Prinz and Garry: Democracy is due for an overhaul – could lawmaking-by-jury be the answer?

In an article in The Conversation, Janosch Prinz and John Garry, both from Queen’s University Belfast, advocate for legislation by ad-hoc allotted bodies.

They start off by recounting a standard list of instances of electoral disfunction:

Many will agree that, in practice, democracy leaves a lot to be desired. The system often falls short of its ideals: whether it’s the US congress causing a total government shutdown; Australian prime ministers being ousted by internal party politics; or the UK’s disproportionate electoral system allocating only one seat to a party which received close to 4m votes.

This misses the point. None of these examples is an indication of a problem inherent in elections. The problem with electoralist systems is not that they don’t function but that they function in favor of electoral elites and their allies rather than for the average person.

The question is, what’s the alternative? […] Just like a jury in a legal trial, a panel of citizens [could be] asked to consider a particular issue, reflect on evidence and arguments from both sides of the debate and reach a decision. The agenda of these citizen assemblies could be drawn up in a number of ways: through public consultation, or by an elected chamber.

The authors seem unconcerned with the fact that such a set-up would leave the elected, or other elite groups, in control of the legislative agenda. On the other hand they are rightly concerned about the effect of the information presented to the allotted and the ability of whoever controls it to manipulate the allotted body. Unfortunately, however, no real solution to this fundamental issue is offered. Saying that this material should be “fair and balanced” is no more than a platitude without suggesting how that can be achieved (or even what that really means):

[O]ne worry with sortition-based decision making is that it gives the experts who create the briefing materials the power to frame the assembly’s discussions. A balanced and fair-minded compilation of evidence and arguments is key for citizen-based decision making, so this is an important challenges for the advocates of sortition.

While showing only limited concern regarding the influence of elites on the process of legislation by jury, the authors are rather determined not to let the masses intervene:

[S]ortition has been successfully trialled in a number of scenarios – though in practice, the conclusions of the citizens’ assemblies have not been made directly into law. Instead, they have typically been put to the public vote in referendums, or have been used as a form of consultation for elected lawmakers.

[… W]e lose out on what makes a sortition-based citizens’ assembly desirable, when we mix it with a referendum. In both Ireland and British Columbia, the calm, evidence-based consideration of the assembly was undermined by the chaotic cut and thrust of a referendum campaign.

Another prescription offered for the use of sortition is that participation should be mandatory:

To ensure that the assembly represents the diversity of a nation’s population, and that we hear the voices of those who feel left out of the political process, there needs to be a duty for citizens to participate.

Apparently those “who feel left out” will not bother to try to change this situation so they have to be forced to do so by the benevolent designers of the political mechanisms.

The authors conclude on a hope/change note: “sortition offers a promising way of renewing our democracy.” The theme of “renewing” or “revitalizing”, or “taking back our democracy” is a recurring one in the writings of some sortition advocates. But such expressions imply, first, that the electoral system is a form of democracy, and, second, that what is needed is a return to some long-lost golden age. Both of those implications are counterproductive to the cause of meaningful democratic change.

Despite carrying out the important function of presenting sortition to a wide audience that is largely unaware of the idea, there is some doubt whether Prinz and Garry are serving what should be the immediate goal of sortition advocates: increasing the prevalence of the idea of sortition as a substitute to elections. It is clear that if sortition is to serve as an effective tool of democracy – rather than as a window dressing or a smokescreen for oligarchy – it cannot be applied as an add on to the current system. Rather, it has to be applied as a countervailing force to those working through the electoral system. When reformers ignore this fact they make democratic change less likely.

2 Responses

  1. O dear, here we go again. This presents me with something of a dilemma — the reason that John Garry has not been participating himself in the debate on this forum is on account of the strident tone (and personal nature) of some of the frequent commentators. So how can one respond to Yoram’s claim that initiatives like this are counterproductive as they will “make democratic change less likely” without putting the likes of John off participating. Basically I (along with 99.999% of political scientists who have devoted their life to studying the problem) disagree with Yoram’s view that the only problem with elections is that they “function in favor of electoral elites and their allies rather than for the average person”, but Naomi and myself have gone over the reasons so many times that they really don’t bear repetition. And as for the idea that sortition should simply replace election, I would refer readers to Dahl’s argument outlined in the last post, but as he rightly says in After the Revolution “if you think there are simple prescriptions, then we cannot hope to understand one another”. So who do we go with, Robert Dahl or a software engineer cum political activist who dismisses (without reading) the relevant political science literature as “dogma”? I’m conscious that by writing the last sentence I’m indulging in the behaviour that John Garry rightly condemns, but what else do you do when faced with a brick wall?

    Come on you 422 other followers of this blog, let’s hear what you think! It’s really boring just listening to Yoram and myself repeating ourselves.


  2. Yoram:

    >Apparently those “who feel left out” will not bother to try to change this situation so they have to be forced to do so by the benevolent designers of the political mechanisms.

    The reason for this “benevolence” is because without mandatory jury service the sample would not accurately mirror the preferences and beliefs of the target population. Given that most people are not interested in politics, the consequence is that the silent majority will be excluded as their proxies will not be present proportionately. Why do you find this problematic — do you think that only actively engaged citizens should be the ones to make decisions that affect all of us?


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