|Source: David Eccles (Flickr)|
The Korean Green Party held their first congress in March 2013. All of the 134 delegates to that congress were chosen by random selection. The International Secretary for the Green Party of Korea, June Gyeon Lee, reported that the congress was a “successful example for the idea of sortition democracy.”
Where it (democracy) all began. During the 5th and 4th centuries BC the most important decisions in Athens were made by the Assembly, to which all citizens1 were eligible to attend and participate. These Assemblies had their business prepared by the Council of 500. The 500 were chosen from amongst the 10 tribes of Athens, each tribe selecting 50 Council members by lot. Furthermore, the person presiding over the Council and the Assembly was chosen by random selection on the day of the meeting.
Much of the day-to-day running2 of Athens was overseen by various committees, again with all members of the committees chosen by random selection. Each of the committees usually consisted of 10 members who each sat on the committee for one year.
From 1640 until 1837 mayors in many parts of Switzerland were chosen via sortition. Because the mayoralty of Swiss cities involved financial gain it was considered fair that everyone should have an equal chance at this.
Sortition was used between the 14th and 16th centuries in many Italian city-states to select the 6 – 1 2 members of the city’s governing body, often with very short terms of office. Sortition was also used during the same period to select the city’s chief magistrate (the doge). The process in Venice was particularly elaborate so as to ensure that it was impossible to rig the outcome. This system of selecting the doge in Venice lasted until 1797.
In 1974 Ned Crosby founded the Jefferson Center which used random selection to choose people to be part of Citizen Juries.3 Citizen Juries are brought together to help public institutions make decisions on complex and/or controversial issues. The Juries have been used in issues as diverse as water quality, organ transplants, teenage pregnancy and AIDS.
At the same time that Ned Crosby was creating Citizen Juries, Peter Dienel was independently developing Planning Cells (Planungszelle) in Germany. Planning Cells were experimented with in order to improve public decision-making. Each cell involved about 25 randomly selected people working together for two to five days on issues of planning, assessment or control. Dienel’s motivation was to “find ways in which virtually anyone could play the function of decision-maker if his or her life was affected by the decisions.”4
Following the collapse of Iceland’s economy in 2008, the people of Iceland became disenchanted with not only their financial sector but also their government. Thousands gathered outside the Althing (national parliament) banging pots and pans in what became known as the “kitchenware revolution”, eventually toppling the government. Deciding that it was time to do away with the constitution that had been introduce by Denmark, a new Constitutional Bill was proposed. A National Assembly of 950 randomly selected citizens met to draft that Bill. By using sortition the Icelanders ensured that every Icelander over the age of eighteen had an equal chance of participating in the Assembly.
These are just seven examples of sortition. There have been dozens of examples over the years, some small involving a local area and a few participants, others much bigger involving nation-sates and many hundreds of people. Most often the reason given for using sortition is that it is fair and gives everyone an equal chance in participating in the decision-making processes of their community or nation.
1. A “citizen” in Athens at that time did not include women, slaves, foreigners or children. Notions of equity were to come later.
2. Such as: treasury, mining, law, jails, road building, law suits, auditing and festival organisation.
3. Citizen Jury is a trademarked term by the Jefferson Center.
4. Carson, Lyn and Martin, Brian. Random Selection in Politics, Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT. 1999.