If not elections, what else?

“Our democracy is being wrecked by being limited to elections, even though elections weren’t invented as a democratic instrument.” — David Van Reybrouck

In Europe, voters are discontented. Some are deserting their party loyalties, erratically. Some are attracted to populists railing against the system but without an alternative to it. Unstable governments are becoming more common, and in Belgium the country went for over a year without a government. Then there are non-voters, those who have opted out of the electoral circus.


“Anyone who puts together low voter turnout, high voter turnover, declining party membership, governmental impotence, political paralysis, electoral fear of failure, lack of recruitment, compulsive self-promotion, chronic electoral fever, exhausting media stress, distrust, indifference and other persistent paroxysms see the outlines of a syndrome emerging. Democratic Fatigue Syndrome is a disorder that has not yet been fully described but from which countless Western societies are nonetheless unmistakably suffering.” (p. 16)

This is the diagnosis of David Van Reybrouck in his book Against Elections: The Case for Democracy, just published in English. The title of the book is challenging: isn’t democracy all about having elections? What about all those people in countries without elections, or with massive voter fraud, agitating against dictatorial governments and demanding fair elections?

David Van Reybrouck

Sortition versus elections

Van Reybrouck, to present another view, goes back into the history of democracy, which etymologically means rule by the people, the demos. In ancient Athens, the members of most of the important decision-making bodies, such as the Council of 500, the People’s Court and the magistracies, were chosen randomly, a system called the lot or sortition.

The kleroterion, used in ancient Athens for randomly selecting public officials

Athenian citizens comprised only perhaps one-sixth of the adult population, the others being women, slaves and foreigners. Although it was a flawed form of democracy, it was an extraordinary innovation for its time, a dramatic departure from arbitrary rule.

Sortition is Van Reybrouck’s special interest. He traces its use from ancient Greece through the Middle Ages in Europe. In Florence, Venice and other cities in several parts of Europe, sortition was used in combination with elections in intricate ways to choose leaders. However, only aristocrats were involved, with no popular participation.

Through the 1700s, popular participation in decision-making was only an idea, not a practical reality. People were ruled by hereditary aristocracies. Then came the American and French revolutions, resisting and overthrowing monarchies. What system of decision-making should they use?

According to Van Reybrouck, there were two options on the table, elections and sortition. The general view by key writers at the time was that elections were an aristocratic mechanism and sortition a democratic one. As we know, the revolutionaries adopted elections. According to their writings, they opposed democracy, being afraid of the lower classes having power. So they wrote constitutions that ensured continuing power for elites through elections, with only a limited number of landowners entitled to vote.


In the following decades, the franchise gradually expanded but the system worked largely the same way, ensuring that people were not directly involved in governance, having only the occasional and limited role of helping to choose their rulers. Along the way, the previous idea that elections were an aristocratic mechanism was reversed to the current belief that elections are democracy. This idea became so dominant that elections were written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Representative government is now called “democracy,” so other possibilities for citizen participation have to make do with adjectival forms such as “participatory democracy” or “direct democracy” or “deliberative democracy.”

“Electoral fundamentalists, we have for decades clung to the ballot box as if it were the Holy Grail of democracy, only to discover that we have been clinging not to a Holy Grail but to a poisoned chalice that was deliberately set up as an anti-democratic instrument.” (pp. 92-93)

The jury system

The best analogy to sortition is the jury system used in courts. Twelve or so citizens are selected at random to serve for a limited period, hearing from lawyers and witnesses and then reaching a verdict. Although jurors are far less experienced than judges, the jury system has several advantages. First, the jurors, because they are chosen by lot, are more representative of the citizenry in terms of age, occupation, education, gender and ethnicity. Second, the jurors have no stake in the outcome: because their time as jurors is limited, and they have no reputation to defend, they are less subject to influence or self-interest. Third, the jurors are able to deliberate, namely to discuss evidence and views with each other, each bringing to the discussion their own backgrounds and understanding. Fourth, serving on a jury provides a powerful education in citizen participation. Fifth, the jury system gives greater credibility to decisions: jury members are peers of the accused, not overseers.

