Chouard: An allotted referendum chamber

Etienne Chouard, who has been the most vocal and consistent French advocate for sortition, is having somewhat of a day in the limelight in the context of the Gilets Jaunes protests. Chouard’s other major procedural proposal is the Popular initiative (in french: Referendum d’initiative citoyenne, often referred to as RIC).

A major issue with the popular initiative process, which is practiced in Switzerland and in various US states, is the ballot qualification process. In order to cut down the number of proposals on the ballot to a reasonable number, some hurdle has to be introduced. This hurdle is usually set as the collection of a large number of signatures. This makes qualification resource intensive and thus much easier for elite interests than for the average citizen.

In an interview (original in French), Chouard lays out an interesting alternative:

Chouard: “The RIC makes it possible for a group of people, or for a single person, to pose a question for the whole of the people. One of the first questions to ask ourselves is how many people can legitimately pose a question. In Italy, in Switzerland, it is 100,000, 500,000. It could be a million. It is for us to decide. […] I would say that a single person should be able to pose a question.”

Of course, the immediate consequence of this proposal, unlimited RIC without a minimal quota, is chaos. To handle this issue, the blogger proposes a “referendum chamber” whose members are allotted ordinary citizens, as in the Athenian democracy.

Also worth noting, and commending, the way Chouard affirms his democratic convictions in response to the standard question about the danger that his proposed system would produce bad policy:

I am a democrat. That means that I support the people deciding their destiny themselves and making the most important decisions themselves. At the same time if we are really democrats and honest, then we must expect that from time to time there would be issues, which can be important ones, about which the people would make decisions that would not be the ones we would make.

The full interview (almost an hour) is available as a video.

14 Responses

  1. the blogger proposes a “referendum chamber” whose members are allotted ordinary citizens, as in the Athenian democracy.

    Not so. The Athenians only permitted final legislative judgment by an allotted sample once there was a simple majority for the proposal in the general assembly. The assembly vote was subject both to rational ignorance and elite domination, so the modern equivalent is the Swiss votation system (in which all citizens get to choose from the proposals that have garnered 100,000 signatures). If Chouard (or anyone else) considers themselves a democrat then they cannot rule out mass voting, however distasteful they find it.


  2. Keith,
    Many of us DO consider ourselves democrats and see mass voting as the weak link in the system exactly because of how it opens the door to elite manipulation and rational ignorance. Also, after 403 BCE a vote by the assembly (ecclesia) to refer a proposed law to a randomly selected panel (nomothetai) for consideration (and only such mini-publics were authorized to adopt new laws), was not a vote in FAVOR of the new law, but rather merely deciding the topic was worthy of consideration. I don’t think it is correct to equate a modern mass referendum to the Athenian Assembly vote, since those present at the assembly at least attended a meeting and would hear from advocates and opponents. They would not have allowed citizens who had not gathered at the Pnyx to vote on whether the proposed law should be forwarded to a mini-public for full debate.

    Obviously the term “democrat” is contested, with many assuming that it is BASED in mass elections, with others seeing mass elections as the most undemocratic aspect. Clearly the nub of the issue is what system allows the will of the people as a whole to have power and rule, rather than an persistent elite subset (whether that be politicians, wealthy, or military officers). Many of us agree that statistical representation through random selection with frequent rotation in office is the MOST democratic option that assure the people rule, rather than elites.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Terry,

    Judging by the excerpt from Chouard’s blog the proposal was also to winnow down the number of citizen initiatives (those worthy of consideration), not to decide the final outcome. Assembly debate was subject to rational ignorance and elite domination but the Athenians did not choose to bypass it, as the ecclesia was the primary institution of Athenian democracy, so the decision whether to send a new law to a legislative court was taken by a mass vote in the assembly. Modern democracy also requires that all citizens have a say in the laws that govern them, even if the final yes/no decision is taken by a representative sample. The Athenians only used sortition at the final stage of the legislative process, so Chouard’s claim of Athenian provenance for his proposal is disingenuous.


