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Theorizing Sortition and Election: The Case of Ireland

Fri, August 31, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Marriott, Yarmouth


Over the past few decades, many liberal democracies have begun to experiment with randomly-selected deliberative mini-publics commonly called citizens’ assemblies (CA). Ireland has made particular use of CAs, through the Irish Constitutional Convention of 2012-14 and the current Irish Citizens’ Assembly. Why conduct these experiments? What do democracies hope to achieve through CAs? Many reasons have been given, but one of the most prominent is descriptive representation. This is understandable; random selection is very good at achieving descriptive representation, whereas election (for reasons ably documented by Bernard Manin, and recently popularized by David van Reybrouck) is not. But curiously, descriptive representation hardly figured in the historical debates over sortition and election—debates that date back to the birth of democracy in Classical Athens. Proponents of sortition as a democratic method of selecting political officials defended the practice in various ways, but rarely does the idea of descriptive representation enter into these defenses. This fact matters, because there sortition (despite its simple nature) can make a number of distinct contributions to democratic practice, and a focus on descriptive representation obscures this fact. This paper will document the absence of descriptive representation from traditional debates over sortition, demonstrating how it was conceived more as a negative break against elite control than as a positive goal of creating “mini-publics.” It will then describe the implications of this fact for the Irish and other modern experiments with CAs.