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In politics, sortition (also known as allotment or the drawing of lots) is the selection of decision makers by lottery. The decision-makers are chosen as a random sample from a larger pool of candidates.

In ancient Athenian democracy, selecting officials by chance was the primary method for appointing officials, but this is not sortition as long as those officials were not decision-makers, they did not decide the law, they were only responsible to strictly apply the law decided by others (the citizens).

The use of chance in selecting officials is widely regarded as a principal characteristic of democracy.[1] It is often used today in forming citizen groups (e.g. citizens' juries, citizens' assemblies) to provide input to policy makers and is commonly used to select prospective jurors in common law-based legal systems.

History of Sortition

The following is a brief history of sortition's implementation.

Ancient Athens

Athenian democracy developed in the 6th century BC out of what was then called isonomia (equality of law and political rights), and sortition was the principal way of achieving this fairness. Also in Ancient Greek mythology, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades used sortition to determine who ruled over which domain. Zeus got the sky, Poseidon the sea, and Hades the underworld. It was used to pick most[2] of the magistrates for their governing committees, and for their juries (typically of 501 people). Aristotle relates equality and democracy:

Democracy arose from the idea that those who are equal in any respect are equal absolutely. All are alike free, therefore they claim that all are free absolutely... The next is when the democrats, on the grounds that they are all equal, claim equal participation in everything.[3]
It is accepted as democratic when public offices are allocated by lot; and as oligarchic when they are filled by election.[4]

In Athens, "democracy" (literally meaning rule by the people) was in opposition to those supporting oligarchy (rule by a few). Athenian democracy was characterised by being run by the "many" (the ordinary people) who were allotted to the committees which ran government. Thucydides has Pericles make this point in his Funeral Oration: "It is administered by the many instead of the few; that is why it is called a democracy."[5] The Athenians believed sortition to be more democratic than elections[2] and used complex procedures with purpose-built allotment machines (kleroteria) to avoid the corrupt practices used by oligarchs to buy their way into office. According to the author Mogens Herman Hansen the citizen's court was superior to the assembly because the allotted members swore an oath which ordinary citizens in the assembly did not and therefore the court could annul the decisions of the assembly. Both Aristotle[2] and Herodotus (one of the earliest writers on democracy) emphasize selection by lot as a test of democracy:

The rule of the people has the fairest name of all, equality (isonomia), and does none of the things that a monarch does. The lot determines offices, power is held accountable, and deliberation is conducted in public.[6]

Past scholarship maintained that sortition had its roots in the use of chance to divine the will of the gods, but this view is no longer common among scholars.[7]

Northern Italy and Venice 12th to 18th Century

The brevia was used in the city states of Northern Italy during the 12th and 13th centuries and in Venice up until the late 18th century.[8] Men, chosen randomly, swore an oath that they were not acting under bribes, and then they elected members of the council. Voter and candidate eligibility probably included property owners, councilors, guild members, and perhaps, at times, artisans. The Doge of Venice was determined through a complex process of nomination, voting and sortition.

Florence 14th and 15th Century

The scrutiny was employed in Florence for over a century starting in 1328.[8] Nominations and voting together created a pool of candidates from different sectors of the city. These men then had their names deposited into a sack, and a lottery draw determined who would get magistracy positions. The scrutiny was gradually opened up to minor guilds, reaching the greatest level of renaissance citizen participation in 1378-82.


Recognizing that financial gain could be achieved through the position of mayor, some parts of Switzerland used random selection from 1640 to 1837.[9]


In the political realm, sortition occurs most commonly in order to form policy juries, such as deliberative opinion polls, citizens' juries, Planungszelle (planning cells), consensus conferences, and citizens' assemblies. As an example, Vancouver council has initiated a citizens' assembly that will meet in 2014-15 in order to assist in city planning.[10]

Sortition is commonly used in selecting juries in Anglo-Saxon legal systems and in small groups (e.g., picking a school class monitor by drawing straws). In public decision-making, individuals are often determined by allotment if other forms of selection such as election fail to achieve a result. Examples include certain hung elections and certain votes in the UK Parliament. Some contemporary thinkers have advocated a greater use of selection by lot in today’s political systems for example reform of the British House of Lords and proposals at the time of the adoption of the current Constitution of Iraq.

