Why is Sortition better than elections?

1. Election promises

Because an election is a popularity contest, getting elected means making promises, most of which are discarded after the candidate and their party is elected. This is hugely frustrating for voters, and undermines the credibility of the political system.

In Sortition, no promises are required, as every candidate has the same chance of being elected as every other candidate.

2. Political parties

Political parties are an essential feature of any system based on elections. To provide the electorate with relevant choices, politicians need to be organised in groups that can campaign during elections. This organisation is also required in the parliament, when one group of politicians governs and another provides opposition to whatever the group of governing politicians does and says. Parliamentary organisation is also needed to ensure that individual parliamentarians act in line with party policy, rather than according to their own views or beliefs, to underpin the stability of the sitting government.

There are certain advantages to this, but political parties are also breeding grounds for corruption. Membership of a party provides a conduit to those other members who govern, and decisions taken in this regard are invisible to the general public.

In Sortition, political parties can exist, but there is no need for them, and their power is limited to a far greater degree than under our current system. There are no elections, so no organisation around that activity is required. In parliament, members are free to vote how they choose, as the consequences of a vote being defeated does not undermine the Government, as the Government is chosen from all members of the parliament, rather than the political party with the most seats.

3. Corruption

No political system can guarantee against corruption. If an individual is given power, there will always be another individual willing to pay them to use that power by proxy.

Our current system of government, representative government, is particularly prone to corruption, because money is almost essential to political success. Representative government also encourages corrupt people to seek election, because success can be achieved with money. Elections allow people who want power most to obtain power, when in fact those are the people who should never be in power.

A public representative who obtains power via a lottery system would still be exposed to corrupt influence, but the incentive to be corrupt is greatly reduced. Money confers no advantage on public representatives appointed via Sortition, so there is nothing to be gained politically from taking money to act in a particular way.

4. Fairer and more diverse representation

Because of the nature of electoral politics, the people who are elected tend to come from a restricted subset of demographics, income brackets and professions.

Wealthier people tend to fair better. People who have been involved in trade unions tend to fair better. People in professional occupations (solicitors, doctors, accountants) tend to fair better. Teachers (who have time off during election campaigns) tend to fair better.

Conversely, mothers tend not to participate. People from low-income backgrounds tend not to participate. People in 9-to-5 jobs tend not to participate. Farmers tend not to participate. In fact, a huge portion of the average population is generally excluded from representation.

In Sortition, none of this is true. Anyone who wants to can add their name to the list of eligible candidates. No campaigning or money is required, and mothers, people on low incomes, 9-to-5ers and farmers are just as likely to be made members of parliament as anybody else.

5. Clientelism

Clientelism describes the phenomenon where elected public representatives act as advocates for their constituents who are faced with local issues. This is a particular problem in multi-seat constituencies, where each politician competes with every other politician to see who can provide the best “service”.

This is not why we elect public representatives. We elect public representatives to consider evidence pertaining to national issues and make decisions based on that evidence. The ability of a public representative to do this effectively is greatly curtailed if they have to spend half their time in their local area dealing with issues that should be dealt with by local agencies.

In Sortition, this problem doesn’t exist. There is no competition, so public representatives can focus entirely on national issues.

6. Electoral fraud / manipulation

In a system based on elections, significant resources have to be deployed to protect against fraud. Agencies have to be established to monitor spending, to ensure balance in the media, to ensure that polling stations are secure, to ensure that votes are counted correctly, to ensure that the electoral register is valid and accurate, to ensure that only people who are entitled to vote can vote. This costs a lot of money, and fraud and manipulation still occur.

In Sortition, the system is simple. People who want to be considered put their name on a list. All the names go into a hat, and a fixed number are drawn. The process takes no more than an hour, and once it is done in public, is virtually incorruptible.

7. Universal participation in the legislative process

In typical electoral systems, legislation is drafted by the government and passed by a majority of the government representatives in the parliament. Members of the parliament who are not members of the governing party suggest changes to the legislation, some sensible, some just to get their name in the papers, but these changes are almost universally ignored, as conceding to such changes is seen as an admission by the government party that the other parties have sensible things to say, which is then used by those parties when the next election comes around.

This means that a very large number of public representatives in a parliament have no input into legislation for the 4 to 5 years they spend in the parliament.

