The End of Career Politicians? Restoring Democracies Through “Sortition.”

Let’s be honest with ourselves. We like living in a democracy. It makes us feel as if we have the power to elect people who represent us and kick them out if they fail at their jobs. We believe democracies as we see today protect us from extremisms through law, human rights, and international collaborations. You and I both like living in a democracy. That’s why when Brett Henning asked an auditorium full of people at his TEDx Talk to raise their hands if they like living in a democracy, he got all hands going up. But when he asked a follow up question, “who thinks our democracies are functioning well,” it was hard to see any hand go up. Instead, people looked at each other and chuckled at reality.

So we love living in a democracy, but we don’t believe that our democracies are functioning well. Why is that? Let’s dig deep.

I mean that it is thought to be democratic for the offices to be assigned by lot. – For them to be elected (assigned by vote) is oligarchic” – Aristotle.

That’s because the democracies we live in right now are flawed, unrepresentative, and are influenced by cultural and economic forces powerful than the common people. The democracies that we live in right now are Oligarchies.

Inefficiencies and flaws of Oligarchies (Our Democracies)

  1. They are not representative. – If you take democracies and people in those governments around the world, they are hardly representative of the people they represent. If you take the United States House of Representatives, for example, they are more than 80% white and they spend around four hours per day on the phone, asking people for money. Unlike most other telemarketers, they have a median net worth of almost $900,000. More than a third of them hold law degrees. (Daily Beast, 2014). Remember when Senators asked the CEO of Facebook what Whatsapp is? They don’t even understand what the next generation is asking for, but they often tokenize youth participation for political gain.
  2. External cultural and economic forces influence their decisions. – A common flaw of our democracies is the capacity in which organized corporations and groups lobby our governments to do what they want. In return for political gain, campaign funding, and endorsements, the representatives we “elect” are influenced to do bidding at the will of those lobbyists. They can hardly concentrate on achieving the aggregate requests of the people they are supposed to represent. Here, legitimacy is undermined and accountability is depreciated.
  3. Only the “selected few” run for election. – People running for office are a special, rare kind (not always necessarily in a good way). They have the capacity to absorb funding, be vocal about what they want to achieve, and even have the resources to play the game of politics to climb up the ladder. In this whole process, their concentration is on gaining political space and not necessarily on what’s best for the people they represent. In some countries (like Sri Lanka) they usually get ranks if they have political connections and the ability to get away after thuggery.
  4. Accountability is so low. – In most of the democracies around the world, a staggering number of politicians make a lavish lifestyle out of being a politician. They not only abuse their power but also spend public funds at their will to do the personal bidding. Worst of it all is that they keep running for re-election and when they don’t keep their promises, people don’t have a direct way of holding them accountable. If they become the extreme opposites of what people wanted them to be, the general public is going to have to hold on to their skirts until the next election, which can be far away and expensive to host. Because they make a career out of it, it almost turns into a monarchy – now you have their children running for election using the platform and resources of their parents.
  5. Public participation is almost non-existent. –  The representatives we elect compile laws and ratify actions without the opinion of the public. In fact, it’s merely impossible for the public to participate in these discussions from a practical standpoint. You can’t expect an entire country to walk into a meeting and give their opinion. Because the legislatures are not representative of the people they represent, the laws become unsustainable and partisan.
  6. Competency isn’t guaranteed. – The competency of the people running for office isn’t guaranteed. In fact, although social media and other technological advances try to give us as much information about the candidates and their competencies as possible, the public gets blindsided most of the time by strong political movements. Facts about important global issues like education, healthcare, and refugee crisis are always manipulated. Most of the time it is either that or the voter doesn’t really seem too interested to go the extra mile to research about the candidate. So in present-day democracies, we have no guarantee that we elect the most competent people to represent us.

So in essence, democracy as we see it is flawed. I think you and I knew this already. But what is the solution? “A” solution that exists (with its own set of disadvantages of course), is “Sortition.” Sortition is the use of random selection to populate assemblies or fill political positions. An assembly that uses sortition would be composed of people just like you and me: it would be a representative random sample of people, making decisions in an informed, fair and deliberative setting. (Sortition Foundation, 2018). Sortition is built on a foundation with three specific principles;  the random selection of citizens for public offices, based on the principle of equality; the lottery to pick out members of the popular jury (still in use nowadays), aiming for impartiality; and finally the opinion polls that give a representativeness of the population through a representative sample. (Courant, 2017). Sortition may sound a little stupid – I know what you’re thinking. But let’s dig a little deeper into that subject too.

History of Sortition

Sortition has a long history, going back at least to Ancient Athens, where selection by lot (from among all free, male citizens) was the principal way courts and councils were filled. For hundreds of years it was considered a fundamental aspect of democracy; it wasn’t until long after the French and American revolutions, as universal suffrage slowly became widespread, that the term “democracy” was re-christened to mean electoral democracy. Athenian democracy developed around the fifth century BC in the Greek city-state (known as a polis) of Athens, comprising the city of Athens and the surrounding territory of Attica, and is often described as the first known democracy in the world. Other Greek cities set up democracies, most following the Athenian model, but none are as well documented as Athens. It was a system of direct democracy, in which participating citizens voted directly on legislation and executive bills. (Wikipedia for definition). The Athenians considered sortition to be an especially democratic way of choosing certain decision-makers. They took their political lotteries so seriously that they used a special machine, called a kleroterion, to make the process harder to corrupt. (Daily Beast, 2014).

