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Why the Election Day bomber wanted America to adopt sortition

It's an interesting form of government.


Mike Rothschild


Posted on Oct 17, 2018   Updated on May 21, 2021, 3:56 am CDT

Throughout history, countless men and women have been willing to sacrifice their lives for their belief in the superiority of their country and its way of governance.

But virtually none of them were willing to do so to advocate for the superiority of their country’s voting system.

Last week, federal authorities arrested one such man, 56-year-old New Jersey resident Paul Rosenfeld, who planned to blow himself up on the National Mall on Election Day. Rosenfeld was a fervent believer in an ancient practice called “sortition,” the term for governance carried out by eligible persons randomly drawn in a lottery.

While Rosenfeld’s plot to make himself a sortition suicide bomber would likely have killed innocent people, the government he advocated for is a real thing.

The idea of sortition goes all the way back to ancient Greece, where the city-states of antiquity would select their magistrates and low-level governmental officials at random, which produced a more representative cross-section of the citizenry, prevented power from being consolidated among the wealthy, and created regular turnover.

Proponents believe that sortition would be fairer, more diverse, less corrupt, and that would engender loyalty to the people, not a political party.

In theory, it might eliminate the professional political class, give all citizens a stake in the welfare of their government (since they had a chance to be a part of it), and forestall the need for costly and contentious elections pitting one oligarch against another oligarch.

A form of sortition is even used to this day in the United States to select juries—where eligible citizens are drawn at random out of a pool of candidates to preside over the fate of their peers.

Rosenfeld obviously took his frustration with the American governmental system much too far, but he’s far from the only person to advocate for a form of randomized rule.

A search of “sortition” on the internet brings a host of articles and theories advocating for some form of random lots being superior to the monied, aging, professional ruling class we have now.

They’re not all written by bomb-wielding cranks, either.

“Is It Time to Take a Chance on Random Representatives?” asked a November 2014 article from the Daily Beast, lambasting midterm voters for yet again electing “a group of people who, in aggregate, only vaguely resemble the American people” by being almost entirely older, white, and male.

Over the past few years, articles in the Emory Political ReviewSan Diego Union-TribuneCurrent Affairs magazine, and even the Washington Post have all made the case that America’s government by out-of-touch millionaires running in endless election cycles simply don’t represent what the country has evolved into—and it might be far better to leave it in the hand of random citizens.

“Instead of a legislature filled with the typical crop of ghouls, sleazes, and Small Business Owners,” write Brianna Rennix and Nathan J. Robinson in Current Affairs, “imagine one filled with schoolteachers, pipe-fitters, book-binders, typewriter repairmen, lifeguards, bellydancers, whaleboat captains, flight attendants, and strawberry-pickers.”

The United States isn’t even the only country with a burgeoning sortition movement—though it appears to be the only one where someone tried to advance said movement by blowing themselves up.

An Australian author named Tim Dunlop puts forth an audacious defense of sortition in his recent book, “The Future of Everything,” declaring that “voting has come to actively undermine “the will of the people” and we need a system that will restore their primacy. Sortition is that system.”

Declaring that the current system of western elections is “constructed in such a way as to exclude citizen participation—or make it extremely difficult or uncomfortable,” Dunlap calls for the formation of a “People’s House” made of randomly chosen citizens to debate and vote upon legislation., the UK’s Sortition Foundation, and Belgian political scientist David Van Reybrouck all advocate for some form of government-by-random-lots in their country.

There’s even a TED Talk on the subject, Sortition Foundation founder Brett Hennig’s “Should We Replace Politicians with Random Citizens?”

So was Paul Rosenfeld the vanguard of a new sortition-obsessed body politic? It doesn’t seem likely.

For one thing, Rosenfeld’s tactics were decried by commenters on the sortition blog Equality by Lot, where Rosenfeld had once posted an essay (though one prominent sortition advocate called his intentions “entirely honorable and even heroic.”)

But more importantly, there are some pretty serious problems with sortition that make it less-than-ideal for choosing a government in a country the size of the United States.

Studies of experimental political lotteries in the Netherlands showed only about 5-10 percent of the eligible population actually joined the lottery—with those people being overwhelmingly older and wealthier. They also are wide open to unserious, under-informed, and easily corruptible people joining on a lark or as a chance to grab some power.

Randomly drawn citizens are also unaccountable to voters. There’s no mechanism to show displeasure with their governance by voting them out, and the people not selected in the lottery have literally no stake whatsoever in the makeup of their government.

Even our current attempt to put sortition in action, the selection of juries, is fraught with ignorance, bias, lack of motivation, and easily misunderstood instructions. This does not seem ideal for running a country as large and complex as the United States.

Ultimately, Paul Rosenfeld’s misguided attempt to draw attention to what he believed was a better form of government ended in failure—fortunately. It also led to sortition having a bit of a moment in the sun, with all of the mockery that such an attempt inevitably brings.

Sortition is a fascinating idea and might make an interesting small-scale experiment. But as a form of national government, it doesn’t seem all that much better than what we have now—just bad in different ways.

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*First Published: Oct 17, 2018, 6:30 am CDT