This isn’t a feature of Sortition. There is no government party, and no elections, so public representatives who put forward legislation can accept changes and improvement to legislation without having to worry about how this makes them look or how it impact on their electoral prospects.

8. Political geography

In order for voters to feel like their local areas are getting a fair deal in the distribution of resources, decisions around public spending are often made on the basis of electoral impact rather than actual need. This leads to systems that are disjointed and poorly planned, in which valuable resources are wasted.

In Sortition, there are no elections, so public representatives can consider decisions entirely on what matters, leading to more efficient systems that can be planned with a long term perspective.

9. Politicians Pay

Because elections are essentially a popularity contest, its a lot easier to succeed when you have money. The more football kits you sponsor, the more rounds you buy in the pub, the more donations you give to charity, the more ads you put in the paper etc etc the more popular you are amongst voters. That puts people who have less money, who are generally the people who need most representation, at a disadvantage. To re-balance this situation, elected politicians are paid well, to remove the temptation for them to obtain money from people who would seek to influence the way they act (ie corruption).

In Sortition, there is no competition. Everybody has the same chance of becoming a public representative as everybody else, so money is no advantage. People chosen to participate in the Dail on the basis of Sortition would be paid, but it wouldn’t be necessary to pay politicians as well as they are paid today.

10. Legitimacy

One of the most frequent criticisms levelled at elected politicians is that they are out of touch with ordinary people. This allows people to ignore and break laws more easily, in that they can question the legitimacy of the laws on the basis that the people making them do not understand their impact.

If the Dail were composed of “ordinary” people, there would be no question of laws not being legitimate.

Next: What if duffers and lunatics get picked?

What is wrong with the current system?

Opinions about Government vary widely.

Sortition Ireland does not offer a view on whether policy implemented by a particular Government is good or bad. Our interest in politics is in changing the system, not public policy.

Our concern is not that our tax system is fair, not that we are attractive location for inward investment, not that we have environmentally-sound policy, not that we have an effective health service.

These are issues that can be addressed by political groupings under whatever system of Government is in place at a given time.

Our concern is that our current system of Government, what we loosely refer to as “democracy”, but which is actually a system of representative government based on elections, is degrading, and that it could collapse, and that if there isn’t a viable alternative, people will surrender their power and freedom to extremists.

This is unlikely in the short term, but history teaches us that every system of Government that is based on the power of an elite (an oligarchy) will ultimately degrade into totalitarianism, usually when an economic shock to the system causes people to transfer their power away from moderate, centrist viewpoints.

This is precisely what happened in Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal in the early part of the 20th century. There is also evidence of the same trend in Europe today. In the backwash of the economic crisis of 2008-2012, several far-right and far-left political groupings have increased their support.

In the United States, the rise in support for a populist candidate like Donald Trump is also evidence of this trend. There are more nationalist, anti-EU MEPs in the European Parliament than ever before. The Fascist party, Golden Dawn, has acquired support of 10% of the electorate in Greece. In the United Kingdom, the anti-EU nationalist party, UKIP, won 13% of the vote in the 2015 General Election. Further and deeper shocks could easily accelerate this process.

It is also the case that participation in the electoral process is declining. In the Irish General Election of 1982, turnout was 72.9%. In the Irish General Election of 2016, turnout was 65.1%. Even in perhaps the most significant General Election ever, in 2011, when the State was effectively being run by the EU Commission and the IMF, less than 7 out of 10 people voted.

This general trend also masks a more worrying trend at local level. While nationwide participation is in decline, participation in areas that experience economic disadvantage is in rapid decline.

In the constituency of Dublin Central, which is home to many voters who depend on Local Authority housing and social welfare, the quota of votes required to be elected (which is a measure of turnout) has fallen from 7,413 in 1982 to just 5,922 in 2016. At that rate of decline, it is likely over the next 10 years that many constituencies will elect representatives even though less than half of eligible voters cast their ballots.

These trends are replicated right across the “democratic” world. Government legitimacy is based on the acceptance that government exists by will of the majority. As participation rates decline, and as the people who represent voters become more and more detached from them (and more and more part of the oligarchy), the easier it becomes morally for voters to detach themselves from the social contract that binds the Government to the people. A vacuum develops into which extremes like Ultra-nationalism and Communism are attracted.

