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In governance, sortition (also known as selection by lottery, selection by lot, allotment, demarchy, stochocracy, aleatoric democracy, and lottocracy) is the selection of political officials as a random sample from a larger pool of candidates. [1] The system intends to ensure that all competent and interested parties have an equal chance of holding public office. It also minimizes factionalism, since there would be no point making promises to win over key constituencies if one was to be chosen by lot, while elections, by contrast, foster it. [2] In ancient Athenian democracy, sortition was the traditional and primary method for appointing political officials, and its use was regarded as a principal characteristic of democracy. [3]


Today, sortition is commonly used to select prospective jurors in common-law systems and is sometimes used in forming citizen groups with political advisory power. [4]


Ancient Athens

Athenian democracy developed in the 6th century BC out of what was then called isonomia (equality of law and political rights). Sortition was then the principal way of achieving this fairness. It was utilized to pick most [5] of the magistrates for their governing committees, and for their juries (typically of 501 men). Aristotle relates equality and democracy:

Democracy arose from the idea that those who are equal in any respect are equal absolutely. All are alike free, therefore they claim that all are free absolutely... The next is when the democrats, on the grounds that they are all equal, claim equal participation in everything. [6]

It is accepted as democratic when public offices are allocated by lot; and as oligarchic when they are filled by election. [7]

In Athens, "democracy" (literally meaning rule by the people) was in opposition to those supporting a system of oligarchy (rule by a few). Athenian democracy was characterised by being run by the "many" (the ordinary people) who were allotted to the committees which ran government. Thucydides has Pericles make this point in his Funeral Oration: "It is administered by the many instead of the few; that is why it is called a democracy." [8]

A kleroterion in the Ancient Agora Museum (Athens) AGMA Kleroterion.jpg
A kleroterion in the Ancient Agora Museum (Athens)

The Athenians believed sortition, not elections, to be democratic [5] and used complex procedures with purpose-built allotment machines ( kleroteria ) to avoid the corrupt practices used by oligarchs to buy their way into office. According to the author Mogens Herman Hansen, the citizen's court was superior to the assembly because the allotted members swore an oath which ordinary citizens in the assembly did not, therefore the court could annul the decisions of the assembly. Both Aristotle [5] and Herodotus (one of the earliest writers on democracy) emphasize selection by lot as a test of democracy, writing, "The rule of the people has the fairest name of all, equality (isonomia), and does none of the things that a monarch does. The lot determines offices, power is held accountable, and deliberation is conducted in public." [9]

Past scholarship maintained that sortition had roots in the use of chance to divine the will of the gods, but this view is no longer common among scholars. [10] In Ancient Greek mythology, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades used sortition to determine who ruled over which domain. Zeus got the sky, Poseidon the sea, and Hades the underworld.

In Athens, to be eligible to be chosen by lot, citizens self-selected themselves into the available pool, then lotteries in the kleroteria machines. The magistracies assigned by lot generally had terms of service of one year. A citizen could not hold any particular magistracy more than once in his lifetime, but could hold other magistracies. All male citizens over 30 years of age, who were not disenfranchised by atimia, were eligible. Those selected through lot underwent examination called dokimasia to avoid incompetent officials. Rarely were selected citizens discarded. [11] Magistrates, once in place, were subjected to constant monitoring by the Assembly. Magistrates appointed by lot had to render account of their time in office upon their leave, called euthynai. However, any citizen could request the suspension of a magistrate with due reason. [12]

Lombardy and Venice – 12th to 18th century

The brevia was used in the city states of Lombardy during the 12th and 13th centuries and in Venice until the late 18th century. [13] Men, who were chosen randomly, swore an oath that they were not acting under bribes, and then they elected members of the council. Voter and candidate eligibility probably included property owners, councilors, guild members, and perhaps, at times, artisans. The Doge of Venice was determined through a complex process of nomination, voting and sortition.

Lot was used in the Venetian system only in order to select members of the committees that served to nominate candidates for the Great Council. A combination of election and lot was used in this multi-stage process. Lot was not used alone to select magistrates, unlike in Florence and Athens. The use of lot to select nominators made it more difficult for political sects to exert power, and discouraged campaigning. [11] By reducing intrigue and power moves within the Great Council, lot maintained cohesiveness among the Venetian nobility, contributing to the stability of this republic. Top magistracies generally still remained in the control of elite families. [14]

Florence – 14th and 15th century

Scrutiny was used in Florence for over a century starting in 1328. [13] Nominations and voting together created a pool of candidates from different sectors of the city. The names of these men were deposited into a sack, and a lottery draw determined who would get to be a magistrate. The scrutiny was gradually opened up to minor guilds, reaching the greatest level of Renaissance citizen participation in 1378–1382.