Sortition is also used in military conscription and in awarding US green cards. It has also been used in placing students into public schools, into one California nursing college, and into schools of medicine in the Netherlands.[11]


Effective representation of the interests of the people

A modern advocate of sortition, political scientist John Burnheim, argues for sortition as follows:

But do we, in order to have democracy, have to find a way in which the demos first makes up its mind what is to be done and then controls its representatives in the process of carrying it out? What I want to suggest is a different conception. Let the convention for deciding what is our common will be that we will accept the decision of a group of people who are well informed about the question, well-motivated to find as good a solution as possible and representative of our range of interests simply because they are statistically representative of us as a group. If this group is then responsible for carrying out what it decides, the problem of control of the execution process largely vanishes. Those directing the execution process are carrying out their own decisions. They may need a little prodding to keep them up to the mark, but there is no institutional basis for a conflict of interest between bodies responsible for making decisions and those responsible for execution. They have an overriding interest in showing that their decisions are practical and well-grounded.[12]

Fairness and equality

Sortition is inherently egalitarian in that it ensures all citizens have an equal chance of entering office irrespective of any bias in society:

Compared to a voting system – even one that is open to all citizens – a citizen-wide lottery scheme for public office lowers the threshold to office. This is because ordinary citizens do not have to compete against more powerful or influential adversaries in order to take office, and because the selection procedure does not favour those who have pre-existing advantages or connections – as invariably happens with election by preference. From an organisational point of view a citizen-wide lottery system gives all citizens an equal stake in the office in question and so defines the size of the active (or potentially active) citizen body.[13]

Random selection overcomes the various demographic biases in race, religion, sex, etc. apparent in most legislative assemblies. Greater perceived fairness can be added by using stratified sampling. For example the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform in British Columbia sampled one woman and one man from each electoral district and also ensured representation for First Nations members. Bias may still exist if particular groups are purposefully excluded from the lottery such as happened in Ancient Athens where women, slaves, younger men and foreigners were not eligible.


Greek writers who mention democracy (including Aristotle,[2] Plato and Herodotus) emphasise the role of selection by lot or state outright that being allotted is more democratic than elections. For example Plato says:

Democracy arises after the poor are victorious over their adversaries, some of whom they kill and others of whom they exile, then they share out equally with the rest of the population political offices and burdens; and in this regime public offices are usually allocated by lot.[14]

The idea that democracy is associated with sortition was still common in the 18th century. Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu writes in The Spirit of the Laws:

The suffrage by lot is natural to democracy, as that by choice is to aristocracy"[15]

Less corruptible than elections

Sortition may be less corruptible than voting. Author James Wycliffe Headlam explains that the Athenian Council (500 administrators randomly selected), would commit occasional mistakes such as levying taxes that were too high. Additionally, from time to time, some in the Council would improperly make small quantities of money from their civic positions. However, “systematic oppression and organized fraud were impossible”.[16] These Greeks recognized that sortition broke up factions, diluted power, and gave positions to such a large number of disparate people that they would all keep an eye on each other making collusion fairly rare. Furthermore, power did not necessarily go to those who wanted it and had schemed for it. The Athenians used an intricate machine, a kleroterion, to allot officers. Headlam also explains that "the Athenians felt no distrust of the lot, but regarded it as the most natural and the simplest way of appointment".[17]

Like Athenian democrats, critics of electoral politics in the 21st-century argue that the process of election by vote is subject to manipulation by money and other powerful forces and because legislative elections give power to a few powerful groups they are believed to be less democratic system than selection by lot from amongst the population.

Power to ordinary people

An inherent problem with electoral politics is the over-representative of the politically active groups in society who tend to be those who join political parties. For example in 2000 less than 2% [18] of the UK population belonged to a political party whilst in 2005 there were at best only 3 independent MPs (see List of UK minor party and independent MPs elected) so that 99.5% of all UK MPs belonged to a political party. As a result political members of the UK population were represented by one MP per 1800 of those belonging to a party whilst those who did not belong to a party had one MP per 19 million individuals who did not belong to a party.

Voter fatigue

Supporters also argue that sortition alleviates the problems of voter fatigue and rational ignorance, which is seen as a problem in both representative democracy and direct democracy.

Loyalty is to conscience not to political party

Elected representatives typically rely on political parties in order to gain and retain office. This means they often feel a primary loyalty to the party and will vote contrary to conscience to support a party position. Representatives appointed by sortition do not owe anything to anyone for their position.


Pure sortition does not discriminate

The most common argument against pure sortition (that is, with no prior selection of an eligible group) is that it does not discriminate those selected and takes no account of particular age, skills or experience that might be needed to effectively discharge the particular offices filled. Just as the Athenians did not choose generals (Strategos) by lot, today 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. Only if the group had sufficient means to select an external specialist to do the actual work would it be able to overcome this.