Sortition Ireland exists to ensure that if that day comes to pass, voters will have an alternative that allows them to be governed without surrendering their freedom.

Next: Why is Sortition better than elections?


What if duffers and lunatics get picked?

A duffer is a term used to describe an incompetent or dull-witted person. A lunatic is an a term used to a person who is considered mentally ill, dangerous, foolish or unpredictable.

One of the most immediate arguments levelled at Sortition is that if you chose lawmakers by lot, the potential exists for “duffers” and “lunatics” to be appointed, who will not take the process seriously or who will seek to maliciously influence the process of law making.

This argument can be addressed at several levels.

1. The Theoretical Argument

Firstly, in any legislative assembly, chosen by elections or by Sortition, power rests with the assembly as a whole, not the individual. A single individual, or even a small group of individuals, cannot exert undue influence over the assembly.

Secondly, whether or not someone is a “duffer” or a “lunatic” is a matter of opinion. A representative who appears to one person as incompetent, disruptive or disinterested may not appear that way to someone else. To state that a person is incapable of participating in the process of law making on the basis of an opinion is not valid.

Thirdly, any system of law making must recognise that society is diverse. There are people in society who many people would consider to be incompetent, disruptive or disinterested, but those people are entitled to representation in exactly the same way as doctors, teachers and old age pensioners.

Finally, our current system of representative government does not protect against the election of people many would consider to be unfit for public office. In Ireland over the last 20 years, Dail seats have been won by people who have been convicted of tax fraud, who have openly admitted breaking the law, who have been convicted of drink driving, who have been found to be corrupt by tribunals of inquiry and who rarely turn up at Leinster House to exercise their parliamentary duty.

2. The Scientific Argument

A lottery is an exercise in probability. In any lottery, the outcome is influenced by the number of potential outcomes. The more potential outcomes, the greater the probability that the ultimate outcome will reflect the average make up of the population.

For example, if you have a large bowl containing 20 balls, of which half are red and half are blue, and you have to chose 10 balls, the probability that you will chose exactly 5 red balls and 5 blue balls is low.

However, if you have large bowl containing 2,000 balls, of which half are red and half are blue, and you have to chose 1,000 balls, the probability that you will chose exactly 500 red balls and 500 blue balls is still low, but the probability that you will chose close to 500 of each is much higher.

This is a scientific concept known as The Law of Large Numbers:

“A principle of probability and statistics which states that as a sample size grows, its mean will get closer and closer to the average of the whole population.”

This principle ensures taking a sample from a larger population size will reflect the average make-up of that population provided that both the sample and population are large enough.

In a system of Sortition, the list of candidates from which representatives would be chosen would be available for inspection by the public, and would be open for submission of candidates several years in advance of the lottery to chose representatives.

This would enable people to take a view on whether or not the list was representative of the population, and whether or not it contained too many “duffers” and “lunatics”. If someone formed the view that the list was not representative, or that it contained too many “duffers” and “lunatics”, that person could add their name to the list to reduce the statistical imbalance, and/or encourage others to do the same.

The most likely scenario is that the list would evolve over time until it contained a sufficiently large number of candidates such that the Law of Large Numbers would produce an outcome that accurately reflected the views and concerns of the current population.

3. The Practical Argument

But a lottery is still a lottery, and there can be no certainty. It is extremely unlikely that a lottery involving a large number of candidates would produce a result that included a majority of “duffers” and “lunatics”, but in the event that it did, any decision of a Dail comprised of a majority of “duffers” and “lunatics” would still be subject to review by the President and the test of constitutionality as exercised by the Supreme Court.

A system of sortition would also include checks and balances to ensure the people chosen in the lottery would exercise their duty responsibly. For example, a representative who did not participate in the process of law-making would automatically lose their position and be replaced by another candidate from the list. A person convicted of a criminal offence would lose their position and be replaced by another candidate from the list. A full discussion of the checks and balances that would accompany a system of Sortition is available here, and a list of simple answers to common questions is available here.

The final point to make in this section is similar to the final point in the previous section. Our current system of representative government does not guarantee against the creation of a Dail that is not representative of the population. In fact, as political participation rates continue to decline, particularly among certain sections of society, it is far more likely that our current system will produce a non-representative Dail than a system based on Sortition.