The introduction of sortition in elections in the Republic of Geneva (1691)

2. The medieval world and the modern world
By Raphaël Barat

In 1691, sortition was introduced in two ways to the process used to elect the magistrates of the Republic of Geneva. When the Small Council nominated candidates for the positions of auditor, attorney-general and treasurer, one third of the ballots were randomly withdrawn and burnt before the votes were counted. For the election of auditors, sortition was also used in the final vote by the General Council (the assembly of all citizens). Before the citizens voted, two of the six candidates were ‘excluded by the black ball’. The Small Council stopped withdrawing ballots during the nomination process in 1700, but black balls remained in use for the election of auditors until the Act of Mediation in 1738.Although the primary sources available make it difficult to measure the impact of sortition on electoral results, they provide information about how the mechanism’s introduction was justified by the government of the Republic in 1691, and about the problems raised by the new practice for the various actors involved. Sortition was supposed to deter candidates from forming cabals by ‘making nominations uncertain’. The decision to resort to sortition was part of a larger debate on how to prevent the formation of cabals; it could be seen as a response to growing criticism of oaths for their lack of effectiveness in that regard. Finally, we shall examine what problems were raised by the staging of sortition as a performance: should the black balls be drawn by a child, should it be done in the Small Council or ‘in the people’s sight’, before the whole assembly of citizens?


  • sortition
  • Geneva
  • seventeenth century
  • Republic (early modern)
  • electoral cabals
  • oaths
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