Briefing by Dr Keith Nilsen - 25th July 2006
I chaired and wrote the report on a conference on international electoral standards held in February at the UN in New York under the auspices of the Nigeria Permanent Mission and supported by the Campaign to Defend the Right to a Secret Ballot (CDRSB) and the Society for Democracy including Random Selection (SDRS). The conference discussed the electoral practice of using postal ballots without conditions such as illness or absence from home as a means to address problems of falling voter turnout. Both former US Presidents Ford and Carter consider such practices, which are also associated with increased levels of electoral fraud, 'threaten the hard won right to a secret ballot.' The meeting agreed to form an International Forum on Electoral Standards (IFES). Conference participants took the view that problems of democratic progress derive in large part from a failure to fully recognise and develop the American revolutionary achievement in its relation to common sense. Protection of the right to a secret ballot in accordance with the standards implied by Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is connected to problems of conflict resolution on a world historical scale. Much of these difficulties originate in failure to properly complete the transition from premodern government based on superstition and force to government based on reason and consent, due in the main to problems of conservative intransigence and lack of strategic clarity on the part of democrats.

The chief benchmarks of social progress in establishing universal standards of modern common sense understanding were set by the work and revolutionary achievements of the British people, and given concise expression in the American Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. The ideas embodied in these documents are based on the self evident truths of common sense which underlay and were clarified in their relation to those truths which can be derived from them by the development of modern scientific method and its application to the organisation of human affairs. Impediments to progress since the American Revolution may be attributed in large part to insufficient account being taken of these distinctions in their relation to political reform concerned with popular scrutiny of and experimentation with distinct forms of macroeconomic organisation. Jefferson's vision of a flexible, participatory democratic order able to facilitate radical constitutional review upon a regular, long term cycle was first deferred and later forsaken altogether for pragmatic considerations made more pressing given the slower and more problematic pace of reform in Europe in achieving stable and supportive advance. The construction of government based on consent has involved ongoing conflict between evolving conservative and radical perspectives, and in this context a consequence of failure to improve upon or address shortcomings in the American constitutional settlement has been the strengthening of tendencies towards chronic, factional polarisation within the relatively narrow, representative parameters of democratic power bestowed by the founding fathers.

In the USA conservative extremism on the question of slavery had to be overcome by force. In Europe this polarisation led to extremism, deepening social conflict and rupture of the tenuous relation between science, common sense understanding and political philosophy not only on the part of conservative forces but also of radicalism itself in an era of accelerating technological and economic development. The genesis of both left and right totalitarianism, and with this the main problems of democratic struggle throughout the last century may be attributed in large part to these difficulties. For these reasons modern democracy has not yet been developed in accordance with the basic truths of common sense. Although the United States remains the most advanced republic best able to serve as an example of leadership in global political progress it also remains the case that its constitution is too strongly oriented to the principle of aristocracy in political organisation and the distribution of inherited wealth. Sortition is the essence of democracy and it can be argued there is too little regard paid to it in US political process. Largely for pragmatic reasons arising from 18th century conditions the American constitutional convention upheld an exaggerated estimate of the requirement for specialised skills in all branches of Government, with the notable, and of course, fundamental exception of the judicial process.

Against this background democratic participation can therefore best be improved not by lowering electoral standards in regard to the use of absentee ballots, but by incorporating greater use of sortition and increasing, accordingly, the number of ordinary citizens paid for political work. This has a relation to the concept of 'equivalent voting procedures' in the UDHR definition of elections by secret ballot. Various pilot projects could be undertaken to test out such procedures, with a view to amending, if necessary, the US constitution in conformity with the aims indicated by Franklin, Jefferson, Paine and others in regard to the following concerns.

First, the principle that the earth belongs to the living - an appropriate constitutional measure developing the 16th Amendment on income tax could be adopted which strikes an intelligent balance between the merits of philanthropy, the dangers of state control and the relation between national and international tax regimes and cultural values.

Second, development of sortition beyond the judicial process to the legislature in regard to electoral practice, and, where possible, the executive in regard to recruitment practices. In this way greater numbers of ordinary citizens could take part in the decision making process. A policy of payment for citizens selected through sortition to take part in the legislative process, as was the practice in Athenian democracy, and was suggested, so far as I know, for the first time in the modern period by me to the CDRSB in 2003, should accordingly be implemented. There are also other areas in which the use of random selection in recruitment and election practices for both ordinary citizens and specialists can be employed: civil service, defence, media, academic institutions, security and social services, and industrial relations could all benefit from such a policy. In this way a flexible, participatory democratic republic can be developed which would provide an example to the world of how tendencies towards chronic, factional polarisation within the relatively narrow, representative parameters of democratic power may be ameliorated and developed to serve the general interest upon a still adversarial but nevertheless non-antagonistic foundation of political cooperation, common purpose and equality in the search for optimal solutions to problems associated with the correlation of social justice, economic efficiency, and human rights.

