Sort it Out! On the Use of Lotteries for Parliament Reform

maandag 29 april 2019, 13:00, dr. Andrei Poama

A couple of months ago, Arash Abizadeh, who is political theory professor at McGill University, delivered an engaging Public Ethics lecture at Leiden University’s Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs. Abizadeh argued that, in countries with bicameral parliaments, using sortition to select the members of the upper house (i.e. in most cases, the Senate) is preferable to voting when it comes to protecting central democratic values like equality and impartiality. Sortition is the mechanism whereby political representatives are selected randomly – that is, by using a lottery selection mechanism.

Though he is not the first one to entertain the sortitioned Senate idea, Abizadeh’s argument might still seem unusual. Traditionally, the Senate hasn’t been championed as a symbol of equality. Rather, it has been promoted as an institution that gathers the wisdom of a nation’s elite and/or protects legitimate interests of various social groups. So much is true for the Dutch Eerste Kamer, whose initial institutional role was to stall or moderate rushed legislative decisions that might have otherwise occurred in the popularly elected Dutch House of Representatives.

Abizadeh bases his proposal on the case of the Canadian Senate. But his argument, I think, can be credibly extended to the Dutch case. In fact, Abizadeh’s proposal would provide both a practically feasible and normatively desirable mechanism for reforming the Dutch Senate, an institution which – as the Remkes commission report recently showed – is looking for avenues to boost its democratic credentials. Suitably applied, sortition could not only make the Dutch Senate more democratic; it could also more generally improve the functioning of the Dutch parliamentary system.

Three Types of Sortition Proposals for Parliamentary Reform

Abizadeh is not the only one to defend lotteries as a tool for parliamentary reform. But his proposal is preferable to other available proposals. This is not to say that Abizadeh’s argument does not have some notable limitations, but it is to say that it is more persuasive than alternative sortition proposals. In what follows, I will briefly summarize three such proposals for using lotteries as selection procedures for members of parliament. I will start with the one defended by Abizadeh, and then outline two others. Though I have a preference for Abizadeh’s proposal, I don’t offer a conclusive case for it. Rather, my aim is to prompt a wider conversation about the scope and modalities for applying lotteries to the selection of political representatives.

Proposal 1: Sortition for the Senate and Elections for the House of Representatives

Abizadeh defends a bicameral system where the lower chamber (in the Netherlands, the Tweede Kamer) would be chosen through elections and the higher chamber (in the Netherlands, the Eerste Kamer) would be selected through sortition. The argument for this hybrid selection procedure unfolds as follows. In democracies, we want our parliaments to embody some central democratic values – most significantly, values like the participation in and influence of political decisions by various political actors, accountability of representatives, equality among citizens, and impartiality in solving collectively relevant disagreements. However, we know that different democratic selection procedures – most notably, elections and sortition – cannot honor all of these values at the same time. Elections are good at fostering participation and influence in the political process, and (when rightly designed and implemented) they are suitable institutions for making political representatives accountable, at least on (or around) election day.

Sortition, on the other hand, is particularly suitable for securing equality and impartiality. Unlike elections, sortition gives all relevant citizens an equal chance of becoming political representatives. It thus treats all candidates as equals. Unlike elections, sortition is immune to discrimination of specific categories of the population or to unwarranted pressures by powerful interests. It thus secures impartiality in settling the disagreements and conflicts that may arise in the selection of MPs.

The argument, then, is that by combining sortition for the Senate with elections for the House of Representatives, we can have a parliament which, taken as a whole, honors certain central democratic values (at least the values that are high up on Abizadeh’s list).

Abizadeh also offers an institutional sketch that would implement his normative proposal. In practice, candidates for a sortitioned Senate would first be randomly selected from the electoral list at a regional level. Those selected in this round would then have to agree to be considered for a second random selection. In this second step, an equal number of men and women would be randomly selected to form the Senate for staggered terms (i.e. not all Senate members would be replaced at the same time).

