Variations and Alternatives

The purest form of Government based on sortition is that all members of parliament are chosen by random selection.

Given how entrenched our current system of electoral governance is, its difficult to imagine such radical change occurring any time soon. Similarly, many political commentators and theorists have concerns about such a seismic shift, and do not support the complete removal of political elites from the process of law making.

Compromises proposals are therefore common. Some of the more popular ones are considered here. I rank them in terms of purity, where 10 is the most pure (the closest to pure sortition) and 1 is the least pure (the closest to our current system). All contain at least some element of random selection.

Consultative Citizens Assemblies (2/10)

Citizens Juries / Veto Juries (3/10)

Authoritative Citizens Assemblies (4/10)

Randomly Selected/Sequestored Voters (5/10)

Upper House Assemblies (6/10)

Lower House Lists / Tying Vote Assemblies (7/10)

Split Assemblies (8/10)

Retained Membership Assemblies (9/10)


International media coverage of Sortition

papersThe notion of randomly selecting law makers appears to be getting a lot more traction in the international media of late. Below are links to an article about Sortition in 4 different mainstream media outlets: 3 in the US, and 1 in Australia.

The original article was written by an ex-member of the House of Representatives in the US and a team of political researchers.

The San Diego Union Tribune

Time to randomly select Congress members?

The Los Angeles Daily News

Would picking our reps at random improve governance?

The Houston Chronicle

We select juries at random. Why not Congress?

The Sydney Morning Herald

Why not select politicians as randomly as jurists?

50 days and counting

50It is now 50 days since the election of the 32nd Dail in Ireland. In the history of the State, that’s the longest interval, by some measure, between the election of the Dail and the failure of the Dail to elect a Taoiseach.

Moreover, the prospect of electing a Taoiseach any time soon is as remote as on the day the results of the election were finalised.

The workings of the Dail are provided for in the Constitution. They are quite simple. Members nominate other members to be Taoiseach. If a majority are in favour, that member is elected Taoiseach. The Taoiseach then appoints a cabinet. The Dail votes to accept the cabinet.

The Constitution makes no reference to political parties. It does not require a “Programme for Government”. It contains no reference to the word “coalition” or the phrase “minority Government”.

Its intent is quite simple: people drawn from various backgrounds, viagra canada online, regions and experience should come together and pass laws.

The fact that the current membership of the Dail are incapable of doing this has nothing to do with the constitutional design of the Dail. Nor is it tenable to say that of the 157 members of the current Dail, there are not 79 (a majority) who share suitably similar political views that would allow them to elect a Taoiseach.

The impasse in the current Dail arises from one thing and one thing alone: the need for its members to be re-elected.

The 2 largest parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, have been political rivals for decades, and know that forming a Government together will erode their support base in favour of newer, smaller parties.

The newer, smaller parties recognise that participating in unpopular decision-making will reduce their support and put their already tenuous existence at risk.

The non-aligned, independent members recognise that what got them to the Dail in the first place, namely their non-alignment, will be put in jeopardy if they lend their support to a party in Government.

Every single member of the Dail, despite their protestations to the contrary, is considering their every move in terms of how it will impact their support. They are fighting the next election before the business of the previous election has even finished.

Now, imagine an alternative.

Imagine if the 157 members of the Dail had been randomly selected from a list of citizens who had volunteered to serve in the Dail, which was open to anyone from any walk of life or background.

Doubtless, the resulting group of members would have divergent political views, but there would almost certainly be enough of them with similar views to elect a Taoiseach (if there weren’t, we would just randomly select another Dail).

What would allow them to do this, in a way that the current Dail cannot, is the absence of the need for any of them to be re-elected. When the Dail term was over, and their business was done, they would simply return to their lives, and the next Dail would be selected.

There would obviously be discussion, and multiple candidates for Taoiseach, and some negotiation, but that is all quite normal and harmless. Ultimately, every member would be free to base their decision on their personally held political views and their estimation of the ability of the candidates. They would not have to allow the impact of their decision on their electability be the deciding factor in what they do.

This is the essence of democracy based on random selection, or Sortition, as it is commonly called. In fact, this is the only basis on which true democracy can work. This is the way democracy used to work, long before the introduction of elections into the process in modern times.

How the situation in the Dail resolves itself over the coming weeks remains unclear, but it is likely that we will have either a very unstable Government, or another election.

