Public consultation design: The use of a random selection method for selecting political officers

Jean-Sébastien Blais M.A.

Voting has long been the central point of constitutional contact between citizens and the body politic. However, long-established political institutions have stagnated in taking citizens' interests into account . The citizens' discontent with their institutions has created a democratic malaise toward the representative democracy. Such malaise is observed through the declining rate of voter turnout, the citizens’ dissatisfaction with their institutions and their widespread negative judgment toward politicians (Nye, 1997; Norris 1999; Putnam and Pharr 2000).

For political scientist Mark Warren, this situation generated a democratic deficit which can be understood as "a misalignment between citizen capacities and demands, and the capacities of political institutions to aggregate citizen demands and integrate them into legitimate and effective governance" (Warren, 2008, p. 2). Innovative institutional initiatives designed to enhances citizen participation were proposed as a response to this deficit. Using earlier studies by Cain and Fung, Warren (2008, p. 3) argues that: "Innovations driven by legitimacy needs began in the administrative arenas a few decades ago, as evidenced by the rapid proliferation of public engagement devices including, for example, panels, stakeholder meetings, and representation at public hearing.” These innovations were implemented to generate a "genuine two-way dialogue among citizens and between citizens and governments" (Levesque, 2012, p. 532; Philips and Orsini, 2002, p. 3).

However, despite such administrative practices the democratic deficit and divide remain between those who govern and those who vote. The question then arises ‘by which mechanism could we reduce this division?’ I argue that democracies could address this question by adding to their electoral system a process by which a number of political officers would be selected based on randomness: Selected through 'sortition' (also named lottery). Such a process would result in integrating a greater number of independent voices in decision-making processes and, following Dowlen (Dowlen, 2008a, p. 221), could offer to the citizenry an “open public polity where the institutions and procedures are regarded as commonly held, or shared” with elected officials. Furthermore, sortition could also strengthen the political community by lowering the threshold to access political office (Dowlen, 2008a, p. 223).

Echoing views expressed by Barnett and Carty (2008) about the renewal of the House of Lords, Nilsen (2007) with regards to Iraq, and Barber's (1984) views on local council members, I am proposing the use of sortition, a random selection process to appoint office-holders, as a complement to office-holding through an election.

It is relevant to mention that an asset of sortition lies in the fact that it has no mechanical agent responsible for the outcomes and is not a choice made by a conscious human being. According to Dowlen, sortition is an arational process. As Dowlen (2008a) argues:

" A lottery decision is impervious to the action of will – good or bad. […] Because there is no weighing decision of options, no one can predict a lottery decision beyond the simple question of probability based on the number in the draw. A lottery is not a horse race; there is no form that can be studied. Compared to other types of decision-making there can be no pooling of ideas or viewpoints in a lottery decision – but also no argument, contention or persuasion.”(p. 16)

The impact of these attributes on the composition of our deliberative assemblies is that lottery “prevents anyone involved in the experiment from manipulating or fixing the outcomes”(Dowlen, 2008a, p. 17). The use of lottery/sortition forces our democratic decision-making processes to be more inclusive since every citizen has an equal chance to advise their government and the potential to serve politically. It could also support the formulation of better policy as deliberative assemblies might be less polarized and because a greater number of citizens would debate policy options. The use of lottery “is thus linked to a normative impulse to develop more inclusive, more responsive government” (Dowlen, 2008a, p. 229), capable of addressing the perceived democratic deficit of liberal democracy.

However, despite its political potential and governance benefits, the use of sortition could be identified as an inappropriate and untested mechanism for our era. The presence of sophisticated nation-states equipped with complex bureaucracies and effective check and balance systems, the presence of political parties and universal suffrage are seen as an effective apparatus capable of generating enough benefits toward the citizenry.

That being said, because of the outcomes of this method, sortition has been used by many governments[1]. I propose to look at two cases among many: Ancient Athens and British Columbia, Canada. The example of the Athenian Democracy illustrates how a specific democracy used sortition to select public office holders.  At the height of Athenian democracy, sortition was the most important method of selecting civil servants from the citizenry. “ Lot was used to select members the Boule or council of 500, the Diskatai […] in numbers of up to 2501, and  600 out of the executive body of approximately 700 magistrates (Dowlen, 2008a, p. 35). The selection of the other 100 members of the magisterial body who were directly elected by the assembly based on their skills, expertise or knowledge. Explaining the People's Court or Dikastai, Oliver Dowlen's (2008a) study found the following:

“Out of a total citizen population of around 30,000, the assembly was regularly attended by around 6,000. […] Rotation in office meant that large numbers of citizens would have taken part in the administrative processes of government on a regular basis“ (p. 40).

Despite the limits of Athenian Democratic and political systems, the participatory model used in Ancient Athens illustrates the importance for Athenians to design inclusive decision-making processes and political institutions (Dowlen, 2008a, p. 34). This case supports my view that integrating independent citizens selected by sortition in our democratic institution addresses the current democratic deficit observed.

Similarly, the case of the British Columbia Citizens' Assembly (BCCA) shows a successful use of sortition. Through a congress of 160 members randomly selected, the BCCA was mandated to recommend a new electoral system to the provincial Legislative Assembly (BCCA, 2004, p.3). The use of a near-random-selection brought together an assembly of ordinary citizens to assess BC’s electoral system (Warren, 2008, p. 58).

Per Ferejohn, the model “exemplified a [...] form of popular decision-making which separates the proposing of legislation from its acceptance, for example, by permitting a great deal more specialization and expertise in the proposal stage than in the ratification stage” (Ferejohn, 2008, p. 210). The BCCA’s members not only exhibited independence and impartiality but also demonstrated a “high level of technical competence with respect to a difficult subject matter” (Ferejohn, 2008, p. 213). Overall, the case of the BCCA demonstrates that a group of citizens selected by lottery could arrive at robust policy-based conclusions.

The Potential Use of Sortition

The use of lotteries is viewed as politically and financially risky for public administrations and politicians since it has not been sufficiently tested. However, considering the benefits described by Dowlen and looking at cases like the BCCA, I consider put forward the use of lotteries as an effective method for engaging the demos and allowing them to make robust policy scenarios for elected officials.

Because of its small population and its political complexity, Yukon may find benefit in the use of sortition. I propose two examples. Following the idea expressed by Barrett and Carty (2008), the Yukon Territory could explore the creation of a second chamber to better integrate the electorate in policy discussions. We could imagine a second chamber from which the membership would be entirely selected through the use of sortition (like the Diskatai or the Anglo-American jury) or through a near-random selection method in order to guarantee a certain degree of demographic representation. The main gain of such a reform would be to involve large numbers of citizens in important but straightforward political duties.

Similarly, reflecting on the idea expressed by Barber, the Commission scolaire francophone du Yukon (the Territory's Francophone school board) could use sortition to identify a pool of francophones open to being further engaged in the School  Board's conversations or to serve as trustees. Using this pool to create an advisory committee would augment the political dynamism of this francophone institution. 


Sortition could be seen as a mechanism capable of addressing the democratic deficit as it offers a deep sense of respect for the citizenry and considers every member of the pool as a potential contributor to the political discussion. By enhancing the political independence of deliberative assembly from political parties and lobby groups, it gives the possibilities to those selected to recommend strong policy options. The use of sortition serves both the common good and the demos.



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