  4. So, Chouard is proposing that a randomly sampled “referendum” chamber” be used to winnow down the number of proposals put forward, correct?

    If so, I of course agree, as this is what I have proposed for decades, including in Social Policy in 1998. I have called what Chouard calls a “referendum chamber” a “preliminary jury” and a “qualifying jury” (with such juries having the power to qualify proposed laws to go to a legislative jury or a popular vote for a final decision).

    Signature requirements for referenda and initiatives are oligarchic and should be rejected for that reason. They are oligarchic because resources determine whether or not an individual or group can meet the signature requirement. If paid signature gatherers are allowed then a successful signature drive can be bought by a very rich individual or well funded group but not by those with small-ish bank accounts – this is plutocracy or oligarchy, not democracy. If they are not allowed then only those who can field a sufficiently large and determined army of volunteers can get a proposal on the ballot. This is also undemocratic, as it favours large organized interests with determined or even fanatical followers/members willing to spend their evenings and weekends gathering signatures.

    In addition to being oligarchic, the signature requirement is also arbitrary in the sense that having sufficient money or an sufficient army of volunteers does mean the proposal has any great merit, and the lack of such resources behind a proposal does not mean it lacks merit.

    Signature requirements are also a method of poorly informed decision-making, as those who sign generally do not give it a lot of thought, nor does the signature gatherer usually inform them of the case against the proposal. This is a further reason why the signature requirement should be rejected.

    Although we have been taught since child-hood that popular vote (in the form of popular election and possibly also in the form of referenda) is an essential party of democracy, it is of course nothing of the sort. On the contrary it is oligarchic because it favours those who have the most resources, including the most money, behind them. It is also unsuited for informed decision-making and should be also rejected for that reason, as only informed views are a good basis for public policy, or at least a better basis other things being equal than poorly informed and misinformed views.

    So, I agree with having a qualifying jury or referendum chamber, but I do not agree that the final decision be made by popular vote. Instead it would be better and more democratic for the final decision to be made by a legislative jury, with the only exception to that being if in the informed judgement of the people (through a jury) on a case-by-case basis it was better for that particular final decision to be made by popular vote than by a legislative jury.

    With regard to the Athenian Assembly, as of course people reading here are aware, only a fraction of the Athenian citizens ever attended at any one meeting of it, and sortition was not used to ensure they were a representative cross-section of the citizens. A sortition-chosen body to refer laws to a legislative jury would be more representative of the public than the Athenian Assembly, and in that regard an improvement on it. It would also keep the Assembly’s requirement that those who vote at least attend the meeting and hear the presentation of facts and arguments before voting (unlike someone signing a petition). So, I would say that a qualifying jury is an improved version of the Athenian Assembly, with regard to the qualifying of laws to go to a legislative jury for a final decision.


  5. Simon:

    >only a fraction of the Athenian citizens ever attended at any one meeting of [the Assembly]

    It was a very large fraction and (more importantly) any citizen who chose to attend could do so, and his vote counted no more and no less than anybody else.

    >A sortition-chosen body to refer laws to a legislative jury would be more representative of the public than the Athenian Assembly.

    Only under certain very demanding conditions, that we have discussed at length on this forum. And I imagine the Athenians would have viewed your suggestion as a direct assault on their democratic rights.


  6. An English version of a different interview with Chouard:

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Keith:

    > It was a very large fraction

    Was it? Not more than 6,000 or so could fit (if my memory serves) where the Assembly met, out of a citizen population several times that number.

    Surely you are not disputing the fact that a reasonably large random sample of the citizens is a more representative cross-section of the citizens than the Athenian Assembly, and than those who show up to vote in for example the US, UK and Canada?

    > (more importantly) any citizen who chose to attend could do so, and his vote counted no more and no less than anybody else.

    Why is it more important that everyone be able to attend and vote on whether to refer proposals to a legislative jury, than that those who attend and vote on that be a representative cross-section of the citizens? (If that is your view.)


