30 May 2023

Sortition has already been used to guide constitutional reform in Ireland. It could soon contribute to changes to euthanasia laws in France. And with a wide range of supporters, from Emmanuel Macron to the UK-based climate action group Extinction Rebellion and a growing number of experts, institutes and foundations, sortition might just be our best chance of overcoming the current crisis of democracy.

Sortition is a process of randomly selecting a group of citizens to deliberate on political matters. In theory, it could be used instead of elections to select the members of a parliament or other legislative assembly. In practice, it’s currently used to select participants for citizens’ assemblies at both the national and local level. 

So how exactly does sortition work? And what challenges does its use bring with it?

Democratic Legitimacy

Sortition is nothing new, having been used way back in Ancient Athens to select political officials. It is also the system currently in use in many countries which practise trial by jury.

In both of these cases, the basic idea is the same: A group of citizens is randomly selected to make a decision on the behalf of society as a whole. 

Sortition is not currently in use anywhere to directly select parliamentarians or lawmakers. In most countries, this would require major constitutional changes, as well as a broader change in our political culture. Instead, it is used to assemble deliberative mini-publics, often called Citizens Assemblies. 

A typical Citizens’ Assembly (CA) involves anything from 60 to 150 citizens. While this means that the majority of us won’t get a say, it is a fair and impartial way of deciding who does. 

Rather than having the power to directly legislate, CAs add a voice to public debates that is often missing: the voice of ordinary citizens. In a culture where politicians are engaged in constant electioneering, where lobbyists wield enormous power, and where the media often has a political agenda of its own, it’s a way of putting ordinary people back at the centre of political discourse. 

The influence of these assemblies chosen by sortition is also rapidly growing. While they lack the power to directly legislate, a growing number of parliaments are obliged to discuss their recommendations.

As media coverage of CAs continues to grow, political parties have a chance to demonstrate that they listen to the concerns of ordinary citizens, and not just to lobbyists and party insiders.  

Random selection

The effectiveness of random selection is at its greatest when you begin with the biggest possible sample. In many cases, this means turning to a registry of citizens or residents, or an electoral register. Alternatively, a list of registered telephone numbers provided by telecom companies can be used. 

Whenever large amounts of personal information are involved in a process like this, issues of data protection need to be considered. For local administrations, in particular, data protection laws can prove restrictive. The data required is not always freely available and can involve lengthy application procedures.  

Representation: A major advantage…

What makes sortition fair isn’t just that everyone has an equal chance of being chosen. It also helps ensure that assemblies are genuinely representative of diverse societies. 

In theory, if you draw random groups of people over and over again, the results will ultimately be representative without the need for further intervention. Although you may not get to take part yourself, you can feel confident that people like you will – people with similar backgrounds, life circumstances, and concerns.

…and a major challenge

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as all that.  While randomness is a genuinely fair way of selecting the members of an assembly, it is extremely difficult to implement. The biggest obstacle to genuine randomness in sortition lies in the fact that participation isn’t compulsory. 

According to some estimates, only around 7% of those invited to participate by letter actually reply. Those who do reply tend to belong to the same socio-economic group who are already best represented in politics. Yet it is the ones who do not respond who we most need to get involved.

It’s worth bearing in mind that even in countries where jury duty is compulsory, many excuses are accepted – in the UK, up to 27% of those contacted for jury duty are excused on grounds including insufficient language skills, or responsibilities as a carer. This would significantly skew the representativeness of an assembly. 

The German organisation Es Geht LOS has developed an app to help administrators reach people who do not respond to the first invitation to participate. They have found that by approaching them in person, they often succeed in getting them involved, thereby redressing the balance. 

In other cases, the problem is tackled by using some kind of stratified sampling — selecting candidates according to certain criteria, such as age, gender, and ethnicity. 

Stratified Sampling

The first step is to contact a large number of potential participants – for the UK Climate Assembly, 30,000 people were contacted, and for France’s Climate Convention, a huge 250,000. Everyone who responds positively becomes part of a volunteer pool. A series of criteria is then applied to select a genuinely representative final list of participants. 

Alongside age, gender, and ethnicity, other frequently used categories include level of education; place of residence; and whether that residence is rural or urban. Fortunately, this process is greatly simplified by the use of selection algorithms designed to provide the fairest possible outcome. 

This process clearly helps to assemble a more representative group. Even so, it can be difficult to decide which criteria are relevant. What about ensuring a representative proportion of, for example, people with disabilities, or a mix of parents and childless adults? 

We might even choose to vary the criteria depending on the topic of an assembly. For the UK Climate Assembly, participants’ views on climate were taken into account, to ensure that it wasn’t only people with a pre-existing commitment to fighting climate change whose views were heard.

Undue Influence?

The question of which criteria to apply implies a second, even thornier one, namely: who gets to set these criteria?

This question of “who” is one we will certainly be hearing more about as sortition grows more influential. It is easy enough to imagine how the stratification criteria could be manipulated in an attempt to influence the outcomes. This threatens to undermine much of the advantages of randomised selection.

Furthermore, in Citizens’ Assemblies, the participants are guided in their discussions by a range of experts. These experts are usually selected by the organisers of the CA, which may threaten to undo the “random” element.

In her book Open Democracy, political scientist and sortition advocate Hélène Landemore argues that in practice, participants have proven remarkably resilient to being influenced. They are generally comfortable questioning experts and are good at filtering out biases. 


The crucial point, however, is that sortition will only succeed if people believe that it is fair. Politicians will only take the recommendations seriously if they enjoy widespread popular support. And support will only be forthcoming if everyone believes the selection process was fair. 

This is why it is important for anyone administering a CA to be as transparent as possible about how the sortition process works. The method and algorithms used should be disclosed, and their relative merits and drawbacks openly discussed. For example, the Sortition Foundation provides extensive details of the methods they employ in their selection processes. 

Furthermore, repeated assemblies in both Ireland and France have seen national press coverage focus not only on the final recommendations of assemblies, but also on how sortition and CAs work, and what steps are taken to ensure they are fair. This kind of transparency allows the broader public to make an informed decision on whether they support the resulting recommendations.

While there are sure to be controversies and disagreements along the way, that’s all part and parcel of democracy. Being as open as possible about methods and potential imperfections in the selection process will help to ensure that sortition contributes to political discourse in a genuinely open and democratic way.

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