When Ted Wachtel, founder of Building a New Reality (BANR), first mentioned “sortition,” I thought he was referring to the magical hat in the Harry Potter novels and movies, used to sort Hogwarts students into their appropriate houses.
Turns out sortition is “the use of random selection to populate assemblies or fill political positions.” Or as my BANR colleague and Sortition Foundation co-founder and director, Brett Hennig, explained, “An assembly that uses sortition would be composed of people just like you and me. It would be a representative random sample of people, making decisions in an informed, fair, and deliberative setting.”
One of the aims of sortition is to create a better governmental decision-making model by removing the tedious, expensive, and increasingly offensive campaign process, the endless need for fundraising, and the crushing influence of special interest groups.
Sortition sounds great in a broad-minded, discussing-democratic-theories-over-a-couple-of-pints-in-a-pub sort of way. But how would it work in the real world?
While Brett answered the most frequently asked questions about sortition in a recent BANR post, “A U.S. Senate Picked by Lottery, Not Election: How Would It Work?” and presented an interesting test case in his article, “The Irish Citizens’ Assembly Chooses Representatives by Lottery, Not Election.”
However, I wanted to kick the tires of sortition from a different angle.
A Sortition Skeptic
For nearly two decades, I have witnessed and participated in many facets of U.S. public policy, governance, and electioneering.
I have watched local school boards enact policies and procedures, reported on presidential campaigns from the front lines, developed and implemented communications strategies for political parties and candidates, lobbied on behalf of school choice organizations, and created innovative programs to increase fundraising among diverse political constituencies.
Therefore, the concept of sortition—using random selection rather than relying on strategy, messaging, money, and influence to sway political outcomes—seemed antithetical to my entire professional career up until two years ago. Of course, I resisted and sent Ted a detailed memo of all the reasons I thought sortition wouldn’t work. Ted convinced me to read the research and reconsider my position.
Politicians, despite the narratives played out in traditional and social media, can gather to make intelligent, insightful, fact-based decisions that take the needs, desires, and aspirations of the public into account.
I observed this firsthand, while reporting on the North Carolina Senate’s floor debate on legislation that proposed ending the state’s death penalty for two years while they studied the economic, racial, and geographic disparities in capital sentencing. The arguments for and against the measure weren’t based on ideology or scoring political points in the media, but on the information at hand and the potential impact on the integrity of the justice system. While the state Senate approved the bill, it was later defeated in the state House.
If a group of seasoned politicians—ones with loyalties to constituencies, political parties, and donors—can make reasoned, intelligent decisions, could we have a fairer society if a group of people without such constraints made public policy decisions?
A Sortition Solution
Implementing sortition on a national level such as the U.S. Senate, as Brett and others have suggested, is too drastic and overwhelming. Such a change will be met with natural and sometimes irrational resistance to the way things “have always been.”
Experimenting with sortition on a state level helps acclimate the public to a different form of democracy, work out the inevitable kinks in the new system, and add some layer of accountability to the current public policy-making system. This is not a new idea. An informal sortition process was enacted in Texas, as Ted tells us in his article, “How a Citizens’ Legislature Made Texas #1 in Renewable Energy.”
I propose creating sortition groups of citizens to advise state lawmakers on matters such as education, healthcare, the environment, infrastructure, and taxes. Some legislatures have such citizen-working groups, often called “Blue Ribbon Commissions.” However, the difference between a Blue Ribbon panel and a sortition group is that the sortition group would be randomly selected, rather than a “who’s who” of political donors and allies chosen by the legislative body to which it ultimately answers.
Four sortition groups would meet quarterly to decide on a range of issues within their policy area. Depending on the complexity and urgency of the issue, the sortition group would have two to four weeks to consider the facts and make a series of recommendations to the legislature, based on the evidence.
Sortition members would be barred, much like jurors, from being influenced by outside groups. Their room, board, meals, and daily expenses would be paid for through public taxes, much the way state and federal lawmakers receive daily allotments, and their jobs would be secured during their time of service.
State lawmakers would be required to implement the sortition group’s recommendations into proposed legislation, should it be approved; and provide a detailed, accessible, easy-to-understand analysis, should it decide to go against the sortition group’s recommendations.
Much like special interest groups that evaluate politicians based on how often they supported or opposed the organization’s key initiatives, state lawmakers under a modified sortition system would be graded by how often they voted with and against the sortition group’s recommendations. Voters could use the grading system to help them evaluate for which candidates they should cast their ballots.
The Magic of Sortition
Perhaps my suggested framework elicits more questions than it answers.
I am sure anyone can read this blog post and poke a million holes in my theory. But instead of talking about why things won’t work, let’s discuss possibilities to make it work. While sortition can’t solve all the human errors of the democratic process, it can be a path to achieving the everyday magic that happens when a group of concerned, enlightened citizens come together to build a new reality.