The Sydney Morning Herald: Democracy: now for Plan B

The Sydney Morning Herald writes about newDemocracy, “a mix of business people, academics and former politicians” and its agenda, filling in some interesting information about the founder of the group:

“You can march in the streets and make a noise but that’s not enough,” newDemocracy founder Luca Belgiorno-Nettis said. “You have to show more direction.”

Mr Belgiorno-Nettis, a multimillionaire director of Transfield Holdings whose family is one of Australia’s great migrant success stories, conceived of the research body seven years ago with the idea of improving the democratic process.

Perhaps the most promising idea to come out of the think tank is a proposal to include everyday citizens in forming groups which would consider some of the issues governments wrestle with each day. Known variously as citizens’ juries or citizens’ parliaments, they could make recommendations on topics big and small.

Imagine, for example, if you wanted to extend your home. Instead of lodging a development application with the council, your plans could be assessed by a panel of your peers along with some experts to advise them.

Mr Belgiorno-Nettis believes the application of the citizens’ jury can work equally well on questions of health care, education, tax reform and infrastructure as well as newer concerns such as climate change.

“Perhaps I am being a little ambitious but I would like to get to a point where we could run citizens’ assemblies, parallel to the Senate, in NSW,” he said. “It might sound a far-fetched now but, if there are well-minded people behind it and there is public support for it, well, why not?”

Americans’ approval of Congress is at all time low: 9%

A New York Times/CBS opinion poll finds that only 9% of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, and only 10% feel that they can “trust the government in Washington to do what is right”. Both of those numbers are the lowest on record.

Jose Baez: Our jurors are the lifeblood of justice

Jose Baez, who was Casey Anthony’s defense attorney, writes in the Orlando Sentinel:

Almost four months ago, the jury in the trial of Casey Anthony found her not guilty of murder, aggravated child abuse and aggravated manslaughter of a child — and the jurors have paid for it ever since.

They have paid for it at the hands of pundits and so-called veteran court watchers, who have relentlessly denounced the verdict and the jurors.


Some argue that the judicial system is broken and that this jury is to be scorned. They could not be more wrong. Our system of criminal justice has a presumption of innocence and a constitutional guarantee that we will face a jury of our peers.

As Sir William Blackstone said in his “Commentaries on the Laws of England in 1765”: “… a competent number of sensible and upright jurymen, chosen by lot from among those of middle rank, will be found the best investigators of truth, and the surest guardians of public justice.”

Sortition & Referenda

I’ve been rather quiet on the blog lately. I hope to change that in the weeks ahead. Rather than comment on some of the recent postings, I thought I’d raise a topic that I thought merited a post on its own.

One of the most common uses of sortition that has been proposed is to approve or reject legislation drafted by some other body–usually, an elected legislative body.  The new People’s Senate Party in Canada, for example, endorses this proposal. In some respects, this makes the randomly-selected house (hereafter Representative House, or RH) into a substitute for a referendum. Instead of seeking approval for laws from the people as a whole, seek it from a randomly-selected sample.

I think there’s a lot of merit to this proposal, but I have a serious concern that I think merits addressing. Basically, I think that there are two types of legislation. On the one hand, there is “must-pass” legislation–stuff like the defense budget, or the debt ceiling. There’s an interesting literature on legislation like this. Take, for example, the work by Thomas Romer on referenda for school district budgets. Typically, the practice is that if such referenda are not approved, the district budget reverts to some insanely low level, one that no parent would want. School board officials are assumed to want to maximize the size of the budget. And so unsurprisingly, Romer argues, they propose the maximum possible budget that a majority will approve via referendum (i.e., the one that leaves the mediam voter indifferent between approval and rejection). And given how bad rejection is, this could be rather large.

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People’s Senate Party in Canada

People: You, me, all of us.

Senate: An ‘upper house’ of parliament that reviews the government’s proposed laws and policies and gives them a thumbs up or thumbs down.

People’s Senate: A senate formed from the random selection (lottery) of the public.

People’s Senate Party: A party that believes BC needs this.

Politicians seem all the same, banding together in order to disparage their opponents. We might wonder why these members of parliaments cannot make consensus decisions in a civilized way, why the group in power must bully through their policies. (And why the policies are often contrary to the needs of the 99%) Unfortunately it couldn’t really be any other way than it is because the elected members are by-products of a system that demands these actions from them.

The People’s Senate Party accepts the adversarial nature of the legislative assembly but does not accept that these elected men and women should have the final say on the legislation and policy that affects us. We believe BC needs a Senate, but formed from a random selection of citizens similar to a courtroom jury. This Senate would use mutual deliberation and consensus to approve or reject the legislation and policies devised by the politicians. Our proposed senators, normal people like you and me (in fact you could be one if you win this senator lottery), could even suggest legislation of their own.

This political jury, we’re calling a People’s Senate.

Athenian Democracy Reincarnate

Athenian democracy involved a combination of sortition (boule, juries and most magistracies) and direct democracy (ecclesia). Sortition fell into disuse in large modern states and direct democracy was replaced by representative elections. There has been a flurry of proposals recently for the reintroduction of sortition, but it is unclear how — or indeed if — this can be reconciled with mass democracy, as the latter is elitist, populist, undeliberative and frequently hijacked by rich and powerful elite interests, leading to sharp exchanges on this list. However a recent debate suggests an acceptable compromise, which I outline in this post. There would be three stages to the legislative process, with the relevant Athenian institution in parentheses:
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Fishkin: How to Fix California’s Democracy Crisis

Prof. James Fishkin has an op-ed piece in the New York Times:

One hundred years ago today, California voters added the ballot initiative to the State Constitution, allowing citizens to use petitions to bring proposed statutes and constitutional amendments for a public vote.

In the article Fishkin entwines two themes. On the one hand, according to Fishkin, multiple cycles of legislation via the initiative system have encumbered California with various laws that cannot be overturned by the legislature, and make California “virtually ungovernable”. He cites the two-thirds rule for raising taxes, mandatory funds allocation (40% to education), the “three strikes law” and term limits for legislators. (He also originally cited a two-thirds rule for passing the budget – this reference was removed from the article since last year Proposition 25 eliminated this rule in favor of passage by regular majority.)

The other theme is the troubles with the Proposition system itself – supposedly the cause for the passage of the problematic laws.
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