If sortition is one key to a revival of democratic power, what is its ultimate form? Welcome to The Third Chamber


A very interesting interview with Yves Sintomer, a French academic who has been an advocate for sortition - the choosing of citizens randomly to help make decisions about policies and issues - for decades. Both parts of the interview are worth reading - the first part proposes that sortition, and the democratic mechanisms which it drives, may be a kind of answer to the Gilet Jaunes movement in France.

But the second part proposes a concrete institution that could embed sortition - a crucial element of the citizens’ assembly process - into the governance of a nation: The Third Chamber. (We might regard it, in the UK context, as a supplement to the Commons and the Lords - or perhaps a replacement for the anachronism of the latter).

From the interview (lightly edited for readability):

In your book, A short history of the democratic experiment (La Découverte, 2011), you have proposed the creation of an allotted “third chamber”, in addition to the [French] National Assembly and the Senate. What chamber would this be and what powers would it have?

We must not minimize the force and importance of social movements, with their spontaneous democracy. But at the same time, if we want durable change, it seems to me that it is fundamental to move toward institutionalization.

This is just as true for sortition. If we allow arbitrary power to convene allotted assemblies from time to time, with no obligation or constraint as to whether to respect the decisions taken, then there is little chance that society or politics would change.

It remains to consider the form that that could take. British colleagues made the following proposal that seems convincing to me. Create a chamber that is like the Heliaia, the Athenian court, that is, allot 6000 people for at least a year and then for each case allot among them a jury in order to study and take a decision on a particular issue.

That would avoid transforming those people into all-powerful representatives like those in the other chambers. These people would not be particularly competent and therefore if we want them to have a discussion and reach a high-quality decision, it is necessary that they would be able to concentrate on a question without sidetracking.

That would also limit the ability of lobbies to corrupt, directly or indirectly, this new type of representatives because they would not be able to know who will deal with what.

Finally, it would allow to “shuffle the cards” each time and prevent the formation of factions that would persevere across sessions, becoming “mini-parties” based on affinity groups. These people would have not only to be paid like elected officials but also to be guaranteed to be able to go back to their workplaces once their terms are complete.

The sortition would be among the citizens and even among all residents of the French territory. Of course, it should be possible to be recused for a valid reason.

What would be the powers of this chamber?

It could discuss extremely divisive proposals, and its decisions would go up for ratification by referendum, in order to break an impasse.

The example of Ireland is paradigmatic, and today, to conclude the “grand debate” called by the government, an assembly of this type could handle several topics, submitting proposals to a referendum so that all the citizens can decide. Then this chamber could hold political officeholders in judgement, serving as a judicial court for the elected.

There could also be the possibility of a veto on parliament approved-laws at least on “long-term” issues. It seems to me that one of the big challenges of representative governments is that future generations and non-humans do not vote although they have interests, values and rights to represent.

Conferring on allotted citizens the task of representing those is not a perfect solution but it is doubtless the least imperfect one for giving weight to the long term. I also believe that this chamber should decide the rules of the electoral competition rather than the parties.

More here. And see this paper by Sintomer, From Deliberative to Radical Democracy? Sortition and politics in the 21st Century