Eyes on Canada: site of the next Citizens’ Assembly using sortition?

[Repost from http://www.sortitionfoundation.org/canada_citizens_assembly ]

Justin Trudeau, who will become the new Canadian Prime Minister next week after winning the  general election on October 19, has promised that the election will be the “last election” based on the first-past-the-post system.

But without it, he would not have won a parliamentary majority, so there will be considerable pressure from within his own party to renege on, or avoid fulfilling, his promise.

What is more interesting, however, is that Canada has a compelling history of using sortition in Citizens’ Assemblies to address provincial electoral reform – it happened in British Columbia in 2004 and in Ontario in 2006.

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Participatory & Deliberative Democracy in Ireland

Last week, I went to the Annual Meeting of the Political Studies Association of Ireland (PSAI), in Cork. While I was there, I attended the business meeting for the PSAI’s Participatory and Deliberative Democracy Specialist Group. The group has created a new website, which offers forums for discussions, a news page, and list of relevant publications. Everyone interested in participatory and deliberative democracy (which I would think most sortition advocates would be), especially in an Irish context, should consider checking it out. (Getting active on the page does require joining the PSAI, I believe.)

The specialist group page is at http://psai-pdd.org/.

Lasserre: Sortition in politics – the false good idea, part 1

André Sauzeau referred me to a polemic against sortition by Tommy Lasserre. This text is the most elaborate argument against sortition ever written (as far as I am aware) and it is therefore of significant interest to sortition advocates. In view of that, and despite my essentially non-existent French I have undertaken to translate it from the original French to English. The first part of the outcome is below. If your French is better than mine I’d be happy with any corrections.

Sortition in politics – the false good idea

By Tommy Lasserre, September 2014

Immersed in scandals, disconnected from the realities of the majority in society, demonstrating every day their total submission to finance and the dogmas of liberalism, and therefore their complete incapacity to pull us out of the crisis, the political caste today is largely discredited, in France as in the rest of Europe. This is expressed well in record low turnouts and in the rise of false alternatives, but equally, fortunately,, reflection, shared by increasingly significant number of citizens, about the ways to change politics. Suggestions for changing the Republic through a constitutional process, proposals for giving citizens greater control over our elected officials, in particular opening the way for recallability, garner, therefore, significant response on the Web.

Among all the ideas that emerged in the blogosphere or on the social networks, one idea, that could appear absurd keeps appearing frequently: putting the reins of power in the hands of an allotted assembly. It is often mentioned in conversations on Facebook, or in argument between bloggers, the controversial intellectual Étienne Chouard has made it his battle cry and the political party Nouvelle Donne (“New Deal”) even made an argument for this idea during the European elections.
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Istanbul Event

Hello All,

I’m giving a talk in Istanbul next week entitled “Is Sortition Part of Our Democratic Future?” The talk will be part of an event entitled “A Pilot Meeting for the Democracies of the Future Conference,” which will be taking place as part of the 14th Istanbul Biennial. There’s not a lot of information posted yet about the event, unfortunately, but the following page is available:


21st Century Democracy Conference in Alexandria Egypt

I have been working with a number of sortition academics to organize the sortition element of an international conference being hosted by the Library of Alexandria in Egypt starting December 9, 2015. Presenters will include many names familiar to sortition activists including John Gastil (U.S.A.), David van Reybrouck (Belgium) and Janette Hartz-Karp (Australia). The first two days of the conference will be addressing the “deficit of democracy” in the modern world and introduce participants to such alternative democratic reforms as sortition, participatory budgeting and varieties of direct democracy. The third day will be largely devoted to sortition and mini-publics. The Library anticipates having around 200 attendees (about half from the Arab world), and can accommodate a small number of additional people who have special interest in sortition. If you would like to attend the conference (paying your own way) please get in contact with me, so I can forward your information to the Library staff. Email me at terrybour(at)gmail.com.

Two recent sortition advocacy pieces by Simon Threlkeld

Simon Threlkeld is a former Toronto lawyer (law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School), holds an MA in philosophy (University of Toronto), and writes about democracy. In 1998 he published an article in the academic journal Social Policy titled “A blueprint for democratic law-making: Give citizen juries the final say” whose abstract is below.

17 years later, Threlkeld is still a committed advocate for sortition, and has two recent pieces in the Canadian press advocating the use of sortition in order to democratize the Canadian government and media. In both cases Threlkeld is not proposing to use sortition to select office holders, but rather to use sortition to select committees that would appoint the office holders.