In Florence, lot was used to select magistrates and members of the Signoria during republican periods. Florence utilized a combination of lot and scrutiny by the people, set forth by the ordinances of 1328. [11] In 1494, Florence founded a Great Council in the model of Venice. The nominatori were thereafter chosen by lot from among the members of the Great Council, indicating a decline in aristocratic power. [15]

The Enlightenment

During the Age of Enlightenment, many of the political ideals originally championed by the democratic city-states of ancient Greece were revisited. The use of sortition as a means of selecting the members of government, however, was not strongly advocated for by many of the more prominent Enlightenment thinkers. [16] In fact, in those few cases in which sortition is discussed in Enlightenment literature, it is generally treated dismissively; even those Enlightenment philosophers who do address the subject of sortition and acknowledge some of its merits tend to ultimately decide against it as a selective method.

Montesquieu, for example, whose classic work The Spirit of Laws is often quoted in support of sortition, provides one of the most direct discussions of the concept in Enlightenment political writing. “The suffrage by lot,” he argues, “is natural to democracy; as that by choice is to aristocracy.” [17] In making this statement about the democratic nature of sortition, Montesquieu echoes the philosophy of much earlier thinkers such as Aristotle, who also viewed election as aristocratic. [16] However, Montesquieu rejects the use of sortition without much further consideration. “Yet as this method is in itself defective,” he continues, “it has been the endeavor of the most eminent legislators to regulate and amend it.” [17] Other writers, such as Rousseau and Harrington, also acknowledge the link between sortition and democracy, though they too demonstrate an unwillingness to accept it as the foundation of government. [16]

Bernard Manin, a French political theorist, points out the surprising nature of sortition’s decline during the Enlightenment in his book The Principles of Representative Government. “What is indeed astonishing,” he says, “in the light of the republican tradition and the theorizing it had generated, is the total absence of debate in the early years of representative government about the use of lot in the allocation of power.” [16] There are several possible explanations as to what forces caused this demonstrated disinterest in the use of sortition in modern government. The first potential explanation that Manin offers is that the choosing of rulers by lot may have been viewed as impractical on such a large scale as the modern state. A second possible explanation is that it was viewed as incompatible with the Enlightenment view of political consent.


Because financial gain could be achieved through the position of mayor, some parts of Switzerland used random selection during the years between 1640 and 1837 to prevent corruption. [18]


Local government in parts of Tamil Nadu such as the village of Uttiramerur traditionally used a system known as kuda-olai where the names of candidates for the village committee were written on palm leaves and put into a pot and pulled out by a child. [19]


USCAR Court select juries by sortition USCAR Court select juries by sortition.JPG
USCAR Court select juries by sortition

Before the random selection can be done, the pool of candidates must be defined. Systems vary as to whether they allot from eligible volunteers, from those screened by education, experience, or a passing grade on a test, or screened by election by those selected by a previous round of random selection, or from the membership or population at large. A multi-stage process in which random selection is alternated with other screening methods can be used, as in the Venetian system.

One robust, general, public method of allotment in use since 1997 is documented in RFC 3797: Publicly Verifiable Nominations Committee Random Selection. Using it, multiple specific sources of random numbers (e.g., lotteries) are selected in advance, and an algorithm is defined for selecting the winners based on those random numbers. When the random numbers become available, anyone can calculate the winners.

David Chaum, a pioneer in computer science and cryptography, proposed Random-Sample Elections in 2012. Via recent advances in computer science, it is now possible to select a random sample of eligible voters in a verifiably valid manner and empower them to study and make a decision on a matter of public policy. This can be done in a highly transparent manner which allows anyone to verify the integrity of the election, while optionally preserving the anonymity of the voters. A related approach has been pioneered by James Fishkin, director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford, to make legally binding decisions in Greece, China and other countries. [20] [21]

In Ancient Greece, a Kleroterion was used to select eligible and willing citizens to serve jury duty. This bolstered the initial Athenian system of democracy by getting new and different jury members from each tribe to avoid corruption. [22]

Modern application

Sortition is most commonly used to form citizens' assemblies. As an example, Vancouver council initiated a citizens' assembly that met in 2014–15 in order to assist in city planning. [23]

Sortition is commonly used in selecting juries in Anglo-Saxon legal systems and in small groups (e.g., picking a school class monitor by drawing straws). In public decision-making, individuals are often determined by allotment if other forms of selection such as election fail to achieve a result. Examples include certain hung elections and certain votes in the UK Parliament. Some contemporary thinkers[ who? ] have advocated a greater use of selection by lot in today's political systems, for example reform of the British House of Lords and proposals at the time of the adoption of the current Constitution of Iraq.

