Sortition and Freedom

The author Oliver Dowlen has provided us with a full transcript of his talk on the topic of ‘Sortition and Freedom’ from the ‘Democracy and Liberty’ session.  He has also included a useful selected bibliography for those who are unfamiliar with the subject. 

We have heard a lot today about dissent, about objecting to the taking away of freedoms. What I hope to present here is a positive vision of how I see the development of political freedom through the introduction of a new institution – or rather a very old one that has considerable modern potential. This is the practice of selecting citizens randomly for public political office – literally by lottery. This goes under the name of sortition. 

My first contact with sortition was in 1994 when I was a member of the Labour Committee for Democratic Accountability of Secret Services. The secretary and co-ordinator of that organisation, Dr Keith Nilsen proposed that monitors for secret services should be randomly selected. The motivation for this proposal was the domination of modern world politics by covert factionalism, especially on the left, and the dangers that this held for the political process. Although it was not accompanied by any detail as to how it might be implemented, Nilsen’s idea nonetheless encapsulates the potential of the random selection mechanism and its role in protecting freedom. Within the proposal is the assumption that secrecy may be necessary to defend freedom, but within this secrecy lies the danger that those freedoms themselves might be undermined. It was against this danger  - the concentration of power in the hands of unaccountable, extra-political, forces – that sortition was advocated.

Selection of political officers by lot is a “strategy-proof” mechanism.  Its results are unpredictable and its process free from wilful manipulation. It has a long history of use against simple corruption, complex factional manoeuvring, and the development of a culture of dependency or patronage within the body politic. It inhibits those with a partisan interest from controlling the process of selection and thus placing their people in key positions. Thus (paraphrasing Isaiah Berlin) the negative or preventative function of sortition lies in this inhibition of factional activity. It protects the polity from the arbitrary power of the despot on the one hand and from the disintegration of political order in the hands of competing factions on the other.

  The positive freedoms resulting from sortition derive from this impartial – literally non-partisan – nature. Any political organisation that implements a sortive scheme can be understood as impartial in respect to those in the pool and the office for which selection is made. This has the effect of strengthening and stabilising shared political institutions. These have greater authority because their personnel have been selected impartially; they are more inclusive because they engender greater trust; and can be understood as belonging to all in the sense that they are not in the control of any one party. Because a lottery is an arational mechanism, it excludes both rational and irrational interventions in the choice of political personnel. It therefore has the effect of inhibiting collective irrationality such as the politics of mass fear or revenge.

In all these aspects sortition has played a role in the development of the political systems of today, although its contribution is, for the greater part, unacknowledged. It was the backbone of Athenian political democracy, defending the political organs of the demos from oligarchic take-over and providing a firm foundation of shared governmental institutions such as could facilitate greater citizen participation at all levels of government. It provided an invaluable tool for the republicans of late-medieval Italy as they sought to diminish the power of warring factions and consolidate the rule of law.

In the early modern and modern period the randomly-selected jury – itself a synthesis of Italian republican and Scandinavian popular governmental forms – grew in Anglo-American conditions to become a bastion of the freedom of the individual against the encroachments of the state. Here sortition ensures that, at some levels at least, neither the state nor the enemies of the state can control the judicial process. It is an organ of the state, but, in its selection of personnel, is not subject to the type of partisan pressures that adversely affect other areas of the body politic. It is this, I would argue, that gives it its stability and its authority.

It is important to recognise, however, that sortition is not a guarantee of freedom in itself. While it is true that a random process, properly carried out, is immune from interference and partisan manipulation, it can be rendered less effective if it is unsupported by other measures. A randomly-selected jury in a totalitarian state might not be subject to state interference in the process of its selection, but the state could use other means to ensure that the jurors complied with its wishes. Likewise, although the selection of an official by lot would not be open to bribery, that official could become corrupted once in office if no mechanism were put in place to counter it. If a small pool was used, moreover, and there were powerful partisan forces in the field capable of exerting influence on those up for selection, those forces would dominate in the longer term and the lottery would eventually becomes a mere token procedure.

This would suggest that the effectiveness of a lottery based scheme depends on the context of its use; on whether random selection is a suitable mechanism for the task in hand; and on the care and consideration that goes into designing its features. These would include the size and nature of the pool, the nature of the office and how a sortive scheme could complement other constitutional elements.  In this respect those in the Athenian/renaissance republican tradition invariably used sortition combined with rotation in office and counteracted the dangers of partisan control through the inculcation of a broad stratum of politically active citizens operating in conditions of open government. In this sense, therefore, lot can be seen as one element in a package of measures designed to deliver open, inclusive public governance and to protect that government from the arbitrary exercise of political power and the dangers of covert factional intrigue.

How, then, should we think about the possible re-introduction of sortition in modern conditions, and how should we think about its possible modern value in the defence of freedom? I would argue that the debate should be governed by three main considerations.

 First: that we should seek to place the modern use of sortition within our inherited tradition of republican open governance and within the understanding of political freedom that belongs with that tradition. I would describe this tradition as a broad stream of political thought and practice that extends from Solon (Ancient Athens) to Mandela and includes all those who have sought to extend political freedom by strengthening the political process itself. By the same measure this tradition would exclude all those who sought to achieve freedom by the simple exercise of partisan power – however well meaning or well intentioned their motivation.