This in turn would provide the most secure foundation upon which related questions of conflict, poverty and oppression throughout the world can best be addressed. It is a self evident truth that sortition can serve to contain the deleterious influences of secret factions and chronic factional polarisation: constitutional reforms of this kind would therefore better facilitate struggle against and defeat of totalitarian enemies both by serving to promote broad unity among democratic forces and by helping to prevent infiltration and subversion of political, military, social and economic institutions by fifth column forces.

Conflict management could be pursued on an international scale first by informal, then by formal agreement in regard to these objectives of constitutional reform and to help deal with issues of ethnic and religious strife in the developing world. Constitutional reform could thereafter proceed both in the United States and in other countries in emulation of these changes, where suitable adaptations to local and national conditions could be developed. This could include the communist states, taking account of practical considerations concerning the need to maintain stability, chief among which are the existing ratios of private to public sector spending. The international aspect of such a process of constitutional development could accordingly be coordinated and appropriate changes in policy made, including within the United Nations and the Community of Democratic Nations.

These policy suggestions in the field of constitutional reform and conflict resolution are very wide ranging and fundamental, and will take time for the international community to examine and deliberate upon. There are nevertheless some practical suggestions for initial steps in facilitating these purposes which can at the same time serve as confidence building measures.

First, as recommended by the February conference, a report on global electoral practices with regard to the use of postal ballots and sortition can be prepared with a view to organising a further conference on international electoral standards.

Second, an enterprise specialising in the use of random selection for recruitment can be supported. I have begun such an enterprise and my business methods can be viewed on They include the use of automated, transparently predictive and retrospectively verifiable methods of random selection. This recruitment company can meet needs for such services in several areas, including security, defence, childcare, and banking, where problems of organised infiltration by antidemocratic forces have become apparent. I propose such recruitment activities could begin in the USA and Britain, where public records are longstanding and well ordered, which is a prerequisite for such business methods to operate more easily. Thereafter they could be used in other states and also with regard to international institutions. The chief merit of this approach is that it enables the use of sortition with particular regard for its purpose in preventing factional infiltration to be employed in its most objectively transparent form, as independently as possible of subjective influences. This is a specific, 'pure' application of random selection which has not yet been adopted in the modern period.

Although there have been a number of initiatives in the recent period in which sortition has been employed in the political realm, none of these have sought to employ random selection with an especial concern to make use of its specific merit in serving to prevent infiltration. For example, randomly selected groups of citizens have been asked to deliberate on various issues in a number of countries, including on voting systems - in particular, on proportional representation - without reference to the infiltration preventive aspect of sortition. One consequence of this has been that though such delegates have been chosen with reference to the use of random selection methods, further selective criteria such as age, ethnic origin, sex and occupation have been added to arrive at what the convenors deem to be a 'representative sample.' Coupled with the fact that citizens participating in these assemblies have, until this Summer in Athens, received no pay, resulting in a less than 10% attendance rate, the impartiality of their findings has been open to some doubt, most especially when consideration is given to the possibility that political factions may seek to influence them both by methods of infiltration and by the artificial weighting of further selection criteria. Nevertheless such exercises in what has been termed 'deliberative polling' claiming to incorporate random selection methods have, according to the British Financial Times (9th July 2006), attracted the interest of Tony Blair and George Papandreou, the present head of the Socialist International. Whether such methods alone will serve to address the democratic deficit of the European Union, as Papandreou apparently hopes, is open to question, given that, unlike the US constitution, the European Constitution has failed to uphold the right to trial by jury, which, irrespective of the intentions of those leaders and experts in deliberative democracy who must bear responsibility for drafting it, was the starting point of democratic development both in ancient Greece and in the modern period. A broader view is that 'deliberative polling' exercises are only first steps by Left leaders aimed to address longstanding problems of socialist strategy which in reality will require honest democratic debate among the politically advanced workers of the world and other democrats to fully resolve.

Finally, in regard to matters of conflict resolution in the Middle East, I would like to draw your attention to the proposals for the use of sortition in both electoral and recruitment practices which I submitted to the 1st July 2003 USAID conference on Iraq. These can be viewed on and were aimed at ameliorating problems of factional polarisation, and providing an impartial recruitment service in regard to the newly established Iraq security forces. These proposals were not funded at the time, but as is now clear, one of the chief impediments to democratic progress in Iraq is that the security forces have been thoroughly infiltrated by extremist elements. The Community of Democratic Nations is uniquely placed to support these proposals, even at this late hour.

I would therefore like to submit to this meeting these three practical sets of proposals for consideration and possible support by the Convening Group of the Community of Democratic Nations.