For many political offices as, under a system based on election, it is thought unlikely that those manifestly lacking the requisite skills will be elected to office. According to Xenophon (Memorabilia Book I, 2.9), this classical argument was offered by Socrates:

[Socrates] taught his companions to despise the established laws by insisting on the folly of appointing public officials by lot, when none would choose a pilot or builder or flautist by lot, nor any other craftsman for work in which mistakes are far less disastrous than mistakes in statecraft.[19]

The same argument is also made by Edmund Burke in his essay Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790):

There is no qualification for government but virtue and wisdom, actual or presumptive. [...] Everything ought to be open, but not indifferently, to every man. No rotation; no appointment by lot; no mode of election operating in the spirit of sortition or rotation can be generally good in a government conversant in extensive objects. Because they have no tendency, direct or indirect, to select the man with a view to the duty or to accommodate the one to the other.[20]

Chance misrepresentation

Because it introduces randomness in determining outcomes, there is always the statistical possibility that sortition may put into power an individual or group that do not represent the views of the population from which they were drawn. This argument is mentioned by Isocrates in his essay Areopagiticus (section 23): But, just as with any sample measurement the error rate can be reduced by increasing the sample.

[It was] considered that this way of appointing magistrates [i.e., elections] was also more democratic than the casting of lots, since under the plan of election by lot chance would decide the issue and the partizans of oligarchy would often get the offices; whereas under the plan of selecting the worthiest men, the people would have in their hands the power to choose those who were most attached to the existing constitution.[21]

Voting confers legitimacy

Those who see voting as expressing the "consent of the governed", maintain that voting is able to confer legitimacy in the selection. According to this view, elected officials can act with greater authority than when randomly selected. With no popular mandate to draw on, politicians lose a moral basis on which to base their authority. As such, politicians would be open to charges of illegitimacy, as they were selected purely by chance.

Enthusiasm of the representatives

In an elected system, the representatives are to a degree self-selecting for their enthusiasm for the job. Under a system of pure, universal sortition the individuals are not chosen for their enthusiasm. Many electoral systems assign to those chosen a role as representing their constituents; a complex job with a significant workload. Elected representative choose to accept any additional workload; voters can also choose those representatives most willing to accept the burden involved in being a representative. Individuals chosen at random from a comprehensive pool of citizens have no particular enthusiasm for their role and therefore may not make good advocates for a constituency.


Unlike elections, where members of the elected body may stand for re-election, sortition does not offer a mechanism by which the population expresses satisfaction or dissatisfaction with individual members of the allotted body. Thus, under sortition there is no formal feedback, or accountability, mechanism for the performance of officials, other than the law.


Before the random selection can be done, the pool of candidates must be defined. Systems vary as to whether they allot from eligible volunteers, from those screened by education, experience, or a passing grade on a test, or screened by election by those selected by a previous round of random selection, or from the membership or population at large. A multi-stage process in which random selection is alternated with screening for merit can overcome the risk of selecting those who lack ability or enthusiasm. But, by creating definitions that are not equal to the actual characteristics of the group many of the benefits, like getting realistic data that people continuously choose not to vote (due to lack of enthusiasm) or clear legislation that can be interpreted without special ability, will be compromised. As happens with any researchers data when the data that will be analysed is altered before conclusions are made.

The selection method may need to be carefully designed in order to preserve public confidence that it has not been rigged. The process may be conducted or supervised by a panel themselves selected at random, such as a grand jury being used to administer the random selection of the next grand jury.

One robust, general, public method of allotment is RFC 3797: Publicly Verifiable Nominations Committee Random Selection. Using it, multiple specific sources of random numbers (e.g. lotteries) are selected in advance, and an algorithm is defined for selecting the winners based on those random numbers. When the random numbers become available, anyone can calculate the winners.