And what then? Do we start over and hope that the outcome is different? Have elections become such an article of faith that we have to let them de-stablise our economy and society, even if a viable alternative exists?

The answer should be no.

Abandoning the “folk theory” of democracy

k10671In an important new work, “Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government”, Christopher Aachen and Larry Bartels argue that we have developed a “folk theory” of democracy, which prevents us from critically examining the flaws in our current political systems.


The “folk theory” is thus:

Ordinary people have preferences about what their government should do. They choose parties and leaders who will do those things, or they enact their preferences directly in referendums. In either case, in this view, what the majority wants becomes government policy – a highly attractive prospect in light of the dreary historical experience that human beings have generally endured with respect to governments. Democracy makes the people the rulers, and legitimacy derives from their consent.

Using this theory as their benchmark, the authors review the history of democracy over the last 50 years, and conclude that the ideals of democracy “crumble under empirical inspection”.

Just as a critical step towards democracy occurred when people lost faith in the notion that the king had been anointed by God, we believe that abandoning the folk theory of democracy is a prerequisite to both greater intellectual clarity and genuine political change. A great deal of hard thinking and organising will be required to develop more sophisticated notions of real democracy, and to implement the deep transformations that will be required. None of us, as individual citizens, can do it alone. But one vital implication of our account is that more realistic party doctrines of democracy are central to progress. Developing them will require robust debate in journals like this one. The conventional wisdom about democracy too often leads us toward policies that fail to improve people’s lives. A progressive agenda that can curb illegitimate inequality and serve the interests of ordinary citizens will require us to give up some cherished but badly outdated science, and to substitute for it a vision with honest 21st-century intellectual credentials.
An essay summarising the book can be read at the link below:
Christopher H Achen is the Roger Williams Straus professor of social sciences and professor of politics at Princeton University.
Larry M Bartels holds the May Werthan Shayne chair of
public policy and social science at Vanderbilt University.

Citizens Assembly proposed by Fine Gael

A Citizens Assembly? Why?
A Citizens Assembly? Why?

Fine Gael have produced proposals for Dail Reform which include a commitment to forming a Citizens Assembly to “undertake a detailed review of a limited number of key issues over an extended time period”.

This is somewhat similar to the Constitutional Convention, but whereas the Constitutional Convention was composed both of citizens and Oireachtas members, the Citizens Assembly would be composed entirely of citizens.

The remit of the Assembly would be quite limited, in that they would only be able to consider proposals tabled by the Government, and recommendations would only be referred to Oireachtas committees. The types of issues it would consider would include Seanad Reform, Climate Change, the 8th Amendment (abortion), the power of Oireachtas committees and (for some unknown reason) how we deal with old people.

This is interesting on a number of levels.

It shows that there is some concern among the political parties about the gap that is continually widening between the professional political class and ordinary people. That’s welcome.

On the other hand, its further evidence of how deeply flawed Government by elections is becoming. Issues like Climate Change and abortion have been around for decades. Everybody knows what needs to be done. The problem is that no politician who depends on being re-elected wants to deal with these issues, as they know that dealing with them in any meaningful risks alienating vast swathes of the electorate.

The question therefore arises that if elected politicians need ordinary citizens selected at random to provide cover for their decisions, why not just let the ordinary citizens selected at random make the decisions in the first place?

You can view the proposals in full here.

Elected to the Seanad?

Senator Averil Power and her former benefactor, Michael Martin.

The Seanad is the upper house in the Irish parliament, the Oireachtas.

After each election to the lower house, the Dail, an election to the Seanad occurs.

The role of the Seanad is to provide oversight of the decisions of the Dail. For that reason, the membership of the Seanad is drawn mainly from panels of candidates who have recognised expertise. Additionally, the right to vote in Seanad elections is reserved for members of the Dail, County Councillors and university graduates.

There are 60 members of the Seanad. Of these, 43 are elected from “panels” by members of the Dail and County Councillors, 6 are elected by graduates of Trinity College and the National University of Ireland, and 11 are appointed by An Taoiseach.

The design of the Seanad in this manner is (arguably) reasonable. It may appear elitist, but its role is one of oversight only, not law making, and to extend the right to participate in Seanad elections to all citizens would be in effect to create a second Dail.