Scene from 12 Angry Men, a classic film about a jury

Sortition involves random selection of citizens to serve limited terms in decision-making roles. The terms in office are limited because being chosen by lot provides no mandate. Those chosen are demographically representative of the community, and this representativeness can be enhanced by stratified sampling: for example, if women and men each constitute half the population, then half of the citizen jurors can be chosen from women and half from men, thus overcoming biases due to some of those selected declining or being unable to serve. Decision-makers serving for short periods are less susceptible to bribery and other influences from vested interests; furthermore, vested interests cannot groom individuals for office because there is no way to increase the odds of being selected.

Since the 1970s, there have been experiments with sortition, most commonly in what are called policy juries or citizens juries. Twelve to 25 or more citizens are chosen randomly from a specified population and brought together for several days to make a decision about a policy issue involving, for example, energy, genetic engineering or education. Neutral facilitators provide the jurors with written materials and arrange for experts, representing different positions, to give presentations and answer questions. The facilitators encourage a balanced and respectful discussion. The jury members then explore common ground and develop a set of mutually agreed recommendations, always allowing for a minority report. The experience from hundreds of such juries is that so-called ordinary citizens take the responsibility given to them very seriously, come up with sensible recommendations, and find the experience illuminating and empowering.

Van Reybrouck gives most attention to large-scale experiments: the Canadian and Dutch governments commissioned citizens panels to offer recommendations for electoral reform. Although none of their recommendations were implemented (being rejected by referendum or government decision), the experiments show the potential of sortition as an antidote for voter dissatisfaction and disengagement.


Van Reybrouck thinks the best hope for reform is to replace one of the two parliamentary houses – the house of representatives or the senate – with a chamber of randomly selected citizens. He provides tables showing the various options proposed by writers and political theorists, with special attention to a complex yet flexible model involving six different bodies, some randomly selected and some elected, each providing checks to the power of the others.

Van Reybrouck’s book Against Elections is one of a growing number of treatments of sortition. It is undoubtedly one of the most engaging. Van Reybrouck musters facts and figures and historical examples in a style that makes for compelling reading. There are plenty of references; Van Reybrouck has an impressive grasp of the topic. In the English translation (Bodley Head edition), the physical book is attractive in layout, slim and elegant. It deserves to be widely read.


Sortition from the bottom up

In plumping for a randomly selected parliamentary chamber, Van Reybrouck endorses reform, but a particularly difficult type of reform, because it needs to be instituted from the top. Yet the obstacles to this sort of reform are enormous. In Against Elections, Van Reybrouck notes the hostility of both politicians and the mass media to the idea of sortition.

An alternative road to sortition is to begin at smaller scales, in organisations and local communities. Rather than choose citizens to make decisions for a country with a population of millions, random selection could be used for groups of hundreds to tens of thousands, much closer to the original Athenian model. The newDemocracy Foundation in Australia follows this sort of road.

There is another sense in which Van Reybrouck looks only to reform: he assumes the continuing existence of the state apparatus: all those government departments and parliamentary staffers who, arguably, make most of the real decisions. As he notes, elected politicians can’t actually learn all that much about all of the hundreds of topics on which they are asked to vote, so they rely on party positions or assistants.


Returning to court juries and citizens jury experiments, one key feature is that citizens are asked to address only a single issue: a single court case or a particular policy issue. There is an opportunity for learning quite a lot about specifics, of hearing from a range of experts and for engaging in lengthy deliberations. This would be hard to achieve in a large legislative chamber dealing with dozens of different policy issues.

In 1985, philosopher John Burnheim in his book Is Democracy Possible? proposed an alternative to representative government that he called demarchy. It relies on randomly selected groups of decision-makers – namely, sortition – with one additional and crucial feature. Each group addresses only a single function in a local community, for example education, land use or transport. Burnheim calls them functional groups.

Burnheim modelled his concept of demarchy on ancient Greek democracies, not even being aware that when he wrote, pioneering work using policy juries was underway in Germany and the US. Demarchy can be considered the natural extension of policy juries.

Random selection is definitely an idea on the rise, in a variety of contexts, for example admission to university. Yet most of this is happening under the radar, from a very low base. Politicians, as might be expected, are resistant to random selection, even those politicians such as The Greens that officially support participatory democracy. So there is a very long way to go before sortition starts being treated as a serious alternative, as a way of invigorating systems of rule. Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections is a valuable contribution to the journey.


Brian Martin

Thanks to Lyn Carson for valuable comments on a draft.