 Drawing from a tradition does not mean slavish adherence to existing institutions and ideals. Rather it is a general recognition of the achievements of a body of practice, coupled with the ability to criticise, accept or reject particular ideas or examples.  Awareness of this tradition helps us to track the relationship between the aspiration for political freedom and the practical realities of the institutions and procedures that have procured and defended it. It helps us to see, for example, sortition and universal franchise as potentially complementary rather than competing systems of selection – each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses.

The second consideration that I believe should inform the debate on the modern application of sortition is that the mechanism should be applied appropriately: that it is fit for the task to which it is put. This is a straightforward proposal that we should  seek to understand both the benefits and problems of using an arational method of selection and apply it accordingly. The best uses, as I have explained elsewhere, come when a positive virtue is made of this arationality and where the positive political benefits of using a lottery can be understood in advance and can be clearly seen to outweigh any possible problems of using such a mechanism. We should also be clear which results accrue from the use of the lottery itself, and which come from pre-lottery decisions such those that determine the size and nature of the pool. We should therefore assess sortition, not merely because it can facilitate citizen participation, but because that participation is direct and unmediated by partisan groupings. I would argue that the modern application of sortition is primarily about how we understand the conduct, standards and objectives of the political process as a whole. In other words it is more than an answer to the somewhat simplistic question of who governs?

My third consideration is an amalgamation of the first two, and this is that we should consider sortition as a means of countering perceived deficiencies in our current paradigms of good government. In other words we should use it to defend and enhance good governmental practice. In the family of related forms described as liberal democracy two related problems suggest that a valuable case could be made for the re-introduction of sortition. The first is the danger posed to open government by concentrations of factional power within the body politic, especially those linked to forces operating outside the auspices of the political system. In the more developed democracies these dangers are, to some extent, already curtailed by the custom and practice of open government and by the many measures aimed at the preservation of political freedoms. Here the dangers of open factionalism or absolutism might be inhibited, but we are left with a gnawing degradation of our political values by excessive partisanship. This can be seen in the hegemonic (or indeed the petty) ambitions of political parties and the space within the party system for the operation and influence of extra-constitutional interest groups. Liberal democracy is particularly vulnerable in this respect.

 In less developed democracies factionalism can more easily spill over into open violence, endemic corruption or those forms of political absolutism where there is no clear boundary between party and state. In both cases there is a clear role for sortition as a means of breaking down personal and party power bases and establishing demonstrably impartial organs of government or state.

 The second problem area is closely linked to the first. This derives from the maxim that the independent citizen in governmental or state apparatus, either as participant or witness, constitutes the best guarantee of political freedom in any polity. While sortition cannot educate that citizen or inculcate the strong ethos of good government and respect for political office in which he or she must work, it can help to ensure that there is a direct, unmediated, impartial relationship between citizen and polity. Even in developed democracies the growing gap between the political caste and the citizenry at large is of concern. Sortition offers a means of involving more citizens, but, compared to other methods of selection it adds the special qualities of independence (literally non-dependence) and impartiality in respect to the way that involvement is generated. It is these qualities, linked to the nurturing atmosphere of open government and of free and fair elections, that could place sortition at the centre of any new agenda for the defence of out political freedoms and the further development of our political practices and processes.

In this brief introduction I have tried to present something of the potential of sortition in the defence of political freedom. I have concentrated on what I consider to be some of the guiding principles that could inform a future debate on the subject. I have not produced a list of all the instances within a complex modern democratic constitution where sortition could be of value. This, I hope, could form the subject of a future presentation.


Select Bibliography.

Callenbach, E., Phillips, M.A. (2008) A Citizen Legislature. Imprint Academic, Exeter.

Carson, L and Martin B. (1999) Random Selection in Politics. Praeger, Westport Conn., London.

Dowlen, O. (2008) The Political Potential of Sortition. A study of the random selection of citizens for public office. Imprint Academic, Exeter.

Engelstad, F. (1988) “The Assignment of Political Office by Lot.” Social Science Information 28 no.1 (March) 23-50.

Gataker, T. (1627) Of  the Nature and Use of Lots: a treatise historicall and theologicall. John Haviland, London. First published 1619. Reprinted by Imprint Academic 2008.

Gobert, J. (1997) Justice, Democracy and the Jury.  Dartmouth, Aldershot. 


Goodwin, B. (2005) Justice by Lottery. Imprint Academic. Charlottesville.

Headlam,  J.W. (1933) Election by Lot at Athens. Cambridge University Press, (First edition 1891).

Manin, B. (1997) The Principles of Representative Government. Cambridge University Press.

Najemy, J.M. (1982) Corporatism and Consensus in Florentine Electoral Politics, 1280-1400.   University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.

Nilsen, K.(2007) Sortition: The Newsletter of the Society for Democracy including

Random Selection. Website:  See also [accessed 15th Jan. 2007]

Stone, P. (2007). “Why Lotteries Are Just.” Journal of Political Philosophy 15, no. 3: 276-295.

Sutherland, K. (2004) The Party’s Over. Exeter: Imprint Academic.

Wolfson, A. M. (1899) “Forms of Voting in the Italian Communes.” American

 Historical Review. Vol V.  No.1 October 1899 pp.1-22.


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