Threlkeld: Juries of citizens should select senators

Still catching up with the series of articles Simon Threlkeld published in 1997-98.

Juries of citizens should select senators

Simon Threlkeld

Toronto Star (Toronto, Ontario), September 9, 1998, page A17.

The current method of choosing the Senate is undemocratic. The public has no say in who is chosen, patronage is rife and the lifetime terms make senators unaccountable.

The best way to choose the Senate is for each senator to be chosen by a jury of citizens for a set term, say by a jury of 15 or so for a term of three or four years. The main virtue of juries is that they combine a capacity to make an informed choice with being a representative cross-section of the citizens. In a democracy there is no better authority than one which is both well-informed and representative.

Juries are representative because they are chosen from the citizens by random selection. In order for the selection to be truly random, each citizen must have the same chance of being chosen as any other.

Candidates can be given an equal opportunity to present their views

Juries are suited for making an informed choice because they can meet together face-to-face and work full-time for the weeks or months needed to become well-informed about a matter. Jurors can be paid so that they can afford to serve full-time.

Each senator can represent a district within a province. The jury choosing a senator can be drawn from the citizens in the senator’s district. When a Senate seat comes open, the candidates can be given a full and equal opportunity to present their views and qualifications to the jury in face-to-face hearings. Jurors will be able to ask the candidates questions, and will deliberate on which candidate is best for the job.

When the jurors are ready, they can cast ballots in rounds. In each round, candidates getting no votes and the candidate getting the fewest votes can be eliminated until one candidate gets the majority support of the jury. That candidate becomes the senator.

If the number of senators remains 104 and each is chosen by a jury of 15 citizens, then 1,560 citizens will have chosen the Senate. A random sample of this size is an extremely accurate cross- section of Canadians. If some provinces continue to have more senators per citizen than others, then the cross-section of Canadians choosing the Senate will have the same weighting.

Meaningful democracy is a matter of informed choices, not a mere matter of casting ballots. Juries provide an infinitely better basis for an informed choice than the popular vote.

With a popular vote, the public will only become informed about Senate candidates in their spare time as the spirit moves them and, typically, only on the basis of whatever limited information is available in the media. In addition, citizens will tend to pay far less attention to Senate elections than to elections for the federal and provincial legislatures because the Senate has far less power.

If the Senate is chosen by popular vote, most of the best candidates will be screened out. This will happen because an effective Senate election campaign reaching tens of thousands of voters will typically require a war chest of cash and the backing of a major political party. Instead of getting an open choice of candidates based on merit, people will, for all practical purposes, be limited to choosing between the well-funded nominees of the major parties.

By contrast, making effective presentations to a jury is well within the means of any capable candidate who can get a few weeks off work. Candidates with little in the bank and no party backing are on a level playing field with big spending party nominees. Jurors get a wide open choice.

Elected senators may be distracted from their jobs by the need to raise election funds, and will have an incentive to please the monied interests that can provide such funds in ample amounts. Also, because political parties will play a pivotal electoral role, an elected Senate will be dominated by party partisans. However, senators chosen by juries will need neither substantial funding nor party backing.

If the Senate is chosen by juries it will be far more credible than it is now, and will become world famous for its highly democratic method of selection.

Alberta’s example shows that direct provincial action is a good way to pursue Senate reform in the face of the federal government’s lack of interest.

When one of a province’s Senate seats comes open, the province can convene a jury of citizens to choose the next senator, and can insist that the federal government appoint the candidate that is chosen.

Copyright 1998 Toronto Star, All Rights Reserved. Posted here (Equality by Lot blog) with permission of the author Simon Threlkeld, copyright, 1998, all rights reserved.

4 Responses

  1. This is the weakest of Simon’s proposals. This may be superior to the existing process, but the diversity and representativeness achieved by random selection of the juries would be systematically eliminated through the process of selecting subsequent representatives (Senators). If society had a minority element that the majority was not sympathetic to (perhaps French speakers, Catholics, Blacks, or whatever) Each jury wold tend to have this majority sentiment, so a two-tier selection system will tend to weed out all such minorities leaving a homogeneous body. This is a majoritarian (anti-proportional) system based on the principle of distinction, even without mas elections.

    A jury recruitment/selection process is perfectly suited for selecting single executives (where informed majority preference is the goal and proportionality is impossible), but not for selecting members of a “representative” body that is to be deliberative.


  2. Terry, In the updated version of this proposal published in Canada’s National Post in September, I propose that proportional representation be used to choose senators (specifically that multi-member ridings – electoral districts – be used with the senators chosen on a proportional representation basis, such as single alternative vote). Such PR (rather than single member majority vote ridings) is better for the reasons you mention, and those I mention in the National Post article. (In each multi-member riding, a citizen jury would choose several senators for a set term on a PR basis such as single alternative vote.)

    I also want to keep the senate independent from political parties (for the reasons briefly mentioned in the two articles), so the PR method used needs be, and is, one that is also independent from political parties (unlike the typical PR schemes used for legislatures, which result in domination of legislatures by political parties).


  3. Terry, just so you know, at the time my first article on the senate was written (the one in the Toronto Star) PR was not remotely on the agenda in Canada, in which all of the seats in parliament were chosen on a single member plurality basis (they still are). That has changed now, with PR being on the agenda and being considered at the federal level. Mind you, PR was always the better option for the senate, even though I did not say that in the Star article in 98.


  4. Terry:
    >A jury recruitment/selection process is perfectly suited for selecting single executives (where informed majority preference is the goal and proportionality is impossible), but not for selecting members of a “representative” body that is to be deliberative.


    Where there is a multi-member decision-making body such as Canada’s senate, or a say a nine member board/commission/authority, citizen juries should choose them on a PR basis.

    A nine member board could be chosen in groups of three, with one citizen jury choosing each group of three for a set term. Each group of three could be chosen by a citizen jury drawn from a geographical area containing one third of the the jurisdiction’s citizens, or alternatively by a jury drawn from all of the jurisdiction’s citizens. The terms of office could be staggered, with each group of three being chosen by a different jury at a different time.

    I am reluctant to have a citizen jury choose more than say 4 or 5 decision-makers in one go (having a PR method of decision-making in mind), because it might compromise choosing those decision-makers on a well-informed basis.

    The U.S. supreme court could be chosen on the same basis as the said nine member board.

    With regard to lower level judges who make their decisions sitting alone, they could be chosen by a jury on a basis of majority vote. Or, alternatively, even though they may sit alone, two of them could be chosen by the same citizen jury on a PR basis, as a kind of compromise between the majoritarian and PR advantages of choosing single decision-makers such as trial judges who make their decisions sitting alone. (A compromise because two is a pretty small grouping for a PR method of decision-making, but on the other hand does anyone really want to be judged by a judge sitting alone who was chosen by for example the same 20% of the public – I am just making this statistic up for illustrative purposes – that thinks Elvis Presley is still alive or that the moon landing was faked?)


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