Most people believe that voting is democracy, and that an election is the only way to choose office holders…but they are mistaken.
The first democracy in ancient Athens chose only ten percent of their officials by election, selecting the rest by sortition—a lottery, which randomly selected citizens to serve as legislators, jurors, magistrates and administrators. The kleroteria (see photo) was a device used to choose the names of those who would serve.
In the United States, we have largely forgotten the democratic tradition of sortition, except when we select jurors randomly by lottery from the tax rolls. All democracies preceding the creation of the American republic—from Athens in Ancient Greece to Italian city states of the Renaissance—used sortition, not elections, to choose office holders.
Yet the American Civil Liberties Union and the United Nations still refer to voting as the “cornerstone of our liberty” and the “crux of democracy.” But they are mistaken.
Numbers Don’t Lie
Aristotle, the Athenian philosopher, explained that sortition is the best method of choosing office holders in a democracy, while election is best for sustaining an oligarchy, in which wealthy and powerful individuals can readily manipulate the election process. With sortition, statistical probability guarantees the random selection of office holders who truly represent the citizenry.
True representation by sortition is the bullseye of democratic governance. In a perfect democracy, every citizen’s interests would be given equal consideration, because a citizens’ assembly statistically represents everyone. No one would get preferential treatment by decision-makers, because the citizens themselves are the decision makers.
However, in today’s democracies, powerful individuals and organizations distort the democratic process by:
- giving large donations to political campaigns
- offering lucrative jobs to public officials after they leave office
- bribing officials with cash, travel and gifts while in office.
Around the globe, democracy supposedly won. Most countries in the world claim to be democracies. Even North Korea, led by a third-generation dictator, masquerades as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Yet in a world once dominated by monarchs, money now rules. Longstanding democracies in the Americas and Europe have become so corrupt that they not only miss the bullseye of true representation, they miss the whole damn target. The democratic process is no longer a deliberation: It’s become an auction, selling favors to the highest bidders.
What We Can Do
How can we build a new reality for democracy? Thoughtful change best begins with a public conversation. The citizens of most democracies still have at their disposal the ability to make change through voting, but the underlying challenge is to get people focused and mobilized to use that power effectively.
Let’s convene the conversation and explore the possibilities for achieving True Representation.
The authors of this series of posts about True Representation are:
- Brett Hennig, co-founder and director of the Sortition Foundation in the U.K. and author of “The End of Politicians: Time for a Real Democracy”
- Kerra Bolton, award-winning journalist, op-ed writer for CNN and former political party operative
- Ted Wachtel, author, founder of IIRP graduate school and CSF Buxmont schools and group homes.
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