My Turn: On citizens’ assemblies

Dennis Merritt, a resident of Shelburne Falls, writes in the Greenfield Reporter (keeping Franklin County informed since 1792!):

Judith Truesdell’s letter on immigration reform [“Illegal immigration”, April 24] made me think more about a friend of mine’s opinions on citizens’ assemblies, a form of sortition.

What’s sortition? It turns out the Athenian Greek democracy did not elect representatives. Instead they were chosen at random from the population. That’s sortition.

For some, the very fact that we elect our representatives is at the core of the problems with our government today. They argue that if Congress were made up of randomly selected individuals, who are demographically representative of the country, rotating through fixed terms, then a lot more would get done, and get done better.

Why? Because the representatives would focus on the issues, not the visibility of the issue and how it affects their fundraising and chances for re-election.

That’s clearly not going to happen any time soon, but there is a variation on the idea that is happening in places and could happen on a national level. It’s called citizens’ assemblies.

A citizens’ assembly is a group of randomly selected, demographically representative individuals brought together to address one particular issue, hopefully to make law, but at least to make recommendations. These could be relatively large groups. They would take input from various stake holders and experts. After making their decision, they would disband.

An example of a citizens’ assembly is a jury. Random people together to solve one particular issue. It works reasonably well, even for contentious issues. Imagine if Derek Chauvin’s fate was to be decided by Congress, rather than a jury. The vote would be split down Republican/Democrat lines with no one particularly caring about the particular facts of the case, like the medical testimony on what actually caused George Floyd’s death. All that would matter to the politicians is how their base, their colleagues, and their party perceives their vote.

They can be used at any level of government. Imagine a town wanting to come up with a sign ordinance governing what sorts of signs stores can put up, balancing the town’s esthetics and the need for local merchants to advertise. A great problem to form a citizens’ assembly to solve.

How about a town trying to decide whether or not to let in big box stores?

On a national level, take immigration. Imagine that a number of individuals, such as Judith Truesdell, were gathered together and asked to come up with an immigration policy that made sense. Not anyone looking to get re-elected, but people from all walks of life getting together to discuss, analyze, think about a plan that might work for the country.

They would listen to current experts, to immigrants, to employers of immigrants, to the Dreamers, to those who’s jobs are threatened, to those unhappy with changing neighborhood demographics, medical experts on disease, law enforcement, etc. etc.

It wouldn’t take that long for such a group to settle on a reasonable path for our country. It could then become law, and since it was decided by a citizens’ assembly, the politicians could wash their hands of it.

Maybe every five or 10 years the issue would be revisited in a similar way?

My friend points out that politicians don’t actually want to solve these sorts of contentious issues. Both sides need the issues to fire up their bases. Immigration has been used as political fodder since, well, since forever. Build the wall! Children in cages! Vote for us! That’s how we get the voters out.

Abortion. A citizens’ assembly could study and come up with a path that best reflects the conflicting opinions of the country. And when they did, well there goes another get out the vote slogan, no more Pro-Life!, Pro-Choice! being used to get votes.

Health Care.

Gun Control.


And so on for the issues of the day, leaving the politicians to do the more mundane work of running our government — and getting elected based on how well they do their job, and making more visible how they do it and what’s really going on when they’re not actually doing anything about the issues they campaigned on.

2 Responses

  1. A thoughtful and short explanation of why laws should be decided by citizens’ assemblies (aka civic juries, legislative juries and so on) rather than by politicians.

    Does not indicate how matters would get referred to legislative juries for a decision. That’s not really a criticism, as only so much can be said in a short article.

    As some of us posting on this the forum propose, an agenda jury could be convened each year and call for proposals on certain topics, with legislative juries deciding which if any of those proposals would be implemented, with in general one legislative jury for each topic. (However, if a large number of proposals are made on a topic, it might be best for several legislative juries to winnow them down to the top few which would go to a final legislative jury for a final decision. First of all legislative juries would screen out any proposals that in their judgement are not an improvement of the status quo. Next, legislative juries would winnow down any better-than-the-status-quo proposals to the best ones, with the few best ones going to a final legislative jury for a final decision.)

    Agenda juries could also decide to establish jury-chosen law reform commissions which could work out legislative proposals and propose them to legislative juries for a final decision.

    Elected politicians, including “superminorities” in legislatures, to use Alex Kovner’s and Keith Sutherland’s excellent term, could also propose laws to legislative juries.

    Something in the article I very much disagree with is switching the method of choosing the existing legislatures from election to sortition, and having that as an ultimate goal.


  2. […] way to appoint public servants. A paper discussed sortition with a focus on India. In Massachusetts a letter to the newspaper introduced its readers to the idea of allotted citizen assemblies. A new book asserted that […]


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