Deliberative assemblies are finding their feet – but also facing political barriers

On Friday the 16th of October, the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College hosted a webinar entitled ‘Revitalizing Democracy: Sortition, Citizen Power, and Spaces of Freedom’, which you can watch here. The workshop heavily featured people putting sortition into practice right now, and so the overall focus was very much on deliberative assemblies in advisory roles, rather than non-deliberative juries or lawmaking roles. If you’d rather not spend the whole day watching a videoconference, here’s the CliffsNotes:

David Van Reybrouck, who gave one of the keynotes, helped design the new citizens’ council and assembly system in the parliament of the German-speaking region of Belgium – an area with only 76 000 citizens, but devolved powers similar to Scotland’s. The system involves a permanent citizens’ council and temporary citizens’ assemblies, both selected by sortition, as well as a permanent secretary who acts as a sort of ombudsman for the system. The council sets the agenda for the assemblies, and chases up their conclusions in the regional parliament – essentially acting as an official lobby group for the assemblies’ recommendations. Politicians have to report back to the council a year after each assembly, setting out how they’ve acted on their recommendations and, if they’ve deviated from them, why. In this respect it is a major step forward in the institutionalisation of sortition. Under the Belgian constitution, however, sortitional bodies cannot be given legislative power, so the assemblies are restricted to an advisory role until and unless momentum can be built for a constitutional amendment.

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Sortition to select a Board of Directors

The US Chapter of the Sortition Foundation is changing its name to Democracy Without Elections. We are still affiliated with the Sortition Foundation.

We will be using an online democratic lottery on Sunday to select nine Directors for our new Board from our 80+ members. No stratification will be used, and no preference given to whether a person is active or not. Do you know of any Boards who use sortition to select their Directors?

We have a new website: https://www.democracywithoutelections.org/. It was determined that the website will be geared towards people who have just heard about democratic lotteries. Contact me if you have suggestions for the website. Obviously the citizens’ assembly and history sections need expansion.

Today German Bundestag Live Committee Discussion of “Citizen Engagement” via Sortition

With the title, “A New Form of Citizen Participation,” a special subcommittee of the German Parliament [of the Bundestag or popular assembly] convenes a “technical discussion” of experts on October 6 at noon Berlin time on the upcoming citizens’ assembly on “the role of Germany in the world.” It will be live-streamed at http://www.bundestag.de.

“A lot-based Citizens Council will produce a report on Germany’s role in the world. This project will be implemented as an independent undertaking of the More Democracy association [Mehr Demokratie e. V.] under the patronage of the President of the Bundestag,” reads the announcement of the Bundestag.

It continues that this kind of participation has been practiced in Ireland since 2012 as “Citizens’ Assembly.” The ambassador of Ireland will be a special guest of the committee to report on the Irish experience with “citizens’ councils.” [In Germany the term Buergerrat or “citizen council” has come to mean an allotted body of either the size of a panel or an assembly; it seems, the literal translation of assembly has the connotation of an Ekklesia or gathering of all.]

  • Dr. Nicholas O’Brien, Ambassador from Ireland
  • Roman Huber, Executive Director, Mehr Demokratie e. V. [More Democracy]
  • Dr. Siri Hummel, Acting Director, Maecenata Institute for Philanthropy and Civil Society
  • Dr. Ansgar Klein, Managing Policy Director, Federal Network for Citizen Engagement, [Bundesnetzwerk Bürgerschaftliches Engagement (BBE)] Advisory Board of Bürgerrat Demokratie [the organization which organized the CA on democratic reform in 2019]
  • Univ.-Prof. Dr. Roland Lhotta, Helmut-Schmidt-Universität Hamburg, Professor, Political Science, specializing in the German Federal System

https://www.bundestag.de/dokumente/textarchiv/2020/kw41-pa-buergerschaftliches-engagement-793926

More info in English regarding the upcoming CA on Germany’s role in the world: https://deutschlands-rolle.buergerrat.de/english/

Rothchild: “Ancient wisdom” in MI’s new redistricting process

John Rothchild, Professor of Law at Wayne State University, writes approvingly in The Conversation about Michigan’s new allotted electoral redistricting commission. Rather naively, Rothchild seems to believe that democratic redistricting could result in the selection of “representatives who truly reflect [citizens’] political preferences”. Alas, this is more than mere redistricting can deliver, however well done.

How, then, should Michigan’s decision to assign unskilled members of the public the job of drawing nonpartisan election districts be evaluated?

Redistricting is a complex task. Michigan’s Constitution says that the districts must be drawn in compliance with federal law. That includes a requirement that voting districts have roughly the same population. It also requires that the districts “reflect the state’s diverse population and communities of interest,” and “not provide a disproportionate advantage to any political party.”

Dividing the map to meet all of these criteria is not likely to be within the capabilities of a group of randomly selected citizens.

There are several reasons to think that the redistricting commission will nevertheless prove adequate to the task.
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Citizen initiative review in Switzerland

Grégoire Baur reports in Le Temps about “Demoscan” – a Swiss experiment with citizen initiative review initiated by Nenad Stojanovic, a University of Geneva political science professor:

The concept of the Demoscan project is simple: “ordinary citizens” inform their peers during a referendum campaign. An allotted panel representing the population, having had the opportunity to hear the experts as well those pro and against the proposal put up for a referendum, write a report which is sent to the citizens together with the voting materials.

