Sortition as Anti-Corruption: Popular Oversight against Elite Capture

The forthcoming article “Sortition as Anti-Corruption: Popular Oversight against Elite Capture” by Samuel Bagg is summarized by the author below.

Modern democracy depends on the idea that we can achieve self-government by electing our leaders. In an era of proliferating crises and skyrocketing inequality, however, many are beginning to suspect that this representative model is broken, and to wonder if the only way to wrest power away from wealthy donors is to give ordinary people more direct control of political decisions. 

Unfortunately, the track record of direct democracy is underwhelming. As it turns out, resisting elite capture isn’t as simple as ensuring that more people participate more directly in more decisions. In fact, many existing participatory institutions are quite vulnerable to manipulation themselves. Last year in California, for instance, tech companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars to pass an initiative denying benefits to millions of their workers. Meanwhile, procedures designed to boost public participation in regulatory rule-making have largely been co-opted by industry for decades. 
All of that said, we shouldn’t just give up hope. Real democratization is harder than it looks, but there are certain forms of direct participation that can help to protect the public interest. This paper outlines one such model—the citizen oversight jury—and argues that it can mitigate capture across a range of state institutions. 
At its core is the idea of random selection for political office, also known as “sortition.” Though it dates back to ancient Athens, sortition has attracted increasing attention in recent years as a way of disrupting certain forms of illicit influence. In short, any nonrandom method for choosing public officials—including election, appointment, and self-selection—will open up certain opportunities for elite manipulation. Only random selection eliminates such opportunities altogether. 
In light of this, many recent advocates of sortition have suggested that we replace many (if not all!) elected officials with randomly selected citizens. Yet sortition carries risks as well as rewards, and replacing elections with lotteries will not yield net improvements in all circumstances. Even if elites cannot influence who is selected to participate in a citizen legislature, for instance, they could still shape outcomes via the information and training participants receive after they are selected. 
When participants must perform complex, wide-ranging tasks that require lots of training, I argue, the risks of post-selection manipulation will outweigh the advantages of selecting them randomly. These dangers will be much less prominent, however, when participants are given simpler tasks that require less training. In such cases, the benefits of sortition are most likely to outweigh the costs. 
Drawing on this insight, I defend a model of citizen oversight juries that would empower randomly selected participants to make binary decisions on narrow questions whose terms are defined in advance—much like the verdicts juries must deliver in criminal trials. Instead of evaluating whether an individual is guilty of a crime, however, oversight jurors would evaluate whether a government decision is the result of capture. If so, that decision would be overturned or sent for further review. Even more importantly, the threat of citizen review would make capture much rarer to begin with. 
Many questions remain about exactly how citizen oversight juries should work, and exactly when they will be most effective. In the paper, however, I hope to have shown that citizen oversight has substantial promise as a tool of deeper democratization. 

About the Author: Samuel Bagg is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of South Carolina. Their research “Sortition as Anti-Corruption: Popular Oversight against Elite Capture” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.