Bringing Back Sortition: How Modern Democracies Are Failing and How They Could Be Saved

14523303_10209303430817189_8787678059998973059_n  By Laura Serra

Reactions following the political developments of the past few months can generally be divided into two strands: those who believe they represent a win for democracy and those who believe they are sanctioning its end. Brexiteers and Trumpeteers rejoiced at the outcome of the referendum and presidential elections respectively because it embodied the victory of the will of the majority. Those who opposed their views were silenced by claims that this is the essence of democracy: the majority declares who the winners and losers are, and the majority is always right for the mere fact of being the majority. It comes then as a surprise that 92% of the World Value Survey respondents said they considered democracy the best form of government, yet the very same people also said to have little (if any) faith in their elected officials. When turnout is particularly low and the race is as close as it was in both the EU referendum and the American presidential election, the situation becomes even more concerning. The problem does not apply only to the United Kingdom or the United States: voting based more on gut-feeling than on sound social and economic considerations has led Austria to almost elect its first far-right president, and extremist parties have more than doubled their share of seats in most European governments, strengthening calls for authoritarianism and nativism.

In modern democracies winners enjoy their rather marginal victories and losers are forced to accept it because “it’s democracy”. Yet most considerations made about this form of government forget to take into account what democracy actually is. We have been accustomed to the idea that democracy and elections are synonymous, they mutually constitute each other and it is therefore impossible to have one without the other. But the birth of democracy as a political form of organisation never implicated that its best (or only) expression should be through universal suffrage. Athenian democracy was based on a principle known as sortition: public functions assigned by lot. That is, officers were selected as a random sample from a larger pool of candidates, the same process through which most prospective jurors in common law-based legal systems are chosen. The term ‘democracy’ literally means ‘rule by the people’, as opposed to ‘oligarchy’ which means ‘rule by the few’. Aristotle, relying upon the experience of Athens and other city states of the classical era, identified sortition with the former and voting with the latter. Montesquieu, writing almost 2000 years later, still took for granted this association between sortition and democracy. This has led many political analysts to wonder why, over the last two centuries, Western societies have only embraced the fixed and rigorous practice of democracy through voting.

Elections have worked well for democracy when Western countries were dominated by mass parties and a network of intermediary organisations which succeeded in being close to the lives of individual citizens. The result was a stable system with great party loyalty and predictable voting behaviour. But with the rise of the free market has come the rise of information increasingly being treated as a good to be sold. Public broadcasters have adopted market thinking, and so has politics. If on the one hand elections have the potential to change government, the public debate that precedes them is tightly controlled and managed by professionals in the techniques of persuasion. Tough competition, loss of advertising revenue and falling sales prompt the media to produce increasingly vehement reports about increasingly exaggerated conflicts. The only role played by most citizens is that of a passive, quiescent part that responds only to the signals it’s given, which is visible in declining levels of turnout and party affiliation. From the side of the electorate, participation in contemporary democracies has been reduced to fulfilling the civic duty of voting every few years. From the side of parties and political leaders, winning elections has become more important than delivering the promises made during electoral campaigns.

While voting allows everyone to have a say on issues only few really understand, sortition envisages a system where a random sample of the population comes to grips with the subject matter in order to make a sensible decision. It could be argued that providing decisional power only to a group randomly chosen from the population is somewhat undemocratic, or even ‘tyrannical’. Yet a cross-section of society that is informed can act more coherently and potentially more wisely than an entire society that is uninformed. Moreover, it is actually more equal and democratic than the systems currently in place, because it promotes descriptive representation by creating microcosms of the general population as opposed to ceding power to a rather elitist circle of politicians. Proponents of this system also focus on the way that sortition can deter domination and corruption by preventing powerful special interests (both inside and outside the government) from suborning public officials into doing their bidding. Juries for criminal trials that are chosen by lot prove that people generally take that task very seriously. The fear of a chamber chosen by lot that behaves recklessly or irresponsibly is therefore unfounded. If we agree that a group of people can decide about the freedom or imprisonment of a fellow citizen, then we can confidently agree that the same group will serve the interests of the community in a responsible manner.

Successful experiments have been carried out in the US, Australia, and the Netherlands. The most remarkable case is that of Ireland, where a mixture of elected politicians and citizens drafted by lot met constantly for over a year to discuss a revision of the constitution. This allowed participants to listen to expert opinions along with receiving input by other citizens through the submission of contributions. It proved to be particularly helpful for politicians and citizens alike, as both parties engaged in a more direct and active participatory discussion than that provided by a poll or a referendum. Elections and referenda become dangerous if they are not enriched with more sensible forms of citizens’ participation. Structured deliberation with a random sample of citizens promises to generate a more vital, dynamic and inclusive form of democracy. Brexit is the event that best proves this argument. If David Cameron had opted for the genuine participation of citizens through a method of this sort (rather than allowing such a drastic decision to be made through a one-round referendum based on a simple majority) the outcome might or might have not stayed the same, but it would have certainly been a more conscious one. Similarly, Italians will be summoned in December to decide whether to make changes to the constitution, but only a few proponents of the “NO” campaign have adequately addressed the content of the reform. Most of the others invoke the negative vote as an attack to a government they believe to be disappointing, regardless of whether the reform could bring benefits to the system or not. Giving decisional power to disenchanted and poorly informed citizens has often proved wrong throughout history, and modern democratic governments should consider alternative forms of organisation if they are to keep the freedoms they have so eagerly fought for.


Dowlen, O. (2009) ‘Sorting out Sortition: A perspective on the random selection of political officers’, Political Studies, 57(2), pp. 298–315.
Landemore, H. (2012) ‘Deliberation, cognitive diversity, and democratic inclusiveness: An epistemic argument for the random selection of representatives’, Synthese, 190(7), pp. 1209–1231.
Stone, P. (2016) ‘Sortition, voting, and democratic equality’, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 19(3), pp. 339–356.
Van Reybrouck, D. (2016) Why elections are bad for democracy | David Van Reybrouck. Available at:


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