  • Law court juries are formed through sortition in many countries.
  • Citizens' juries or citizens' assemblies have been used to provide input to policy makers. For example, in 2004, a randomly selected group of citizens in British Columbia convened to propose a new electoral system. This Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform was repeated three years later in Ontario's citizens' assembly.
  • MASS LBP, a Canadian company inspired by the work of the Citizens' Assemblies on Electoral Reform, has pioneered the use of Citizens' Reference Panels for addressing a range of policy issues for public sector clients. The Reference Panels use civic lotteries, a modern form of sortition, to randomly select citizen-representatives from the general public.
  • 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 opinion 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.
  • In the election of electorate MPs in New Zealand, if there is a tie between the leading candidates and this situation persists after an obligatory recount, the Chief Electoral Officer chooses the MP from among the leading candidates by lot. The UK [1], New Mexico [2] and other governments have similar rules for breaking ties. For example, in 2000, a coin toss determined the outcome of a council election in England when the two candidates polled the same number.[22]


  • The Internet Engineering Task Force uses sortition to select the nominating committee which selects its leadership. It has also defined a robust, general, public method for making random selections: RFC 3797 - Publicly Verifiable Nominations Committee Random Selection
  • 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
  • Several Spanish savings banks (caja de ahorros) randomly elect compromisaries among some account holders (for example, those who had an account for more than four years and with mean holdings over the minimum wage in Caja de Ahorros de Asturias (2002)). Those chosen then gather in assembly to elect the bank members representing account holders.
  • In Spain, Argentina and Switzerland, citizens are randomly selected to manage ballot boxes and count ballots on election days.
  • The Slashcode forum software as used in Slashdot randomly elects forum moderators that assign points to postings. The randomness is weighted with karma and posting frequency. The registered readers can later meta-moderate the work of the random moderators.
  • The Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria is elected by draw in its final phase. After a voting is held with bishops who have some requirements, the names of the three most voted bishops are put in a box on the altar of St. Mark Cathedral in Cairo during a Sunday eucharistic liturgy. A five year-old child selected from the congregation then draws the name of the next Patriarch from the box.[23]

Political Proposals for Sortition

The following proposals are roughly presented from most radical to least.

Sortition as part of a reworking of the state

  • John Burnheim, in his book Is Democracy Possible?, describes a political system in which many small "citizen's juries" would deliberate and make decisions about public policies. His proposal includes the dissolution of the state and of bureaucracies. The term demarchy he uses was coined by Hayek for a different proposal, unrelated to sortition, and is now sometimes used to refer to any political system in which sortition plays a central role.[24]
  • Influenced by Burnheim, Marxist economists Allin Cottrell and [25]

Sortition to replace elected legislative bodies

  • Ernest Callenbach and Michael Phillips argue for random selection of the U.S. House of Representatives in their book A Citizen Legislature. They argue this scheme would ensure fair representation for the people and their interests, an elimination of many realpolitik behaviors, and a reduction in the influence of money and associated corruption, all leading to better legislation.[26]
  • Étienne Chouard, a French political activist, proposes replacing elections with sortition.[27][28]
  • Select, through sortition, a large legislative body (such as the U.S. Congress) from among the adult population at large. C. L. R. James's 1956 essay "Every Cook Can Govern."[29]
  • Evo Hashtagger, a self-proclaimed leader of the "Polish Revolution", has made sortition the principal idea of the Polska Demokracja movement in Poland, attracting the significant readership using the social media (

Sortition to decide the franchise

  • "Convened-sample suffrage" uses sortition to choose an electoral college for each electoral district.[30]
  • David Chaum, a pioneer in computer science and cryptography, proposed Random-Sample Elections in 2012. Via recent advances in computer science, it is now possible to select a random sample of eligible voters in a verifiably valid manner and empower them to study and make a decision on a matter of public policy. This can be done in a highly transparent manner which allows anyone to verify the integrity of the election, while optionally preserving the anonymity of the voters. A related approach has been pioneered by James Fishkin, director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford, to make legally binding decision in Greece, China and other countries.[31][32]

Sortition to supplement or replace some of the legislators

  • "Accidental Politicians: How Randomly Selected Legislators Can Improve Parliament Efficiency": shows how the introduction of a variable percentage of randomly selected independent legislators in a Parliament can increase the global efficiency of a Legislature, in terms of both number of laws passed and average social welfare obtained (this work is in line with the recent discovery that the adoption of random strategies can improve the efficiency of hierarchical organizations "Peter Principle Revisited: a Computational Study").
  • Political scientist Robert A. Dahl suggests in his book Democracy and its critics (p. 340) that an advanced democratic state could form groups which he calls minipopuli. Each group would consist "of perhaps a thousand citizens randomly selected out of the entire demos," and would either set an agenda of issues or deal with a particular major issue. It would "hold hearings, commission research, and engage in debate and discussion." Dahl suggests having the minipopuli as supplementing rather than replacing legislative bodies.
  • The House of Commons in both Canada[33] and England[34] could employ randomly selected legislators.
  • The ratio of legislators decided by election to those decided by the lottery is tied directly to the voter turnout percentage. Every absentee voter is choosing sortition, so, for example, with 60% voter turnout a number of legislators are randomly chosen to make up 40% of the overall parliament. Each election is simultaneously a referendum on electoral and lottery representation.[35]

