AskDefine | Define sortition

Dictionary Definition

sortition n : making a chance decision by using lots (straws or pebbles etc.) that are thrown or drawn [syn: casting lots, drawing lots]

Extensive Definition

Sortition, also known as allotment, is an equal-chance method of selection by some form of lottery such as drawing coloured pebbles from a bag. It is used particularly to allot decision makers. In Ancient Athenian Democracy sortition was the primary method for appointing officials, a system that was thought to be one of the principal characteristics of democracy. It is today commonly used to select jurors in Anglo-Saxon based legal systems.


Athenian Democracy developed in the 6th century BC out of what they called isonomia (equality of political rights), and allotment was the principal way of achieving this fairness. It was used to select most
In Athens, "Democracy" (literally meaning rule by the people) was in opposition to those supporting oligarchy (rule by a few) and 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."
The Athenians believed sortition to be more democratic than elections and used complex procedures with purpose built allotment machines 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
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.
Today, 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 allotted 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 Lords Reform and the Iraqi constitution Sortition proposals put forward in the modern world generally relate to the means for selecting a large legislative body (such as the U.S. Congress) from among the adult population at large.


A modern advocate of sortition, political scientist John Burnheim, argues for sortition as follows (Is Democracy Possible?, pp. 124-5):
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.
Sortition is inherently egalitarian in that it ensures all citizens have an equal chance of entering office irrespective of any bias in society and would push in the direction of an equal society where there is no meaningful difference between members of the society that would make one more suitable than another.
Almost all Greek writers who mention democracy (including Aristotle, Plato and Herodotus) both emphasise the role of selection by lot or state outright that being allotted is more democratic than elections. For example Aristotle says:
"it is thought to be democratic for the offices to be assigned by lot, for them to be elected is oligarchic,"
We see the same idea in the 18th century after the re-emergence of democracy in the writings of Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu:
"The suffrage by lot is natural to democracy, as that by choice is to aristocracy"
Because processes can be developed to ensure that selection is completely fair. For example, Athenians used complex allotment procedures with complicated machine to allot officers. Like Athenian democrats, critics of electoral politics in the twenty-first 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.
Modern supporters see selection by lot as overcoming the various demographic biases in race, religion, sex, etc. apparent in many legislative assemblies. This actually differs somewhat from Athenian democracy, in which women (and others) could not vote and therefore a bias was inherent.
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% 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 19million individuals who did not belong to a party.
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.


: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 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, so 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. The same is argued 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."
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."''
However, supporters of sortition argue that there is nothing in the structure of elected government (or of dictatorships, we might add) that suggests representatives will be any more intelligent or capable than those they represent. Indeed, the very question is complex, since we can always ask, "who defines capable?". Moreover, political decision making is arguably not a craft or science, as Socrates suggests. There is not one correct answer to a political question, as in science or mathematics, but rather politics is a question of values, interests and aims. In a democracy, the values, interests and aims that should be satisfied are those of the populace, and therefore the populace is arguably qualified by definition. Certainly, there is room for expertise in formulating the process whereby people's aims will be achieved, but not in deciding those aims. A randomly selected house could listen to the advice of experts, as elected houses do now.
Some of the officials selected by sortition may hold views that greatly differ from those common in the population. For example, an unusually rich official may be selected, and once in power may try to use it to change a tax system in a way that will benefit himself and other rich individuals, in a manner that is opposed by, and possibly detrimental to, individuals who are not as wealthy.
The process of voting in itself has value; it creates interest and public debate on the future direction of public policy; it may also encourage deeper learning on the issues at stake; it also makes people less isolated by creating various organizations and parties.
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. A counter-argument is that by consenting to sortition as used for a jury, the public consents to this form of selection.
Unless the system of sorition allows people to opt out of serving, measures for compelling people to serve need to be instituted.
In an elected system, the representatives are to a degree self-selecting for their enthusiasm for the job. Under 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 have no particular enthusiasm for their role and therefore may not make good advocates for a constituency.


Before the random selection can be done, the pool of candidates must be defined. Systems vary as to whether they allot from eligible volunteers, or from the membership or population at large.
The selection method should be carefully designed in order to preserve public confidence that it has not been rigged. One robust, general, public method allotment is RFC 3797: Publicly Verifiable Nomcom 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.


  • Historical
  • Modern
  • Non-government
  • Proposals
    • 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.
    • Demarchy is a political system in which many small "citizen's juries" would deliberate and make decisions about public policies.
    • Ernest Callenbach and Michael Phillips argue for random selection of the U.S. House of Representatives in their book A Citizen Legislature.


External links

sortition in French: Stochocratie
sortition in Japanese: くじ
sortition in Simple English: Sortition
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