Sortition by lot was a form of selecting public officials in some ancient Greek city-states. It has been used particularly in the democracy of ancient Athens from which most information on the practice is derived. This procedure overturned the electoral races and allowed for the daily succession of the office holders. Therefore, the government’s activities were not in the hands of experts, but through the sorting system which at least gives the people some practical political education.

The Pnyx, a hill in central Athens – a place of popular assemblies, thus making the hill one of the earliest and most important sites in the creation of democracy.

The justification for this sortition system was the dignity of all men. Only those who put themselves forward as candidates were selected by lot to occupy the public office. Although military officers and some financial officials were chosen by polling rather than by sorting, most of the executive roles were broken down into small assignments, each of which was assigned to an annual board of ten members selected by lot.

In both Athens and Sparta, the male citizen body was relatively small (less than 40,000 in Athens, and perhaps a quarter of the number in Sparta). In Athens, they all came together and voted by a show of hands; in Sparta, they voted by shouting (those who shout the loudest won).

The Pnyx with the carved steps of the speaker’s platform in the centre

Bearing in mind the shouting alone, privacy would have been an issue. The Romans faced the question of privacy in the ballot box even more explicitly than the Athenians who had a form of secret ballot in legal cases, but nowhere else despite their democratic credentials. In the second half of the second century BC , the Romans adopted a number of laws to protect the privacy of the electorate. We know nothing about this in any depth, but Cicero ‘s conservative huffing and puffing makes it clear that this was a politically charged change which aimed to stop the elite putting pressure on the votes of the poor. And it was important enough to be shown on coins. Coins from that era suggest that voters individually picked out their ballot slips (wax on wood, most likely) from a basket as they walked across some form of “bridge”, then wrote the name of their candidate in the wax as they walked, and finally dropped it into the ballot box.

A 63 BC coin depicting a Roman casting a ballot

The sheer number of Roman citizens at the time would also have somewhat complicated things. There were some 200,000 voters in Rome by the middle of the first century BC and many more in Italy. The Roman people have always been divided into groups of voters who, through a series of extraordinarily complex and subtly shifting processes which proves to be a giant pain in one’s bottom to learn centuries later, cast one vote per party. The whole thing was quite modern as each group of voters delivers one vote and the person who gets the largest number of group votes wins, and the process saves time, and manages a massive electorate, because all the groups of voters vote simultaneously and conveniently in a location near their home.  Again, we have been voting in very similar fashions for more than 2000 years. However, the Romans never seem to have invented a local voting scheme, because anyone who wanted to participate had to come to the city itself and they never seem to have hit the idea of a party voting at the same time. Instead, each party voted sequentially, one after the other, so that it could take more than a single day to deliver the vote and an awful lot of waiting around for the average voter.

For those who wanted to be a politician, an electoral handbook survives from the Roman world full of advice on how to run an election campaign. The book is credited to Marcus Cicero’s younger brother, Quintus, and purports to be his advice to Marcus for securing his election to the consulship of 63 BC. It’s awfully modern in many ways, such as its advice to stay out of shaking hands and to make sure you still know people’s names. So really, politicians have been playing the same tunes for more than 2000 years and we fall for it every time.

The relief representation depicts the personified Demos being crowned by Democracy. About 336 BC

It was possible that Julius Caesar was working on some kind of reform of this. And by the time of his assassination, some brand new voting halls (saepta, or “sheep-pen”) had begun in the city to give a new home to the voting process. The irony, of course, was that Caesar’s dictatorship was in fact the end of free democratic elections anyway — and within fifty years the Saepta had been transformed into an up-scale shopping mall and antique market.

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