However, the design and intent of the Seanad is very different from how it actually operates. In fact, the Seanad is a very good example of how a democratic institution, which was designed in good faith, has become corrupted by the electoral process.

Take the example of Senator Averil Power.

After spending some time in the employment of the State to advise Fianna Fail Minister, Mary Hannafin, Power was nominated as a Seanad candidate in 2011 by the new Fianna Fail leader, Michael Martin, and was “elected” to the Seanad from the Industrial and Commercial panel of candidates, which means she was elected by members of the Dail and County Councillors.

During 2015, Power left Fianna Fail, but did not resign her Seanad seat. In the General Election of 2016, she ran as a non-party candidate in Dublin Bay North, but did not get elected. A week later, she announced her intention to seek re-election to the Seanad, but this time from the Trinity College panel of candidates.

This side-stepping from one panel to the next provides an insight into how corrupt the process of electing members of the Seanad has become. If Power was elected from the Industrial and Commercial panel in 2011, it would seem to make sense that she would seek election from that panel again. Why would she switch to a different panel?

The reason is that she was not actually elected in 2011. At each Seanad election, the political parties decide who among their number are to be “elected” to the Seanad. They generally pick former members of the Dail who have just lost their seats in Dail elections, or newcomers with the potential to be elected to the Dail at the next election.

In 2011, Power fell into the later group. Fianna Fail decided that they would like to increase her profile and that a seat in the Seanad would achieve this. Fianna Fail Councillors and members of the Dail were instructed, under the power of the Whip, to vote for Averil Power, and she was “elected” to the Seanad without difficulty. This system isn’t peculiar to Fianna Fail. All of the other parties operate it in the same way. It even goes as far as the party hierarchy examining ballot papers before they are submitted.

Having left Fianna Fail in 2015, Power is not able to rely on the Whip to push votes her way, so there is no point in her seeking election from the Industrial and Commercial panel. Instead, as a graduate of Trinity College, she has put her name on that panel, in the hope that her profile is high enough among graduates to get more votes than the other candidates. She is currently running video ads on Facebook showing her walking across the courtyard in Trinity and claiming to have a reputation for defending education in the hope that such claims will ring true with graduate voters.

Power is not alone in this behaviour. There are currently lots of ex-members of the Dail and other political hopefuls seeking to get the nod from their party hierarchy for a 5 year berth in the Seanad.

The fact that we are so indifferent to to this is symptomatic of the degree to which politics, and government, have become something that is separate from us, which was never the way it was meant to be.

Against Elections – David Van Reybrouck

David Van Reybrouck is a advocate for Sortition in the Belgium, a country that has particular experience with the failures and flaws of electoral representation.

In this video, he talks about his book, Against Elections. He makes the particular point that democracy has been around for 3,000 years, but we’ve only introduced elections in the last 200 years.

Extracts from the book can be read here:

It seems like we have all become electoral fundamentalists. We look down on those who have been elected, but worship elections themselves. Electoral fundamentalism is the unshakeable belief that there can be no democracy without polling, that elections are a precondition, indispensable for defining democracy. Electoral fundamentalists refuse to see elections as a means to implement democracy, but consider them an end in themselves, a sacred principle of intrinsic, indefeasible value

Term Limits may be coming to the US


It seems concerns about the ever expanding class of “professional” politicians have taken root in the US.

The US Term Limits Convention is a mechanism under Article 5 of the US Constitution which allows individual states require that term limits are applied to Congress.

This would mean that members of the Senate and the House of Representatives would not be able to serve successive terms, paving the way for more diverse and widespread representation in Congress.

The inclusion of Article 5 in the US Constitution is seen by many as intent on the part of the founding fathers that the legislature would be composed or ordinary citizens who volunteered for service for a fixed period of time and then returned to their daily lives.

The process for bring this about is daunting. 34 states have to vote to convene a convention to make proposals for term limits, and then 38 states have to ratify those proposals.

That said, the process is under way. In February 2016, Florida became the first state to vote in favour of calling a convention.

How about this for a ballot paper?

Over 1,000 candidates in a local election
Over 1,000 candidates in a local election

This is a ballot paper from a recent local election in Germany. There is an element of humour in this, but there is also a more serious point about the practicality of the electoral process and the results it produces.

How is any voter supposed to use this, and how can the result be in anyway legitimate?