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Stephen R. Shalom:

"One suggestion for the political system we need that has been getting increased attention lately is the idea of democracy by lottery, or, to use the technical term, sortition. Sortition, it is said, offers a way to build a better society, avoiding some of the objectionable features of representative democracy.

We should note that sortition has long been part of the history of democratic thought. The ancient Greeks used it. Political theorists James Harrington, Montesquieu, and Rousseau wrote about it. The Trinidadian socialist C.L.R. James praised it in his 1956 essay “Every Cook Can Govern.”

It is possible to use elements of sortition in a political system that is largely organized around other principles. In the United States today we have the institution of the jury, which draws a randomly selected cross-section of the population to decide criminal and civil cases. There are problems with how U.S. juries work—racial discrimination in jury selection being one of the most significant — but the basic principle that it is appropriate to have a random cross-section of the people making these sorts of decisions is well established. Various theorists have proposed using sortition to choose one house of a bicameral legislature, or to provide various supplementary advisory bodies, or to democratize unions. Various experiments have been done with sortition for planning and budgeting and addressing tough issues around the world. In an essay I wrote some years ago proposing a participatory political system, I made use of sortition as a means of choosing the members of judicial bodies so as to avoid “the counter-majoritarian dilemma.” Xtinction Rebellion, the environmental direct action organization that began in the UK, has as one of its key demands that the government create and be led by the decisions of a randomly selected Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.

There are a multitude of ways in which sortition might be used and incorporated into the workings of a good political system. But what I would like to consider here is the wisdom of using sortition as the main structure of a new society. Some contemporary writers have urged sortition as an alternative to elections." (

Source: Winter 2020 (New Politics, Vol. XVII, No. 4, Whole Number 68)

C.L.R. James

"Marxist theorist and activist C. L. R. James, in his 1956 essay ‘Every Cook Can Govern‘, did not offer any specific plan for incorporating sortition into modern government. Instead, James forcefully offers sortition as a radical tool for democratizing government, reflecting in practice the idea that served as the title of his essay." [1]

C.L.R. James began as follows, on Athenian Democracy:

- The Greek form of government was the city-state. Every Greek city was an independent state. At its best, in the city state of Athens, the public assembly of all the citizens made all important decisions on such questions as peace or war. They listened to the envoys of foreign powers and decided what their attitude should be to what these foreign powers had sent to say. They dealt with all serious questions of taxation, they appointed the generals who should lead them in time of war. They organized the administration of the state, appointed officials and kept check on them. The public assembly of all the citizens was the government.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Greek Democracy was that the administration (and there were immense administrative problems) was organized upon the basis of what is known as sortition, or, more easily, selection by lot. The vast majority of Greek officials were chosen by a method which amounted to putting names into a hat and appointing the ones whose names came out.

Now the average CIO bureaucrat or Labor Member of Parliament in Britain would fall in a fit if it was suggested to him that any worker selected at random could do the work that he is doing, but that was precisely the guiding principle of Greek Democracy. And this form of government is the government under which flourished the greatest civilization the world has ever known." (

Source: C. L. R. James, in his 1956 essay ‘Every Cook Can Govern‘,

More Information

Compiled by the Kleroterians:

  • The Political Potential of Sortition, Oliver Dowlen (2008)
  • Sortition: Theory and Practice, Oliver Dowlen and Gil Delannoi (Editors) (2010)

See also:

  1. The Nature and Use of Lotteries, Thomas Gataker (ed. Conall Boyle) (1627, 2008)
  2. Election by lot at Athens, James Wycliffe Headlam (1891)
  3. A Citizen Legislature, A modest proposal for the random selection of legislators, Ernest Callenbach and Michael Phillips (1985, 2008)
  4. Justice by Lottery, Barbara Goodwin (1992, 2005)
  5. Random selection in politics, Lyn Carson & Brian Martin (1999)