Here is how sortition will work. When it’s time to put together the government, eligible and participating citizens will be grouped into representative sample clusters. Then, from those representative clusters you pick out (randomly) people and they are your legislatures and representatives.

Advantages of Sortition

  1. Impartial and incorruptible. – Because eligible and participating citizens are selected from a representative cluster randomly, no one can bribe them or influence them to do someone else’s bidding. In fact, until they are selected from the “machine” (however we choose to pick people randomly) no one will know who is getting selected. This also allows anyone who is willing and able to run for office and participate in sortition, enabling more participation of the public in government. Since everyone is equal, your peers will be selected to represent you. Impartiality appears as the most obvious quality of sortition, “the blind justice”. This is probably why the oldest use of random selection still existing nowadays is the popular jury. Impartiality is also the main principle justifying sortition for citizens’ conferences, particularly on techno-scientific issues. (Courant, 2017).
  2. Selections are extremely representative. – As your random sample gets larger, you tend to get closer and closer to a sample that mirrors, in almost every respect, the qualities of the entire population. More than any other system, random sampling gives you “an exact portrait of the people at large.” It’s the Law of Large Numbers. (Courant, 2017). If the world is a government, sortition will, almost always choose more millennials, less older people, and proportionately to population percentages, men and women.
  3. It avoids unnecessary political divide and contributes to political peace. – Sortition makes competition, or partisan strategy pointless, opposite to election based on
    those. For this quality, “the peace producing virtue of exteriority”, (Courant, 2017) lots were used in Italian republics, as conflict resolution procedure, in order to avoid “the violent tearing created by the open electoral competition”. The most cleaving selection mode is indeed election, even more than nomination or certification. Lots are uncontestable and avoid electoral campaigns, demagogy, and factions. The absence of partiality and of parties create a representative that do not bargains core values, important policies or general interest for seats; which is often what is reproached to coalition or unions’ negotiation. Moreover, the professionalization of politics leads to a trend of politicians whom all look like another. They are going by the rules and codes of their closed circles and are becoming predictable. (Courant, 2017).
  4. Public empathy is restored. – Because sortition enables us to select a representative sample of a country to the government, they are a greater potential for those in government to then understand the needs of the people they represent. They’ve lived a normal life before and now as representatives, they have a duty to do for each other. Even though public participation is still a practical issue, at least the representative sample of society in government will not be as lost with what’s going on in the ground (with the common people).
  5. Accountability is restored and career politics destroyed. – Through Sortition, there is a higher chance that a group of individuals selected for the government once will not be selected again, at least for a significant amount of time. Because of this, after 1-2 years the people in government will have to return to their normal lives and daily jobs. Through sortition, representatives are not only held accountable while in office (through a citizen-run assembly) but is also personally influenced to represent the best interests of the population or otherwise to face rejection once their tenure is over. Accountability and legitimacy are restored because the people in government are similar, they are independent of other influences, and they are our peers, so they are not superior.

Disadvantages of Sortition

  1. Won’t work for all government branches. – The biggest disadvantage of sortition is that it might not work for all branches of government. There are other branches of government (except for legislature) that are highly selective and demands high intellect. As an example, selecting random people to the Supreme Court, or to be President of a country can count as a disaster.
  2. Competency isn’t guaranteed. – Through sortition, competency isn’t guaranteed. Sortition picks random people off of a representative sample without giving any thought to their educational, personal, and professional backgrounds. The world is a complex structure and governing a country requires a certain level of understanding of the relevant “sciences.” How can someone randomly chosen, be competent enough to negotiate international trade deals and steer a country through an economic crisis? But something important we need to keep in mind is that through election/nomination democracies, we have the same problem – in fact, we are living the consequences of the same problem. Competence isn’t guaranteed and more often, incompetence is the case.

Sortition takes place as we speak!

Sortition is actually not an alien concept. Sortition happens in sub-units of our society as you literally read this article. Remember when your middle/high school teacher put all the names of the students in a basket and drew out a name and appointed them class monitor? This idea was put in practice many times and more broadly thousands, of experiments based on sortition and deliberation have and are currently happening all across the globe as well: the Plannungzelle in Berlin, the Citizen Assembly on Electoral Reform in British Columbia (2004), and Ontario (2006), and the first steps of the Icelandic process to change its Constitution (2010). One of the last is the Irish Constitutional Convention (ICC) where 66 “ordinary” citizens and 33 members of parliament worked to propose changes on the Constitution and present them to referendum, the one on same sex-marriage being approved in May 2015. (Courant, 2017). Oh also, not to mention that we already use sortition to select an important deliberative body, the trial jury. That jury summonses that you get in the mail? Blame the Athenians. (Daily Beast, 2014).

So what is it? Will sortition teach us a thing or two from history and lead us forward into the future and make the world more peaceful and our governments more representative?


“Doing Democracy Differently” – Sortition Foundation. (19 October 2018).

“Is it time to take a chance on random representatives?” The Daily Beast. (19 October 2018).

“Thinking Sortition Modes of selection, deliberative framework, and democratic principles.” Dimitri Courant.
Courant%20Dimitri%2C%20Thinking%20Sortition%2C%20version%20PSA%2C%2011%20A5%2C%202017.03_0.pdf (19 October 2018).

“Can ‘sortition’ sort out the problem of political ignorance?” The Washington Post. (19 October 2018)