Why Not Replace Election with Sortition?

Posted on December 6, 2017


by Hoon Hee Lee

“The appointment of magistrates by lot is thought to be democratic and the election of them oligarchic.” — Aristotle[1]


It seemed as if the world leaders had finally come to their senses when they ratified the Paris Agreement, before it was all too late to save the drowning polar bears and ourselves. “A monumental triumph,” said the former Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon. But Donald Trump, whose electoral victory shocked the world, shocked us again when his government declared withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. He nominated Kathleen Hartnett White, who denies the reality of climate change, as environmental advisor to answer the dumbfounded experts and the public. According to a Gallup poll, 68 percent of Americans believe that global warming is caused by human activities. How can a government in a country — that touts itself as the vanguard of democracy — make an unsupported, myopic political decision to happily stay as the world’s second greatest polluter? The answer lies in the electoral representative democracy.


I once believed that election was synonymous with democracy, and many still do. Stamping my political will onto the ballot gave me an enormous — enormously naïve — sense of pride as a citizen, participating in the making of our history. Alexis de Tocqueville would say that what I had experienced is a brief “[emergence] for a moment of dependency in order to indicate [my] master, and return to it”. Elections, in other words, perpetuate the illusion that I, as of the people, am a sovereign.[2]


The basic meaning of democracy is ‘governance by the people.’ In an elected representative democracy, the people exercise their political power in the form of periodic voting, and the representative is expected to carry out the will of the people either by reflecting their preferences in policymaking or by thinking in their best interest. Representative democracy has been preferred over direct democracy because, theoretically, the former selects the more competent elites to make good decisions while the latter does not discriminate the ignorant and the incompetent. But is it true that the elected representative democracy represents the people’s will and also produces better political results?


The elected government is supposed to be held accountable by the people through evaluating its performances and utilising the voting mechanism. However, in modern societies, the capacity of the mass to hold the government accountable has significantly diminished, because of the complex nature of political issues. If a political issue requires complex knowledge and expertise, there would be widespread ignorance and inability to evaluate the soundness of government decisions. And since most of today’s political problems are indeed “information intensive”, individuals tend to succumb to “rational ignorance” and rely on the government at the cost of meaningful government accountability.[3] And when the actual government performance is untethered from the public scrutiny, the representative’s power becomes more lucrative for groups with powerful interests and far easier for them to capture.[4] These economic giants exercise more than their fair share of political influence on government decisions by funding political campaigns (and bribing in countries like South Korea).


According to a study done by Gilens and Page, economic elites and lobby groups have more impact on the U.S. policymaking while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have “little or no independent influence.”[5] This is exactly what had occured when the U.S. government dropped the bomb. The 22 senators who urged President Trump to withdraw from the Paris Agreement had been funded by oil, coal and gas industries the sum of $10,694,284. And Republican candidates, in the past three electoral cycles, have received at least $90 million untraceable money from these industries, the biggest losers from climate change policies. Hence, I doubt whether a representative democracy truly operates for the general interest of the people in a capitalist state.


The electoral mechanism presents another related challenge to democracy — short-sightedness. While the corruption by the economic giants arises from the marriage of democracy to capitalism, short-sightedness is inherent in the electoral system. According to Joseph Schumpeter, representative democracy is simply a system driven by political competition between parties. Naturally, the majority of politicians prioritise party interest over that of the nation. Policy areas are treated as mere “battlegrounds” for defending policies or criticising oppositions, which generates inefficiency and gridlocks as has been the case for the much needed healthcare bill in the U.S.[6] Secondly, short electoral cycles divert the attention of politicians away from issues with long-term implications like the climate change.[7] It would be more profitable for the politicians to address the immediate short-term interests of the voters. Additionally, newly elected governments tend to overturn progress made by their former government, just because —

[IMAGE – cartoon person overturning a table]

The problems of modern electoral representative democracy is clear: it fails to represent the people and deliver good results in the long-run.