  8. Simon,

    My criticism was Chouard’s claim that his proposal has Athenian provenance, and you appear to agree with me as you argue that the Assembly decision was defective from both an egalitarian and democratic perspective. As to whether a “reasonably large sample” would be more representative, the devil is very much in the detail, as other factors than size have a bearing (mandation, term limits, advocacy etc). Bearing in mind there may be thousands of proposals submitted, it’s hard to see how consideration by an allotted sample would be better than the cursory consideration of the Assembly.

    What is at issue here is the role of elites in democracy. Deliberation and advocacy in the Athenian democracy was largely an elite function and my argument is that competition between elites — and the resultant forensic advocacy — can be harnessed for the public good, so long as the final decision is in the hands of a large, short-term, quasi-mandatory allotted sample.


  9. Keith,

    > you appear to agree with me as you argue that the Assembly decision was defective from both an egalitarian and democratic perspective.

    Yes I agree it is inferior to an allotted body in those regards.

    > Bearing in mind there may be thousands of proposals submitted, it’s hard to see how consideration by an allotted sample would be better than the cursory consideration of the Assembly.

    In that case there would need to be multiple allotted bodies to consider them, (as there are only so many proposals one referendum chamber or qualifying jury can consider in an informed way within a reasonable amount of time).

    > so long as the final decision is in the hands of a large, short-term, quasi-mandatory allotted sample.

    On that we agree, with the proviso that as much as possible I’d rather see carrots than sticks in order to help ensure a representative sample, and with the proviso that it may be more economically efficient to have the proposal heard by a relatively smaller allotted sample that requires a super-majority to make a decision, with the proposal only going to a larger allotted sample for a final majority vote if the super-majority threshold is not met.


  10. Simon,

    I’m happy to accept all your provisos — I think we agree completely (Terry also?) on the rules for the final decision-making body. But I’m puzzled as to why you insist on sortition at the earlier stage, especially as this has a) no historical provenance and b) no properly considered justification in terms of democratic theory. If you end up with multiple qualifying juries then you need another jury to adjudicate between the juries. Much better to focus on something we all agree on and accept (whilst sub-optimal for those critical of the rich ‘n powerful) that a) competition between elites can give rise to outcomes that are in the public interest and b) elites will be obliged to introduce proposals that appeal to the statistically-representative jury, who have the final decision power. As the Athenians found (anticipating Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees by two millennia) it is better to harness elite competition for the general good than attempt to bypass them and force them underground.


  11. Keith,
    I bet Simon would agree with me that we have no objection to harnessing elites into preparing proposals for mini-publics to consider. The objection is to giving a monopoly or even an institutionally privileged role to elites. In Sparta, wealthy elites had exclusive power to offer proposals to the citizens in assembly (yes, Sparta had an assembly like Athens), and thus Sparta was NOT considered a democracy. The idea of democracy is that ANYONE can participate in making proposals through some established means, and it is likely that politically active elites, think tanks and special interests will pursue this option. But ordinary citizens must be able to make proposals as well. We all agree that with mountains of proposals being generated we need a filtering process to reduce this list down to a manageable number worthy of being perfected for consideration. Again, suspecting I still speak for Simon, we would like that filtering process to be democratic rather than elite dominated. But the filtering mechanism needs to promote INFORMED decision-making which a mass votation system or referendum election can never achieve simply due to rational ignorance. The mini-public is the only democratic tool that can allow the well-informed citizenry (in microcosm) to do the filtering (though possibly some sort of online crowdsourcing procedure could play a role as well). We agree that a mini-public must make the final decision, but where we disagree is that Simon and I want a democratic process in the proposal generation and agenda setting (filtering) process as well. This will not EXCLUDE elites, but will not advantage them, as is the case in modern electoral “democracies.”

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Terry, we are indeed on the same page, as you suspected.

    Keith, we do indeed agree on much.

    Ordinary citizens and public interest groups need to be able to propose laws to legislative minipublics. This is part of rule by the people, the exercise of that rule in an informed way, the political equality of citizens, and ensuring that legislative juries get an open choice of the best possible proposed laws.

