Definition of terms: Sortition; Civil Service Candidacy


As I understand it, Sortition is a process of random selection to assign individuals for the performance of some civic function. The task may be anything from dog-catching to law-making and the pool (from which selections are made) may either be all citizens or some subset (based on relevant criteria). For example: jurors may be selected from a list of all registered voters but soldiers (when the draft existed) were chosen exclusively from male citizens between the ages of 18 and 26. In these well known examples sortition is used exclusively but it may also be used in concert with elections and examinations. No one argues that sortition will identify the best qualified individuals; only that it avoids the hazards of corruption and prejudice which may play a role in both of the other selection methods

Civil Service Candidacy

Purist advocates of sortition would choose legislators at random from the general population; with few restrictions and no further conditions. There are sound arguments in favor of this position but I also think we might use sortition to good effect in the following manner:

  1. A pass/fail examination, open to all citizens, that would assess basic competence in areas deemed relevant to the process of law-making.

  2. Sortition (for those who pass) to create a list of electoral candidates

  3. An election – Not so different from those we’re familiar with but certainly with a very short “campaign”; days or weeks, definitely not months. Opportunities for manipulation and corruption rise in direct relation to the time available for their action; a brief process reduces the danger.

Such a proposal raises many questions but I will only speak to a few:

  • The examination – If we believe in Democracy then the examination must be graded on a curve with (perhaps) a 50/50 pass/fail ratio; closer to a driver’s test than a bar exam. Perhaps not every citizen can be a legislator but every citizen should at least be able hold this aspiration in their heart. There should be no limit to the number of attempts that an individual may make. Ideally the exam would first be given at the conclusion of a High School civics class.

  • When sorting for candidates the finished list should be a faithful cross section of the existing racial, ethnic and religious composition of our society. If this requires some manipulation or “quotas” so be it.

  • More candidates are better than fewer and a multistage “run-off” style election would surely be an improvement over current practice.

  • Term limits – The pressures and temptations of incumbency are an inevitable source of corruption. A single term (shorter or longer) is the only safe course.

For most who reject the existing state of affairs some version of civil service candidacy ought to be preferable. Some will want a more comprehensive examination and others less; some will reject the idea of affirmative action; some may wish to have substantial age or experiential qualifiers included. The details are clearly a matter requiring lengthy debate. It is a debate which must be very public, and the end result may be considered “Democratic” only if a majority of citizens willingly support it.

Americans decided long ago that they no longer wished to populate their government agencies with partisan hacks; the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act passed in 1883. I am merely suggesting that we follow this thinking to its logical conclusion and extend some similar treatment to those most partisan figures of all, our congressional representatives.

There are undoubtedly other ways we might incorporate Sortition into our existing system but to me this seemed like the most obvious approach. It is presumably an improvement which may be effected on the State level by means of the ballot initiative; thus minimizing the need for legislative support and maximizing  the potential for  individual States to serve as laboratories of democracy. I imagine that Colorado, California and Arkansas would each approach the idea differently.