Athenian democracy developed in the 6th century BC out of what was then called isonomia (equality of law and political rights), and sortition was the principal way of achieving this fairness. Also in Ancient Greek mythology, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades used sortition to determine who ruled over which domain. Zeus got the sky, Poseidon the sea, and Hades the underworld. It was used to pick most of the magistrates for their governing committees, and for their juries (typically of 501 people). Aristotle relates equality and democracy:
Democracy arose from the idea that those who are equal in any respect are equal absolutely. All are alike free, therefore they claim that all are free absolutely… The next is when the democrats, on the grounds that they are all equal, claim equal participation in everything.
It is accepted as democratic when public offices are allocated by lot; and as oligarchic when they are filled by election.
In Athens, “democracy” (literally meaning rule by the people) was in opposition to those supporting oligarchy (rule by a few). Athenian democracy was characterised by being run by the “many” (the ordinary people) who were allotted to the committees which ran government. Thucydides has Pericles make this point in his Funeral Oration: “It is administered by the many instead of the few; that is why it is called a democracy.”
The Athenians believed sortition to be more democratic than elections and used complex procedures with purpose-built allotment machines (kleroteria) to avoid the corrupt practices used by oligarchs to buy their way into office. According to the author Mogens Herman Hansen the citizen’s court was superior to the assembly because the allotted members swore an oath which ordinary citizens in the assembly did not and therefore the court could annul the decisions of the assembly. Both Aristotle and Herodotus (one of the earliest writers on democracy) emphasize selection by lot as a test of democracy:
The rule of the people has the fairest name of all, equality (isonomia), and does none of the things that a monarch does. The lot determines offices, power is held accountable, and deliberation is conducted in public.
Past scholarship maintained that sortition had its roots in the use of chance to divine the will of the gods, but this view is no longer common among scholars.
Northern Italy and Venice 12th to 18th Century
The brevia was used in the city states of Northern Italy during the 12th and 13th centuries and in Venice up until the late 18th century. Men, chosen randomly, swore an oath that they were not acting under bribes, and then they elected members of the council. Voter and candidate eligibility probably included property owners, councilors, guild members, and perhaps, at times, artisans. The Doge of Venice was determined through a complex process of nomination, voting and sortition.
Florence 14th and 15th Century
The scrutiny was employed in Florence for over a century starting in 1328. Nominations and voting together created a pool of candidates from different sectors of the city. These men then had their names deposited into a sack, and a lottery draw determined who would get magistracy positions. The scrutiny was gradually opened up to minor guilds, reaching the greatest level of renaissance citizen participation in 1378-82.
Recognizing that financial gain could be achieved through the position of mayor, some parts of Switzerland used random selection from 1640 to 1837.
In the political realm, sortition occurs most commonly in order to form policy juries, such as deliberative opinion polls, citizens’ juries, Planungszelle (planning cells), consensus conferences, and citizens’ assemblies. As an example, Vancouver council has initiated a citizens’ assembly that will meet in 2014-15 in order to assist in city planning.
Sortition is commonly used in selecting juries in Anglo-Saxon legal systems and in small groups (e.g., picking a school class monitor by drawing straws). In public decision-making, individuals are often determined by allotment if other forms of selection such as election fail to achieve a result. Examples include certain hung elections and certain votes in the UK Parliament. Some contemporary thinkers have advocated a greater use of selection by lot in today’s political systems for example reform of the British House of Lords and proposals at the time of the adoption of the current Constitution of Iraq.
Sortition is also used in military conscription and in awarding US green cards. It has also been used in placing students into public schools, into one California nursing college, and into schools of medicine in the Netherlands.