    In addition, advisory law reform juries (numbering perhaps 50 to 100 or so citizens) along the lines of the Irish Citizens’ Assembly can also be convened to work out and propose laws, and be given the power to put those proposed laws to legislative juries for a final decision. A law reform jury could choose its own advocates to present their proposed law to a legislative jury.

    Also, there could be law reform commissions chosen by jury that would be able to work out and put proposed laws to a legislative jury for a final decision.

    Other jury-chosen officials could also have the power to propose laws to legislative juries/minipublics. For example, a jury-chosen Federal Communications Commission could be given the power to work out and propose laws within their area of expertise (communications) to legislative juries for a final decision.

    I do not call for abolishing politicians and Congress, but do believe it contrary to democracy for them to be able to decide laws. Instead they should only be able to propose laws which would be decided by jury. I do regard choosing politicians by popular election as undemocratic and propose they be chosen by jury. But in any case, it is contrary to democracy for politicians to decide laws (as I think we all agree).

    Keith, we don’t need to worry about qualifying juries qualifying conflicting laws, as long as all those conflicting laws go to the same legislative jury which can decide which one of them (if any) goes into effect.


  13. Simon/Terry,

    For the sake of clarity, let’s catalogue the things we agree and disagree on:

    1) We agree on the analytic distinction between the different stages of the legislative process — 1) policy proposal 2) winnowing down and 3) final legislative judgment. We also agree that the three stages should be consecutive and executed by different personnel, only differing on how the persons should be selected.

    2) We agree that anyone should be able to make a policy proposal (the Athenian principle of ho boulomenos). In my thesis I mention petitions (on government websites, etc), knowledge markets, crowdsourcing and public competitions with generous prizes (using John Harrison’s solution to the longitude problem as the illustration). You reject a role for political parties and competitive media (representative isegoria in my terminology) as you think this just privileges the rich ‘n powerful; whereas I reject your (shared?) notion of advisory law reform juries as they are of necessity small, voluntary and long-term. This rules out the descriptive representation mandate, makes them liable to infiltration and domination by political activists, and wide open to corruption by lobbyists. In addition there is no historical precedent (I hope nobody trots out the old canard of the Athenian council). And in my thesis I provide a detailed rejoinder to Helene Landemore’s claim regarding random selection and epistemic diversity for ho boulomenos — none of the three examples she provides demonstrate a potential role for sortition in developing policy proposals. So whilst we agree on the principle of ho boulomenos, we disagree on how best to implement it in large multicultural societies where (IMO) isegoria has to be just as representative as isonomia.

    3) We disagree on how best to winnow down the vast number of policy proposals that are likely to come in. You argue that mass signature gathering for petitions (100,000) unduly privilege the rich ‘n powerful — however the petition for a Brexit CA has so far only garnered 3,215 signatures, despite repeated plugging by the Guardian newspaper and various pressure groups. I think you also underplay the role of social media trending and crowdsourcing in undermining the domination of the MSM. You also (rightly) claim that mass signatures and Swiss-style votations (in which all voters rank proposals that have passed the signature threshold) are subject to rational ignorance. I counter that this is the modern analogue of the Athenian assembly (the key democratic institution) and that your proposal to deprive the vast majority of citizens of any direct involvement in the democratic process is unlikely to succeed (for obvious reasons).

    3) We are in complete agreement that the final legislative decision should be taken by a large randomly-selected jury, following closely the procedures of the Athenian nomothetai. Given this “trial” will provide full epistemic and democratic oversight, I would beg you both to focus on the one thing we all agree on and has some reasonable chance of implementation, given both its ancient and modern (trial jury) provenance. We’re pushing at an open door, but your argument for sortition as the only valid mechanism (from a democratic and epistemic perspective) will only damage our cause in the eyes of voters, elected politicians and political theorists. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so let’s get the foundations right before going for the New Jerusalem (forgive the mixed allusions).


  14. […] Jaunes, a mass movement whose agenda was not just anti-government but also anti-electoralist. A popular initiative process (Referendum d’initiative citoyenne, or RIC) and to a lesser extent sortition were a major […]


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