Proposal 2: Sortition for the Whole Parliament

A different, and significantly more radical proposal is that we use sortition to select the whole Parliament. This proposal has been defended by David van Reybrouck in his book-length essay Against Elections. Reybrouck’s claim is that selecting political representatives through elections cannot be properly justified on the basis of democratic values. Elections are aristocratic rather than democratic selection procedures, and the problems they create — like partisan oppositions or political exclusion — are serious and persistent enough for us to justifiably abandon elections in the future.

“True democracy,” van Reybrouck further argues, should rely on the ancient Greek idea and mechanism whereby members of legislative assemblies are selected by lot and not by vote. Drawing on Terrill Bouricius’s work, van Reybrouck proposes a sortitioned legislature with a somewhat complex architecture. Details to the side, its functioning can be summarized as follows. A sortitioned assembly would be composed of various bodies where the decision-making and decision-taking ones are sortitioned. The two most important sortitioned bodies are the Agenda Council — a comprehensive organ composed of 150 to 400 selected from a wider group of volunteers that sets the legislative agenda — and a series of Review Panels, with each panel composed of about 150 allotted members who do the remunerated work of writing and voting on legislation in specific policy domains.

Input from non-sortitioned citizens, groups and experts is allowed under this proposal. However, the choice of legislative topics and the content of legislation is ultimately decided by people who are selected by lot, not thorough elections.

Van Reybrouck notes that a fully sortitioned parliament is not achievable in the near future, so he does not reject the idea of opting for a “bi-representative system” similar to the one proposed by Abizadeh. Concessions to the side, the fully sortitioned parliament is, in van Reybrouck's view, the ultimate goal for polities that want to stay true to their democratic promise.

Proposal 3: Sortition for “Para-Parliament”, Elections for Parliament

A third, and by comparison most cautious proposal, is to use sortition for the selection of a legislative advisory body. This proposal has been defended by political scientist David Farrell and is now an institutional reality in Belgium. As of February 25, 2019, the Parliament of the German-speaking community in Belgium will have to work with two new sortitioned bodies. The first one is called the Citizen Council and it includes 24 randomly selected citizens who, for a period of 18 months, will be in charge of setting the legislative agenda. The second body will be composed of a series of Citizen assemblies of 25 to 50 citizens who will produce legislative recommendations for the actual parliament.

Unlike the two other scenarios, sortitioned citizens do not, under this proposal, have any decision-making or decision-taking powers. Strictly speaking, they are not part of the parliament. Rather, they can be said to form a para-parliament — that is, an institutional body that works side by side with the real parliament. They are an advisory appendix, not a governing legislature.


As already mentioned, it is not my aim here to offer conclusions about the ways in which sortition mechanisms can and should be used for parliamentary reform. I will however note that there is a sense in which Abizadeh’s proposal strikes a nice balance between democratic aspirations — where ordinary citizens are given actual political power — and practical achievability, insofar as it does not require an institutional revolution of the current parliamentary set-up.

The problem with a fully sortitioned parliament is that it might sacrifice democratic values — such as accountability and a sense of political influence and participation — that should not be sacrificed. The problem with a sortitioned para-parliament is that it only pays lip service to the potential sortition has for parliamentary reform. Moreover, a sortitioned para-parliament might get us stuck in a sub-optimal situation where it becomes hard to move toward a sortition body that has real decisional power. Both problems, I think, are avoided under the sortition for Senate + elections for the House of Representatives proposal.

The time has come for the Dutch legislature and citizenry to give sortition proposals serious thought. The public debate about sortition should, I think, be initiated by the Eerste Kamer itself. This might not be likely, since a sortitioned Senate would end the careers of professional senators as we know them today. But, though unlikely, exploring the idea of a sortitioned Senate would be both the intellectually daring and political virtuous thing to do. And who better than senators to help us sort out what intellectual courage and political virtue are all about?

Andrei Poama is universitair docent bestuurskunde en ethiek aan de Universiteit Leiden.

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