What is Sortition?

Sortition aims to achieve equal participation.
Sortition aims to achieve equal participation.

Sortition refers to a random selection of participants with the aim of equal representation of various socioeconomic backgrounds, such as age, education, gender, and location. It is commonly used within social sciences. “Drawing of lots” is the typical description of this process since it is being used in social and governmental procedures also, however, it employs stratified sampling to match the sample with the actual demographic structure of the population.

When using sortition, the goal is to avoid the possible over-representation of one or more demographic categories, which can easily happen with a strictly random sample. Equal representation is crucial since over-representation can easily provide an advantage to one’s success in gaining a public or political position.

The History of Sortition

Sortition is not a modern process as it was being used even in ancient Athens. During those times, the selection was made from the population of male citizens (equal gender representation was not a thing back then), and it was the primary way in which public and statutory functions were filled. By using sortition, it was possible to have a regular change of officeholders, but also to provide political education to citizens as they were now in charge of the state operations. Only those that have personally decided to be candidates were appointed to the positions in question.

Sortition was a fundamental process in the service of democracy for many centuries. However, during the times of the American and French Revolutions, the right to vote in political elections was becoming common, thus changing the definition of democracy to mean representative democracy based on election by voting.

Advantages of Sortition

One of the main advantages of sortition is that it is innately egalitarian - it guarantees that all individual members of the state have an equal opportunity to hold a government position, regardless of existing societal biases towards different groups.

Being a part of the decision-making process, especially in connection to the issues that personally trouble them, contributes to the participant’s overall feeling of empowerment.

Even though most countries have some form of democratic education for their citizens, sortition allows ordinary people to create and grow their democratic skills through direct participation.

Given that the representatives chosen through sortition are not tied to any political party, as is the case with elected representatives in modern democracies, there is little concern for conflict of interest or voting contrary to one’s conscience.

Disadvantages of Sortition

One of the most commonly mentioned and the most obvious argument against true sortition (without previously selecting an eligible group) is that it does not take into consideration the experience and skills required for a certain position. In case a specific role does imply that the holder has a particular skill set, the sortition process will not be able to assure that the adequate candidate is chosen for it.

The lack of a mechanism for gathering valuable feedback from the population regarding the efficiency or inefficiency of individual office-members is another disadvantage of this type of selection process. This means that there is also no way to determine an accountability framework other than through the direct application of the law.


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