In September Threlkeld proposed in the National Post to have the Canadian Senate members appointed by randomly selected juries:

Simon Threlkeld: Select senators by jury

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Rethinking Athenian Democracy

I’ve just finished reading Daniela Cammack’s PhD thesis (one chapter was presented recently here by Peter Stone) and would warmly recommend it — it’s mercifully short and extremely readable (available to download on the Harvard website). Chapter 3: The Most Democratic Branch? The Assembly vs. the Courts is of particular interest as it seeks to overturn the view that a) the assembly was the primary institution of Athenian democracy and b) the fourth-century reforms were conservative in nature. Cammack’s interpretation supports Yoram and Terry’s view that the switch in emphasis to randomly-selected institutions was in order to enhance the rule of the demos, rather than being a juridical a check on popular sovereignty (the view of Hansen, Ostwald, Sealey [and myself]). The courts (both legislative and juridical) were much less open to manipulation by elites as a) speech rights were restricted to litigants and persons elected by the assembly, b) isegoria was balanced by the use of a water clock and c) secret voting meant that it was harder to intimidate citizens into voting in any way other than by their considered judgment (aided by the higher minimum age and need to swear the dikastic oath). She provides several examples of assembly decisions that were heavily influenced by factional and elite domination
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Unthinkable: Should college places be awarded by lottery?

An excellent article in the Irish Times:

Unthinkable: Should college places be awarded by lottery?

Using a lottery is preferable to distributing goods based on ‘bad reasons’, argues political scientist Peter Stone.

Dr Peter Stone of TCD’s political science department believes there’s scope for greater use of lotteries in society as a way of keeping “bad reasons” out of decision-making. Rather than seeing lotteries as a failure of imagination, he argues that those who dismiss lotteries can “have the failure of imagination because they think there must be a good reason for distinguishing [between options], even though we haven’t found it yet”.

School admissions are a “classic case” where lotteries are preferable, he says, and he extends the argument to third-level admission. Criticising the recent CAO reforms, which try to minimise random selection in the points race, he provides today’s idea: “Not only should we not be reducing the amount of random selection [in college admissions], we should be letting more in.”

Voting but not talking

I just wanted to recommend a working paper by Daniela Cammack entitled “Deliberation in Classical Athens: Not Talking, But Thinking (and Voting).” It’s available online here. It’s not directly about sortition, but it deals with a number of themes discussed on this blog. The paper argues that the Athenians maintained a careful distinction between the function of presenting arguments and the function of evaluating those arguments, and assigned the latter, but not the former, to the assembly. This distinction, Cammack argues, is conflated by those who use the term “deliberation” for both functions.

I found this passage particularly relevant to contemporary politics:

In Athens, then, as in modern democracies, an overwhelming majority of non-speaking voters attempted to control a minority of prominent political actors who took primary responsibility for advocating and carrying policies. The key difference between Athenian and modern democracy was not that all or even many Athenians took part in political discussion, but first, that large samples of ordinary citizens had the opportunity to vote on every political decision, and second, that the barriers to becoming politically influential were relatively low, while the risks associated with this position were high. This is the reverse of the situation today, where a high barrier to entry as a politician–largely financial–is combined with a low risk of losing one’s position once established. To be sure, one can fail to be reelected, but this pales in comparison to the mechanisms of accountability available in Athens, such as routine annual audits (euthynai) covering both moral and financial issues. In many modern systems, by contrast, a feedback loop is set up in which corruption becomes endemic, since the high costs of running for election are in large part met by supporters whose opportunity to shape policy then becomes significantly greater than that of ordinary voters, with very little way for those ordinary voters to hold the politician in question to account, either before or after the next election.

Worth a look.

David Grant’s play about sortition to be read in St. Louis

The St. Louis Post Dispatch reports:

Global movement towards representative legislatures

St. Louis, Missouri, 18 October: A world-wide movement towards establishing legislative bodies that are fully representative finds expression in the staged reading of “Our Common Lot” by David Grant. The short play is written for an international conference, “Democracy for the 21st Century,” to be held in December at the Library of Alexandria, Egypt.

In the play, Marisa, Alma, Sami, and Ali live in a city embroiled in conflict and violence — the Regime, the Opposition, the Opposition to the Opposition. When the fighting stops, they ask themselves: What is the best way to move forward? “Our Common Lot” argues for choosing legislators in the way that the first democracy did – by random lot, known as ‘sortition.’

In the original Athenian democracy, sortition was regarded as a principal characteristic of democracy. Most recently the city of Melbourne, Australia has used a random sample of citizens to determine its ten-year financial plan. Two-thirds of the recent Irish Constitutional Convention was composed of sortitionally-chosen citizens.

The reading of “Our Common Lot” is its world premiere. The ensemble includes Adam Flores, Carl Overly, Jr., Erin Roberts, and Jacqueline Thompson.
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