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Investigation of Whether the Lottery is a Democratic Institution

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Is the lottery a democratic institution?

Recent decades have seen a depth of research on the historical virtues and disadvantages of random selection or lottery and how these could be adopted to address deficiencies of modern day democratic institutions, to the extent that the question whether lottery is a democratic institution has given rise to many debates and deliberations. In this paper I am going to argue that the lottery is not a democratic institution by discussing my view of what democracy is, summarizing main benefits of sortition and arguing that there are no democratic elements in a lottery.

In his paper “The Original Meaning of Democracy”, Ober (2008) claims that democracy is “the collective capacity of a public to make good things happen in the public realm”. The word democracy stems from two Greek words, “demos” meaning the people and “kratos” meaning power. Democracy can be categorized into two types: representative democracy and direct democracy. At its most basic level, representative democracy is a system where citizens elect government officials to represent their interests.

According to Sorensen (1993) representative democracy is a system of “a highly inclusive level of political participation in the selection of leaders and policies, at least through regular and fair elections, such that no major social group is excluded.” Direct democracy, on the contrary, is characterised by citizens directly participating in decision-making by voting on issues and proposals instead of for officials to represent them.

The lottery was introduced as a means of selecting candidates to the Council or boule and to the courts and facilitated descriptive representation, i.e. participation of individuals from traditionally excluded backgrounds (Headlam, 1993). The phenomenon has been known as sortition and denotes the selection of citizens for public office by lot (Engelstad, 1989; Stone, 2012). It was to facilitate the prevention of the corruption of power and domination (Walzer, 1983) through randomly selected citizens so that the odds of a charismatic tyrant taking power would be very low. To further strengthen the transparency of the institution, the assembly saw its members participate in the “equal rotation” every year (Goodwin 2005).

While sortition may be viewed as having many plausible benefits, it is important to understand its disadvantages to the democratic process. Firstly, the random selection narrows the chances of selecting highly skilled and motivated officeholders and allows candidates with little or no experience into the decision-making process which might lead to inefficiency in government. Secondly, with random selection at its heart, there is a danger of allowing into that process a group or an individual whose views would not be reflective of the population they are to represent which could disturb the legitimacy of the selection process and the “consent of the governed”. Closely linked to the “equal rotation” or random selection is the issue of enthusiasm or lack of it for the often complex workload associated with the new role that an individual or a group have assumed advocating for their constituency. In representative democracy politically ambitious individuals or groups would display their leadership and act upon issues related to public responsibility, thus representing their constituents.

Finally, accountability and the “liberalism of fear” (Shklar 1998) which have become important features of representative democracy and lead to the possibility of the serving members of the elected body to be re-elected are not to be found in sortition which features absence of the mechanism that would allow the public to manifest its satisfaction or lack of it with the governing body (Manin, 1997).Having considered both the virtues and disadvantages of sortition, it appears that lottery falls short of becoming a democratic institution as it neither encourages political competition between skilled and motivated bodies nor offers accountability for the interests of the governed. It further seems to be undemocratic and leads to lack of transparency and inefficiency. However, a model that would incorporate sortition as a way to keep the powerful in check and descriptive representation that would allow inclusion and fairness among the constituents and aligned with the Athenian tradition (Aristotle Politics 1317b 22, quoted by Mulgan 1984) might prove a way forward for modern democracies.


  1. Engelstad, Fredrik. 1989. “The assignment of political office by lot.” Social Science Information 28, 23–50, 1989.Goodwin, Barbara. 2005. Justice by Lottery. 2nd ed. Exeter: Imprint Academic.
  2. Headlam, James W. 1933. Election by Lot at Athens. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Manin, Bernard. 1997. The Principles of Representative Government. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Mulgan, Richard G. 1984. Lot as a democratic device of selection. Review of Politics 46: 539-56.Ober, Josiah. 2008. The Original Meaning of Democracy: Capacity to Do Things, Not Majority Rule 15, no. 1: 7.
  4. Shklar, Judith. 1998. The Liberalism of Fear. In Political Thought and Political Thinkers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  5. Sorensen, Georg. 1993. Democracy and democratization: processes and prospects in a changing world. Westview Press.

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