Many will agree that, in practice, democracy leaves a lot to be desired. The system often falls short of its ideals: whether it’s the US congress causing a total government shutdown; Australian prime ministers being ousted by internal party politics; or the UK’s disproportionate electoral system allocating only one seat to a party which received close to 4m votes.
The question is, what’s the alternative? One option might be to cut out the middle man: instead of electing a representative from a select field every few years, we could let citizens rule themselves. At least, that’s what the supporters of sortition suggest. Sortition is a simple yet radical method of self-rule, in which power is given to a randomly selected group of citizens to make decisions. Just like a jury in a legal trial, a panel of citizens are asked to consider a particular issue, reflect on evidence and arguments from both sides of the debate and reach a decision. The agenda of these citizen assemblies could be drawn up in a number of ways: through public consultation, or by an elected chamber.
There are many potential benefits to such a system. For one thing, it would limit the influence of career politicians, because members of citizens’ assemblies would be randomly chosen, and serve only once. Sortition also curtails the power of political parties, because citizens would vote on issues on the basis of their reflections on evidence, rather than being whipped into line by a party leader, as elected representatives are.
Of course, it’s not a perfect system: one worry with sortition-based decision making is that it gives the experts who create the briefing materials the power to frame the assembly’s discussions. A balanced and fair-minded compilation of evidence and arguments is key for citizen-based decision making, so this is an important challenges for the advocates of sortition.
Another worry is the demanding selection process. The citizens serving on the assembly need to be an accurate representation of society as a whole, with equal representation in terms of geography, gender, age, socio-economic background, religious affiliation and ethnicity. The smaller the group, the more stringent the requirements for each member.
Nevertheless, sortition has been successfully trialled in a number of scenarios – though in practice, the conclusions of the citizens’ assemblies have not been made directly into law. Instead, they have typically been put to the public vote in referendums, or have been used as a form of consultation for elected lawmakers.
For example, the Republic of Ireland included a mix of 66 randomly selected citizens and 33 appointed politicians in its constitutional convention, which began in 2012. The convention submitted recommendations for reform on a range of issues to the Dáil Éireann, which were then debated and put to the people. The country’s historic referendum on same sex marriage in May 2015 was just one outcome of this process.
The Canadian province of British Columbia also ran a sortition-based citizens’ assembly in the 2000s, to consider potential reforms to the electoral system. In this case, 80 men and 80 women were randomly selected from a larger pool of volunteers, in a way that guaranteed equal representation in terms of geography, gender and age. There are a few lessons we can draw from this experience.
The first is about the selection of participants: unlike jury service, participation in British Columbia’s citizens’ assembly was voluntary. This arguably led to the over-representation of older and more educated people, and of people who were more likely to be politically engaged already. To ensure that the assembly represents the diversity of a nation’s population, and that we hear the voices of those who feel left out of the political process, there needs to be a duty for citizens to participate.
The second lesson is that accessible channels for the wider public to hear about the assembly and to participate in setting up its agenda need to be put into place so that it becomes a part of the public debate and culture. The British Columbia assembly was not well-known enough to receive much public input.
The third lesson is that we lose out on what makes a sortition-based citizens’ assembly desirable, when we mix it with a referendum. In both Ireland and British Columbia, the calm, evidence-based consideration of the assembly was undermined by the chaotic cut and thrust of a referendum campaign. So, a crucial challenge for advocates of sortition is to consider how we can transition from the current election and referendum-based decision-making process, to a robust sortition-based system, in a democratic way.
The UK is currently making its first forays into sortition-based governance. Under the umbrella of the Democracy Matters project, two sortition pilots ran over two weekends toward the end of 2015 in Sheffield and Southampton. These were focused on the issues of devolution, and how to increase citizens’ power in political decision making. The NHS’s Citizen Initiative is also seeking to give patients and taxpayers a greater voice in steering the health service’s future, by way of bi-annual Citizens’ Assembly meetings.
For now, it looks like these experiments in sortition face limitations. They are all based on voluntary participation and meet only for short periods of time. Yet these pilots show that sortition-based citizens’ assemblies could be used to address a range of issues, from constitutional matters to public services. No doubt there are still issues to be resolved, and lessons to be learned. But while voters remain apathetic about elections, sortition offers a promising way of renewing our democracy.