Sortition is also used in military conscription, as one method of awarding US green cards, and in placing students into some schools. [24]

Democratic governance of non-governmental organizations

Sortition also has potential for helping large associations to govern themselves democratically without the use of elections. Co-ops, employee owned businesses, housing associations, Internet platforms, student governments, and countless other large membership organizations whose members generally do not know many other members yet seek to run their organization democratically often find that elections are problematic. The essential leadership decisions are made by the nomination process, often generating a self-perpetuating board whose nominating committee selects their own successors. Randomly selecting a representative sample of members to constitute a nominating panel is one procedure that has been proposed to keep fundamental control in the hands of ordinary members and avoid internal board corruption. [25]


Political proposals for sortition

As part of reworking the state

To replace elected legislative bodies

Proposed changes to the legislature of the Parliament of Tasmania: A single legislative body of 50-100 people is selected randomly from the population and makes laws. One of their duties is the selection of seven members of an executive council Sortition Tasmania.png
Proposed changes to the legislature of the Parliament of Tasmania: A single legislative body of 50–100 people is selected randomly from the population and makes laws. One of their duties is the selection of seven members of an executive council

To choose legislative juries

To decide the franchise

To supplement or replace some of the legislators

To replace an appointed upper house


Representation of the population

A modern advocate of sortition, political scientist John Burnheim, argues for systems of sortition as follows: [61]

Let the convention for deciding what is our common will be that we will accept the decision of a group of people who are well informed about the question, well-motivated to find as good a solution as possible and representative of our range of interests simply because they are statistically representative of us as a group. If this group is then responsible for carrying out what it decides, the problem of control of the execution process largely vanishes.

This advantage does not equally apply to the use of juries.

Better efficiency

Magnus Vinding in his book Reasoned Politics argues that one of the main advantages of sortition is its comparative efficiency: first, according to the author, sortition “could allow political decision-makers to focus on studying and deciding on the relevant issues rather than worrying about sending the right signals to optimize their election prospects.” And second, “resources devoted to zero-sum pursuits, such as election campaigns and lobbies that fund opposing politicians, could instead be devoted to positive-sum endeavors.” [62]

Cognitive diversity

Cognitive diversity is an amalgamation of different ways of seeing the world and interpreting events within it, [63] where a diversity of perspectives and heuristics guide individuals to create different solutions to the same problems. [64] Cognitive diversity is not the same as gender, ethnicity, value-set or age diversity, although they are often positively correlated. According to numerous scholars such as Page and Landemore, [65] cognitive diversity is more important to creating successful ideas than the average ability level of a group. This "diversity trumps ability theorem" [66] is essential to why sortition is a viable democratic option. [64] Simply put, random selection of persons of average intelligence performs better than a collection of the best individual problem solvers. [64]


Sortition is inherently egalitarian in that it ensures all citizens have an equal chance of entering office irrespective of any bias in society: [67]

Compared to a voting system – even one that is open to all citizens – a citizen-wide lottery scheme for public office lowers the threshold to office. This is because ordinary citizens do not have to compete against more powerful or influential adversaries in order to take office, and because the selection procedure does not favour those who have pre-existing advantages or connections – as invariably happens with election by preference. [68]

Random selection has the ability to overcome the various demographic biases in race, religion, sex, etc. apparent in most legislative assemblies. Greater perceived fairness can be added by using stratified sampling. For example, the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform in British Columbia sampled one woman and one man from each electoral district and also ensured representation for First Nations members. Bias may still exist if particular groups are purposefully excluded from the lottery such as happened in Ancient Athens where women, slaves, younger men and foreigners were not eligible.


Greek writers who mention democracy (including Aristotle, [5] Plato, and Herodotus) emphasize the role of selection by lot, or state outright that being allotted is more democratic than elections. For example, Plato says:

Democracy arises after the poor are victorious over their adversaries, some of whom they kill and others of whom they exile, then they share out equally with the rest of the population political offices and burdens; and in this regime public offices are usually allocated by lot. [69]


Sortition may be less corruptible than voting. Author James Wycliffe Headlam explains that the Athenian Council (500 administrators randomly selected), would commit occasional mistakes such as levying taxes that were too high. Additionally, from time to time, some in the council would improperly make small quantities of money from their civic positions. However, "systematic oppression and organized fraud were impossible." [70] These Greeks recognized that sortition broke up factions, diluted power, and gave positions to such a large number of disparate people that they would all keep an eye on each other, making collusion fairly rare. Furthermore, power did not necessarily go to those who wanted it and had schemed for it. The Athenians used an intricate machine, a kleroterion, to allot officers. Headlam also explains that "the Athenians felt no distrust of the lot, but regarded it as the most natural and the simplest way of appointment." [71]

Like Athenian democrats, critics of electoral politics in the 21st-century argue that the process of election by vote is subject to manipulation by money and other powerful forces, and because legislative elections give power to a few powerful groups, they are believed to be a less democratic system than selection by lot from among the population.