Sortition to replace an appointed upper house

  • The upper house of a parliament might be selected through sortition. Anthony Barnett and Peter Carty proposed this to the Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords in the UK in 1999.[36]

See also


  1. ^ Headlam, James Wycliffe (1891). Election by Lot at Athens. p. 12. 
  2. ^ a b c d The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes, Mogens Herman Hansen, ISBN 1-85399-585-1
  3. ^ Aristotle, Politics 1301a28-35
  4. ^ Aristotle, Politics 4.1294be
  5. ^ Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War. The Funeral Oration of Pericles.
  6. ^ Herodotus The Histories 3.80.6
  7. ^ Bernard Manin, The Principles of Representative Government
  8. ^ a b Dowlen, Oliver (2008). The Political Potential of Sortition: A study of the random selection of citizens for public office. Imprint Academic. 
  9. ^ Carson, Lyn; Martin, Brian (1999). Random Selection in Politics. Praeger. p. 33. 
  10. ^ "City of Vancouver Grandview-Woodland Community Plan". Retrieved 22 August 2014. 
  11. ^ Boyle, Conall (2010). Lotteries for Education. Exeter: Imprint Academic. 
  12. ^ Burnheim, John (1985). Is Democracy Possible?. University of California Press. pp. 124–5. 
  13. ^ 2008Political StudiesOliver Dowlen, Sorting Out Sortition: A Perspective on the Random Selection of Political Officers
  14. ^ Plato, Republic VIII, 557a
  15. ^ Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, Book 2, Chapter 2
  16. ^ Headlam, James Wycliffe (1891). Election by Lot at Athens. p. 77. 
  17. ^ Headlam, James Wycliffe (1891). Election by Lot at Athens. p. 96. 
  18. ^
  19. ^ Xenophon. Memorabilia Book I, 2.9
  20. ^ Edmund Burke (1790), Reflections on the Revolution in France
  21. ^ Isocrates. Areopagiticus (section 23)
  22. ^ "Hague savours local victories". BBC News. 5 May 2000. 
  23. ^ National Catholic Reporter (2013-03-07). ""Catholics can learn from how Coptic popes are elected"
  24. ^ Burnheim, John (1985). Is Democracy Possible?. University of California Press. 
  25. ^ Allin Cottrell, Paul Cockshott, "Towards a new Socialism", 1991. pg 167
  26. ^ Callenbach, Ernest; Phillips, Michael (1985). A Citizen Legislature. Berkeley/Bodega California: Banyan Tree Books / Clear Glass. 
  27. ^ “Populiste n’est pas un gros mot”, entretien avec Etienne Chouard
  28. ^ Sortition as a sustainable protection against oligarchy Conference by Etienne Chouard
  29. ^ C. L. R. James, Every Cook Can Govern, 1956.
  30. ^ Comment on "Rundle: you call this democracy? It’s time to start again", Crikey, Melbourne, August 19, 2010.
  31. ^ "How Selecting Voters Randomly Can Lead to Better Elections". 2012-05-16. Retrieved 2014-03-12. 
  32. ^ David Chaum (2012). "Random-Sample Elections: Far lower cost, better quality and more democratic". Retrieved 2014-03-12. 
  33. ^ Mitchell, Jack; Mitchell, David (22 September 2005). "Athens on the Hill: A plan for a Neo-Athenian Parliament in Canada". National Post. pp. A23. 
  34. ^ Sutherland, Keith (2008). A People's Parliament. Imprint Academic. 
  35. ^ Donovan, Michael (2012). Political Sortition for an Evolving World. Simon Fraser University. p. 83. 
  36. ^ Barnett, Anthony; Carty, Peter (2008). The Athenian Option: Radical Reform for the House of Lords (2nd ed.). Imprint Academic. 

External links

  • The Loka Institute (official website)
  • Equality by lot — news, discussions and general information about sortition
  • A Citizen Legislature
  • The Sortition Option
  • Sorted: Civic lotteries and the future of public participation
  • List of books dealing with sortition
  • The Common Lot: "Why Elections Are the Problem and How to Make Democracy Real" by David Grant
  • Sortition as a sustainable protection against oligarchy Conference by Etienne Chouard
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