact that elected bodies are simply not interested in dissolving the political power which their members have individually and collectively accumulated. For sortition to be seriously considered as an alternative to our current predicament those of us who wish to revivify the political system need to collectively find ways for overcoming this Catch-22 scenario. In this task we can be heartened by, and learn from, the slow rise of sortition in other democracies around the globe, including the employment of sortition in Australia, Belgium and Iceland, and the single issue parties which are emerging to champion sortition at the ballot box in Canada and Spain.

You might think that such strategies have minimal chances of success in local or national politics in Britain, but bear in mind that in the recent local elections less than a third of those eligible to vote bothered to cast their ballots. In the 2010 general election a whopping 16 million people abstained from voting. I'm no polling expert, but I'm sure that’s enough disaffected people to garner serious support for a system which would really hand back power to the people. 

About the author

Matt Hall is a writer and researcher at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia.