Modern sortition

Modern sortition proposals and their problems

This essay is available in Journal of Public Deliberation:

Modern sortition proposals A number of modern advocates of deliberative democracy have proposed a variety of sortition schemes. Many of these proposals have been for one-off or advisory bodies (Dienel 1995; Dahl 1989; Crosby 1986; Fishkin 2009), while others have proposed schemes to institutionalize randomly selected deliberative bodies, often with genuine decision-making authority (Burnheim 1985; 5 Bouricius: Democracy Through Multi-Body SortitionCallenbach and Phillips 1985; Gastil 2000; Carson 1999, 2005; Gollop 2007; Leib 2004; O’Leary 2006; Sutherland 2008; Zakaras 2011). All of these plans seek to increase genuine deliberation, increase descriptive representation, and reduce corruption. They also seek to overcome rational voter ignorance, recognizing that in most elections, the chance that one’s vote will actually change the outcome is so remote that it is irrational to spend time or effort learning about the candidates or issues.

Most of these authors have proposed systems that include only one randomly selected body. There are some exceptions. John Gastil and Robert Richards have proposed a multi-body sortition model utilizing up to five distinct bodies, to add elements of democratic deliberation to the existing initiative referendum process in various U.S. states (Gastil 2012). Aubin Calvert and Mark E. Warren advocate multiple single-issue minipublics (Calvert 2012), and Lyn Carson and Janette Hartz-Karp discuss the concept of linking more than one deliberative method into a combined system, noting that the deliberative democrat “Luigi Bobbio, on one occasion, suggested the possibility of convening two [Citizen Juries] on the same topic with each jury having a different composition – one for activists and one for randomly-selected citizens to assess their respective outcomes” (Carson 2006).

John Burnheim’s landmark book, Is Democracy Possible?, describes a system he calls “demarchy,” composed entirely of randomly selected bodies divided by functional area (Burnheim 1985). He also proposes separate “higherlevel bodies” that would oversee and provide a legal framework for the policymaking bodies to settle disputes. This concept of meta-legislative bodies, which do not initiate or make policy decisions, is one of the springboards for the model I propose.

Motivation to participate

Any proposed system that requires an increase in the amount of citizen participation, as this one does, must respond to the question of whether there would be sufficient motivation among broad swaths of the population to participate. After all, only a minority of citizens is willing to vote in most American elections, and that requires relatively minimal time and effort. New England communities that still have town meetings also see only a fraction of 6 The term “descriptive representation” refers to representatives who “look like” those they represent. I do not mean merely race or sex, but also interests, life experiences, and beliefs like those being represented. 7 Other negative psychological aspects of voting in mass elections (Caplan 2007; Westen 2007) are also of concern, and may be addressed through smaller group deliberation. 8 I am referring to completely separate bodies, rather than a committee of a larger body. The British Columbia Citizen’s Assembly, for example, used a random selection process to select committees within the larger assembly (Herath 2007). 6 Journal of Public Deliberation, Vol. 9 [2013], Iss. 1, Art. 11 their citizens attending. The competing uses for personal time in modern society, and the “unattractiveness” of politics to most people, raise serious questions about the viability of any such democratic undertaking, especially one centered on deliberation and broad participation (Warren 1996). Even in Classical Athens, democracy was an activity only of that (relatively large) portion of the citizenry who chose to participate. The goal with this plan is to go Athens one better, and include the general population, rather than merely those who are eager to participate.

The (testable) assumption I make here, is that most citizens would readily participate for a set period of time, with appropriate compensation, in a process in which they believed their input really mattered (unlike mass elections). This democratic process would bear almost no relationship to “politics” as we know it today. While the high levels of satisfaction reported by participants in various deliberative processes, such as the BC Citizens’ Assembly, or the Danish Consensus Conferences (Fischer 2009), may be misleading (since these were randomly selected from among those who already said they were interested), being one of those “selected” has the potential to overcome the “rational ignorance” problem of mass elections. Just as jurors in court systems may complain about the nuisance of serving, they almost universally take the job seriously. Indeed, many jurors go away with a heightened sense of citizenship (Matthews 2004). The system described below also seeks to accommodate varying levels of willingness to commit personal time to self-governance. The largest portion of participants would commit a very limited time – say, no more than a week.

Five dilemmas of sortition design

All of the single-body sortition proposals face five dilemmas – five pairs of opposing objectives – which can’t be reconciled with only one type of body.

  1. There is a conflict between maximizing descriptive representativeness, versus maximizing interest and commitment among members of a deliberative body. In Deliberative Democracy in America, Leib seeks to maximize descriptive representativeness and avoid the bias of “participatory distortion” by insisting on mandatory service as in a jury or draft (Leib 2004) Others put more priority on assuring interest and motivation. Their designs tend more towards volunteerism, or a lottery of the willing.
  2. There is a conflict between increasing participation and resistance to corruption through short terms of office, versus maximizing participants’ expertise or familiarity with the issues under consideration through longer or repeat terms.
  3. There is the conflict between giving every citizen the right to speak (self-selection) – offering agenda items, information and arguments for the 7 Bouricius: Democracy Through Multi-Body Sortitiondeliberative process (isegoria), versus the danger that the self-selection of those most motivated to speak will promote domination by special interests and steer outcomes away from the common good.
  4. There is a conflict between wanting a diverse body that engages in problem solving through active deliberation, versus independent personal assessment (“private deliberation”) that taps the “wisdom of crowds” and avoids information cascades, which can shut out private knowledge. There is persuasive research showing the value of cognitive diversity for problem solving, but also the value of independent, private assessment of information (Page 2007; Landemore 2012; Lorenz 2011; Surowiecki 2004). Group deliberations can also suffer from deference to high status members or group solidarity, leading either to groupthink or polarization. (Sunstein 2005)
  5. Finally, there is a conflict between maximizing democratic power by allowing a deliberative body to set its own agenda, draft its own bills, and vote on them, versus avoiding the bundling of issues, with the resulting vote-swapping, as well as arbitrary decisions arising from the persuasive powers of a few unrepresentative charismatic members (Sutherland 2008). These five dilemmas (and proposed resolutions) are summarized in Table 1 in the conclusion section.

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