What is Sortition?
Whenever you have a political decision-making body, composed of people picked by lot (random selection), you are looking at an example of sortition. Sortitionate decision-making bodies are most widely known as Citizens’ Assemblies (CAs). The organization MASS LBP in Canada has popularized their form of CA under the name “Citizens’ Reference Panels”, referring to their process as “civic lottery”. In Germany, CAs are known as Planungszellen or Bürgerräte. In Holland they are referred to as Burgerforum. While all sortitionate bodies can broadly be referred to as Citizens’ Assemblies, other names will sometimes be more fitted to the specific form. Citizens’ Constitutional Conventions, Peoples’ Senates, Consensus Conferences, Peoples’ Juries, Mini Publics: these are also variations on the theme of sortition.
In each case, however, the appointment of decision-makers has not come about by election, as is the case in the now dominant electoral-representative model of democracy. In this way, sortition constitutes an alternate lineage, going back to the very birth of democracy in Ancient Athens, but rendered to obscurity after the Renaissance, until recent decades.
In recent decades, sortition has reemerged into the public eye as a promising way to alleviate pressure on representative democracy, harness the distributive intelligence of large groups, and address complex emerging issues with the nuance and inclusivity they require. By removing the competitive element, where interests must be pitted against aggregate interests a.k.a. the party policy platforms, sortition allows for the inclusive articulation of commonalities.
Here are the three core building blocks of any effective sortitionate body:
I: Citizen Power: the citizens freely, honestly and sincerely discuss an issue that is (more or less) in their purview of power to decide on or make recommendations for.
II: Good Debate: the citizens hear and deliberate with experts, interest groups and witnesses on the issue.
III: Random Selection: the citizens are chosen by lot.
The results from CAs and other sortitionate bodies, have been overwhelmingly positive. Decisions produced tend to include full nuances of the debate preceding them and are always social. Experience of political responsibility in CAs has been shown to awaken people’s “civic sense” or “hive thinking:” they begin to view issues from the perspective of a collective long-term interest, above their own short-term interest. This de-stigmatizes the vital element of compromise in political decision-making and allows for hard choices that sometimes need to be made, to be made as amicably and inclusively as possible.
In surveying the landscape of sortition, Jonas and Hans have found that there already is an incredibly diverse range of commentators, practitioners and supporters. As such, we think the best role for BIRDS is to connect people and act as a switchboard of ideas and resources. To that end, we make ourselves available to any inquiries via email. We will give you our best answer, or point you towards the person or organization we think has it. Our email address is:
In Canada, the organization MASS LBP has been offering Reference Panels as a service to help governments, public utilities and corporations make better decisions for over a decade. They also offer invaluable practical guides on the resources section of their website:
The blog Equality by Lot offers the most thorough ongoing round-up of discussion and information on sortitionate activity around the world:
Hans is working on an ecological community regeneration project, which seeks to introduce the idea of sortition through the medium of “Creative Citizens’ Assemblies”:
"In our democracies, we expect people to behave reasonably and hold moderate views, but how can they, without spaces that foster these qualities? We at BIRDS propose that Citizen’s Assemblies be adopted in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights as ‘the indiscriminately representative right to a say in the future of a political union, by means of a permanently instituted civic lottery.'” - B.I.R.D.S.
Look out for our articles in Amor Mundi, the weekly publication of the Hannah Arendt Center.