Ancient Athens may offer a solution for us: sortition. Yes, I suggest as an alternative a government made up of randomly-selected legislators who would serve for a short period of time to deliberate together with the help of the experts, whose only task is to provide useful information. The idea is that the political decision of the members would, hypothetically, represent what the conclusion of any given citizens would have been, had they gone through the same process of informed deliberation. Of the many advantages that sortition provides, I shall highlight three main features: prevention of corruption, representation, and deliberation.


Ancient Athenian government was divided into various bodies, largely filled by utilising a lottery system. Then, the Athenians were aware that elections were “inherently aristocratic” since only those with wealth and status could get elected. On the other hand, sortition was perceived to be characteristically democratic.[8]


The Council of 500 (boule) had the power to set the agendas, the Legislative Panels (nomothetai) of 1001 citizens approved proposals, and People’s Court (dikasteria) ruled over the People’s Assembly. All were filled by randomly selected citizens. The sortitive system reflects two important political principles of the Athenians — the principle of political equality (isonomia) and the right to speak and contribute (isegoria).[9] Rather than manifesting a political stance through a single vote, the Athenian citizen could contribute their argument to the public debate. It is important to note that not all citizens were meant to participate in every single decisions, but they had the equal chance to serve in the public office. This, as Terril Bouricius comments, is “fundamentally different from the extremely unequal chance of being elected to political office through election.”[10] Likewise, sortition system proposed here should be distinguished from the simple mass participation democracy.


There are numerous models of sortition proposed by contemporary scholars. And one feature is that selected members serve for a relatively short-term, staggered rotating membership.[11] For example, two halves of the legislature would be replaced at different times to ensure that new members could be advised by the more experienced. The very “arational” (not irrational)[12] randomness of the system is an effective measure against the corrupting influence of powerful economic elites that usually occurs during the selection process in an electoral democracy. Because there is no way to anticipate the selected members, the elites cannot buy them with campaign fundings. And it would be extremely expensive to buy them during their terms because members are constantly replaced by fresh faces. Thus, if the economic giants wish to control the country as they do now, they are forced to shift their tactics to influencing the public. However, it is even more costly to brainwash the mass that, by luck, some selected members would reflect the corporate’s desire. Furthermore, it is more difficult to manipulate people’s views on “unsexy” policy issues — to which they would not pay attention in their normal daily lives — than their opinions on a candidate’s showmanship.[13]


Second, the mechanism of sortition catches two birds with a single stone by producing descriptive representation, which then greatly enhances its deliberative outcome. The law of large number predicts that the body would eventually reflect the proportion of the populace if there are regular selections.[14] Descriptive representation addresses the various interests existing in the diverse society, and would empower the minorities that are being neglected by the political community today. As Mansbridge suggests, representation of minorities would send out a powerful social message that political minorities, such as women, are also capable of ruling. The government would also gain greater legitimacy from these groups due to having their interests represented.[15]


Lastly, the diversity of perspectives that the lottery generates is one of the most important, positive asset for deliberative democracy and an answer to the elitist skepticism of the people’s competency. It utilises the principle of the “wisdom of the multitude”. The main feature of “lottocracy” is that the randomly selected members would deliberate to reach a decision, free from factionalism. According to the findings of Hong and Page, “when selecting a problem-solving team from a diverse population of intelligent agents, a team of randomly selected agents outperforms a team comprised of the best-performing agents.”[16] In short, “average intelligence trumps ability”, because elites tend to lack cognitive diversity. The only condition is that the pool of selection be large enough. Therefore, it is not necessarily true that choosing elites to govern would lead to better policies. And with party politics and corporate influences, the competency of these political elites bears little relevance to the wellbeing of the country.


As a viable alternative system to election, sortition has been slowly but steadily gaining recognition. For example, Ontario and British Columbia in Canada have utilised this mechanism to form committees on electoral reform. And recently, Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly of 75 randomly selected members drafted a climate change policy proposal that calls for drastic environmental measures to be approved by Ireland’s government. The positive experience of the members and their active engagement should be noted. But more importantly, as the proponents of sortition predict, Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly were able to design policies with long-term outlook, sorely needed to tackle environmental disaster.


