From Academic Kids

Sortition is the method of random selection, particularly in relation to the selection of decision makers.

Today, sortition is fairly commonly used in small groups (e.g., picking a school class monitor), but only rarely in relation to public decision making positions, where methods based on election are much more common. The only widespread example of public decision making positions filled in this way are court juries.

However, there are historical examples (for example classical Athens and Venice) where sortition was used to select the holders of key political and administrative offices, sometimes combined with an element of qualification or election. Moreover, some contemporary thinkers advocate greater use of the method in today’s political systems.


Perceived advantages

Classical advocates of sortition, such as Aristotle, held that selection by lot is a more democratic process than election by vote, since sortition is less influenced by money and fame. Contemporary supporters add that sortition allows direct democracy to scale up to today's large populations: by reducing the number of people making a decision from the whole population down to an unbiased sample representative of that population, sortition alleviates the problems of voter fatigue and rational ignorance, which occur in general elections and referendums. Keep in mind that 'sortition' as generally contemplated today differs from having two pre-selected candidates draw straws or flip a coin to decide which of the nominees will take executive office. Typically, sortition proposals today are put forward as a method for selecting a large legislative body (such as the U.S. Congress) from among the adult population at large; the numbers involved make the logistics of such "random sampling" a practical approach.

Aristotle's appreciation of the power of sortition as a means to reduce the influence of money in politics is still relevant. Critics of American elections in the twenty-first century make a similar argument—that because the process of election by vote has become increasingly subject to manipulation by money and other powerful forces, legislative elections are actually a less representative system than selection by lot from among the population.

Perceived disadvantages

Selection by sortition has a drawback that resembles one of the philosophical objections to the military draft (selective service)—namely, that it is less respectful of individual autonomy than is a system based on voluntary choice to serve. A system of sortition could be adjusted to address this by allowing selected but unwilling individuals simply to "opt out," but this would seem to compromise the purely random nature of the selection system.

More significantly perhaps, pure sortition as a means of selection takes no account of particular skills or experience that would be needed to effectively discharge the particular offices filled. To take an extreme case, most would agree that random selection from the general population would not be a good way of filling the role of medical surgeon or aircraft pilot due to the specialist skills that those roles require. The same could be argued for many political offices too. Under election, those manifestly lacking the requisite skills are unlikely to be put in office (either because they do not put forward their candidacy or are not elected).

Another objection to sortition is that it does not purport to reflect the "will of the people" regarding who they choose to be their representatives; the roulette wheel chooses, instead of the people. It could be countered that even elections by voting do not fully express the "will of the people," and also that sortition is demonstrably more likely than voting to pick a representative legislature that closely resembles its constutuency in its demographics and range of view points.

A final argument against sortition is that, even if one accepts that the method could be just as successful as election at capturing the "will of the people," there is a positive value in offering the people the right to engage with public policy and express their views on it, by means of casting a vote. A related argument is that, because voting expresses the "consent of the governed," voting is able to confer a legitimacy that no random selection device could ever achieve. One reply might be that, under sortition, the "governed" have given their overall consent to their representatives up front by expressing their will to consent to the sortition system.


  • Historical
    • The Athenian democracy made much use of sortition, with nearly all government offices filled by lottery rather than by election.
    • The Doges of Venice were appointed by a lengthy procedure which alternated between sortition and election.
  • Modern
    • Juries still exist but today are only found in law courts.
    • The Canadian province of British Columbia asked a randomly selected group of citizens forming the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform to propose a new electoral system for the provincial government.
    • Danish Consensus Conferences give ordinary citizens a chance to make their voices heard in debates on public policy. The selection of citizens is not perfectly random, but still aims to be representative.
    • The South Australian Constitutional Convention was a deliberative poll created to consider changes to the state constitution.
    • Some election laws regarding certain offices in the United States provide that, in the case of a tie between the leading candidates, a coin toss (rather than a runoff election) shall be conducted.
  • Non-government
    • Consensus conferences have been run in the USA by the Loka Institute, a nonprofit organization concerned with the social, political, and environmental repercussions of research, science and technology.
    • Deliberative polls
  • Proposals

See also

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