Should we talk about “mini-publics” instead of sortition?

22 Apr

I’ve had many conversations with people about sortition over the last several years, and I’ve never been happy with the term “sortition.” However, I’ve never found a satisfactory alternative. I suspect other people on this blog have also struggled with this problem.

I know of four terms, in English, to describe the selection process we’re talking about. Here are the problems I’ve encountered with each one:

Sortition – doesn’t have an immediate association with anything that people know about (for example, it’s not clearly related to the verb “to sort,” or to the noun “sort”). Also, it sounds like the word “sordid.”

Random selection – the people I’ve talked to intuitively dislike the idea of “random” anything (except random sampling in statistics) – let alone anything “random” connected to democracy (although, ironically, they do like random selection of jurors).

Selection by lot – sounds archaic, even Biblical.

Lottery (and related terms like Alex Guerrero’s “lottocracy”) – has negative connotations because it’s associated with gambling, and (in the United States) with educational lotteries (a few lucky families win, most lose).

What would be a better alternative? At the moment, I think it would be helpful to talk about “mini-publics.”

The term “mini-public” is free of the negative and archaic connotations of the other terms. People can understand it quickly and easily. And it focuses attention on a body of citizens, rather than on individuals (in my experience, when I’ve told people about sortition, one pitfall is that they’ve immediately started thinking about random selection of individuals).

“Mini-public” could be defined something like this – “a scientific sample of the public – big enough to be representative, but small enough to be manageable.”

Then we could explain how: (1) two kinds of mini-publics already familiar in politics – juries and opinion poll sample groups; (2) several other kinds of mini-publics (Citizens Juries, Deliberative Polls, Citizen Assemblies) have been tried in practice, with good results; and (3) there are a number of promising proposals for new kinds of mini-publics, taking on bigger roles.

I would be very interested in hearing ideas from others on this blog. And if anyone knows who coined the term, I’d like to know that too (I know that Robert Dahl wrote about a “mini-populos” so something like that).

(Note: Thanks to Terry Bouricius for including “scientific sampling” and “mini-public” in a list of possible terms for talking about sortition).


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