Someone once joked that democracy is only useful for replacing a ruler without having to kill him or her. There is some bitter truth to this joke. It is high time to return to the true meaning of democracy; it is about the people governing themselves, not about electing political elites. Democracy can move beyond Schumpeter’s minimalist democracy by creating a normatively and substantively superior government through sortition.






Aristotle. (1905). Aristotle’s Politics. Oxford :Clarendon Press.

Bouricius, T. G. (2013). Democracy through multi-body sortition: Athenian lessons for the modern day. Journal of Public Deliberation, 9(1)

Dowlen, O. (2009), Sorting Out Sortition: A Perspective on the Random Selection of Political Officers. Political Studies, 57: 298–315. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9248.2008.00746.x

Guerrero, A. A. (2014), Against Elections: The Lottocratic Alternative. Philos Public Aff, 42: 135–178. doi:10.1111/papa.12029

Landemore, H. (2013). Deliberation, cognitive diversity, and democratic inclusiveness: An epistemic argument for the random selection of representatives. Synthese, 190(7), 1209-1231. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41931805

Gilens, M., & Page, B. I. (2014). Testing theories of american politics: Elites, interest groups, and average citizens. Perspectives on Politics, 12(3), 564. doi:10.1017/S1537592714001595

Hong, L., Page, S. E., & Baumol, W. J. (2004). Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 101(46), 16385-16389. doi:10.1073/pnas.0403723101

MacKenzie, M.(2016-12-22). A General-Purpose, Randomly Selected Chamber. In Institutions For Future Generations. : Oxford University Press. Retrieved 1 Dec. 2017, from http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198746959.001.0001/acprof-9780198746959-chapter-17.

Mansbridge, J. (1999). Should blacks represent blacks and women represent women? A contingent “yes”. The Journal of Politics, 61(3), 628-657. doi:10.2307/2647821

McCarthy, Tom, and Lauren Gambino. “The Republicans Who Urged Trump to Pull out of Paris Deal Are Big Oil Darlings.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 1 June 2017, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jun/01/republican-senators-paris-climate-deal-energy-donations.

McGreevy, Ronan. “Citizens’ Assembly Vote for Comprehensive Climate Change Regime.” The Irish Times, The Irish Times, 5 Nov. 2017, www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/citizens-assembly-vote-for-comprehensive-climate-change-regime-1.3280848.

“UN Chief Hails New Climate Change Agreement as ‘Monumental Triumph.’” UN News Center, United Nations, 12 Dec. 2015, www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID.

Xinhua. (2009). “Brawl breaks out in South Korean Parliament.” Photograph. China Daily, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/world/2009-07/22/content_8460845_2.htm.

[1] Aristotle Politics, 4.9.

[2] Alexis de Tocqueville (1835) Democracy in America, 4.4.6.

[3] Guerrero, A. A. (2014), Against Elections: The Lottocratic Alternative: 148.

[4] Ibid., 142.

[5] Gilens, M., & Page, B. I. (2014). Testing theories of american politics: Elites, interest groups, and average citizens: 564.

[6] Joseph Schumpeter (2008) [1942] Capitalism, Socialism, Democracy: 250-283.

[7] MacKenzie, M.(2016). A General-Purpose, Randomly Selected Chamber.

[8] Bouricius, T. G. (2013). Democracy through multi-body sortition: Athenian lessons for the modern day: 2-3.

[9] Ibid., 1.

[10] Ibid., 3.

[11] Mackenzie (2016), 284.

[12] Dowlen, O. (2009), Sorting Out Sortition: A Perspective on the Random Selection of Political Officers: 306.

[13] Guerrero (2014), 167.

[14] Dowlen (2009), 306.

[15] Jane Mansbridge (1999) ‘Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent “Yes”’: 628-657.

[16] Hong, L., Page, S. E., & Baumol, W. J. (2004). Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers: 16385-16389.