Empowering ordinary people

An inherent problem with electoral politics is the over-representation of politically active groups in society who tend to be those who join political parties. For example, in 2000 less than 2% [72] of the UK population belonged to a political party, while in 2005 there were at best only 3 independent MPs (see List of UK minor party and independent MPs elected) so that 99.5% of all UK MPs belonged to a political party.

Additionally, participants grow in competence by contributing to deliberation. Citizens are more significantly empowered by being a part of decision-making that concerns them. Most societies have some type of citizenship education, but sortition-based committees allow ordinary people to develop their own democratic capacities through participation. [73]

Less political polarization

Elected representatives typically rely on political parties in order to gain and retain office. This means they often feel a primary loyalty to the party and will vote contrary to conscience to support a party position. Representatives appointed by sortition do not owe anything to anyone for their position.[ citation needed ]

Sortition could also reduce political polarization by removing some of its sources like election campaigns and lobbies. In a broader cultural context, the media would potentially be less centered on presenting politics as a zero-sum game for votes between politicians or political parties, which could lead to less political polarization as well. [62]

Statistical properties

The representativeness and statistical properties of institutions like councils (committees), magistrates (cabinets) and juries selected by lot were mathematically examined by Andranik Tangian, who confirmed the validity of this method of appointment. [74] [75]



The most common argument against pure sortition (that is, with no prior selection of an eligible group) is that it takes no account of skills or experience that might be needed to effectively discharge the particular offices to be filled. Were such a position to require a specific skill set, sortition could not necessarily guarantee the selection of a person whose skills matched the requirements of being in office unless the group from which the allotment is drawn were itself composed entirely of sufficiently specialized persons. This is why sortition was not used to select military commanders (strategos) in ancient Athens. [75]

By contrast, systems of election or appointment ideally limit this problem by encouraging the matching of skilled individuals to jobs for which they are suited.

According to Xenophon ( Memorabilia Book I, 2.9), this classical argument was offered by Socrates:

[Socrates] taught his companions to despise the established laws by insisting on the folly of appointing public officials by lot, when none would choose a pilot or builder or flautist by lot, nor any other craftsman for work in which mistakes are far less disastrous than mistakes in statecraft. [76]

The same argument is made by Edmund Burke in his essay Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790):

There is no qualification for government but virtue and wisdom, actual or presumptive. [...] Everything ought to be open, but not indifferently, to every man. No rotation; no appointment by lot; no mode of election operating in the spirit of sortition or rotation can be generally good in a government conversant in extensive objects. Because they have no tendency, direct or indirect, to select the man with a view to the duty or to accommodate the one to the other. [77]


In case demographic stratification is not rigorously put in place, there is always the statistical possibility that sortition may put into power an individual or group that do not represent the views of the population from which they were drawn. This argument is mentioned by Isocrates in his essay Areopagiticus (section 23):

[It was] considered that this way of appointing magistrates [i.e., elections] was also more democratic than the casting of lots, since under the plan of election by lot chance would decide the issue and the partizans of oligarchy would often get the offices; whereas under the plan of selecting the worthiest men, the people would have in their hands the power to choose those who were most attached to the existing constitution. [78]

This argument applies to juries, but less to larger groups where the probability of, for example, an oppressive majority, are statistically insignificant. The modern processes of jury selection and the rights to object to and exclude particular jurors by both the plaintiff and defence are used to potentially lessen the possibilities of a jury not being representative of the community or being prejudicial towards one side or the other. Today, therefore, even juries in most jurisdictions are not ultimately chosen through pure sortition.


Those who see voting as expressing the "consent of the governed" maintain that voting is able to confer legitimacy in the selection. According to this view, elected officials can act with greater authority than when randomly selected. [79] With no popular mandate to draw on, randomly selected politicians lose a moral basis on which to base their authority and are open to charges of illegitimacy. [79]

Since it is statistically unlikely that a given individual will participate in the deliberative body, sortition creates two groups of people, the few randomly chosen politicians and the masses. Identifying the source of sortition's legitimacy has proven difficult. As a result, advocates of sortition have suggested limiting the use cases of sortition to serving as consultative or political agenda-setting bodies. [80]


In an elected system, the representatives are to a degree self-selecting for their enthusiasm for the job. Under a system of pure, universal sortition the individuals are not chosen for their enthusiasm. [11] Many electoral systems assign to those chosen a role as representing their constituents; a complex job with a significant workload. Elected representatives choose to accept any additional workload; voters can also choose those representatives most willing to accept the burden involved in being a representative. Individuals chosen at random from a comprehensive pool of citizens have no particular enthusiasm for their role and therefore may not make good advocates for a constituency. [48]


Unlike elections, where members of the elected body may stand for re-election, sortition does not offer a mechanism by which the population expresses satisfaction or dissatisfaction with individual members of the allotted body. Thus, under sortition there is no formal feedback, or accountability, mechanism for the performance of officials, other than the law. [11]

See also

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