“Very encouraging” results

At Sion [the capital of the Swiss canton of Valais], 20 people took part in the experience as part of the campaign regarding the popular initiative proposition “More affordable housing” last February. “The objective of the pilot project was to see to what extent could information provided by citizens encourage people to vote, what level of confidence the citizens would have in an allotted panel. The result are very encouraging”, says Nenad Stojanovic.

Whereas usually the turnout in Sion is low, in this case the turnout was somewhat higher than the average in the canton. The confidence accorded to the panel by voters was higher than they have in the federal parliament. In addition, the citizen report was the second most consulted source of information, behind the official brochure of the Federal Council, but ahead of the media and the campaign party slogans. “The citizen panel will not replace the democratically elected authorities, but it can complement them”, emphasized the political scientist.

Stojanovic is already engaged in another experiment in Geneva and hopes to launch others.

Cirone: Lotteries in Political Selection

A 2019 paper by Alexandra Cirone, Assistant Professor of Government at Cornell University, is titled “When democracy is broken roll the dice: Lotteries in political selection”.

There is a long tradition in political science and law that analyzes the benefits of lotteries in political selection (Manin 1997; Elster 1989; Engelstad 1989; Dowlen 2009; Duxbury 1999; Ober 1993 among many others). Most readers will be familiar with selection by lottery – also called sortition – where individuals are randomly chosen for political office.

The element of chance in a lottery has always captured our imaginations. Yet from a policy perspective, lotteries are now being proposed in various forms to address democratic deficits. Lottery-based selection of high-ranking politicians have been suggested for the national parliaments of the UK and France, as well as for the supranational institutions of the European Union. Citizens assemblies have been implemented in a wide range of countries, at both the local and national levels (Fishkin 2011).

However, lottery-based political selection is no panacea. There are a number of shortcomings to these processes. First, no matter which selection rule, it is likely that elites can still be disproportionately involved in politics, and lotteries don’t insulate all democratic institutions from partisan or corrupt pressures. Second, politics benefits from investment in expertise and career politicians; the uncertainty inherent in random selection of permanent institutions could disincentivize potential candidates from acquiring skills or experience. Alternatively, problems with recruitment and attrition from selected citizens will always be an issue with lottery-based selection; and randomly chosen officials might lack democratic legitimacy, which could impair their ability to do their job well. Third, even implementing lotteries in the form of temporary citizens assemblies require time, resources, and careful design of the process. Lotteries are also difficult to endogenously implement, particularly at top levels of governance — political parties and other groups are too invested in current systems of selection, so it is unlikely we will see a return to the pure sortition of ancient times.

Still, there is distinct promise to the use of lotteries in political selection, to help include more citizens in the democratic process. By examining unique institutional experimentation in the past, and by adapting democratic initiatives based on more recent instances of lottery-based selection, it may be possible to alleviate current democratic shortcomings.

Citizens allotted for drawing electoral districts in Michigan

Back in January it was reported that Michigan has sent out invitations to voters to apply to serve on the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. 13 citizens have now been selected to serve on the commission “charged with drawing new district lines for members of the state House and Senate”.

The commission is being assembled as a result of a November 2018 ballot proposal, Proposal 2 which passed with support from 61% of voters. Redistricting was previously handled by the Michigan legislature and approved by the governor, which, Proposal 2 supporters pointed out, allowed politicians to set their own district lines.

Despite the rather limited purview of the commission, it has two important characteristics that set it as an independent source of political power and thus lend it importance. First, the body was constituted through a ballot measure. Thus it was legitimated and mandated directly by the citizens. Second, the body’s function is to supervise, and indeed to limit the power of, the elected officials.

Information about the allotment is available on the state government website. Some of the skews in the applications demographics are quite interesting.

MeRA25 and sortition

MeRA25 is a Greek party headed by former Syriza finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. MeRA25 has recently made two moves pushing sortition forward in the Greek political agenda.

First, in July MeRA25 tabled a bill proposing that senior public servants would be elected by an allotted committee. The bill calls for

Establishment of a new, autonomous General Secretariat for Public Revenue, whose General Secretary will be selected by neither the government nor the lenders. Instead, they will be elected by a Social Committe for Selection of Senior Personnel, 1/3 of which is comprised of parliamentarians, 1/3 by judges selected by sortition and 1/3 by tax professionals – accountants selected by sortition.

Secondly, MeRA25 is selecting its own central committee members with some of them selected by election, some by appointment and some by sortition:

The 1st Central Committee is comprised of the members of the current Extended Political Secretariat, 15 members chosen by sortition amongst all MeRA25 members (who are also DiEM25 members), 2 members from every Administrative Region (excluding Attica) put forward by the Secretary in concert with the Committee for the Organisation of the Congress and Movement Outreach, and 1 member from every electoral district, selected by the members of that district through e-voting.

60% of the French perceive the Citizen Climate Convention as legitimate

Soon after the release of the proposals of the French Citizen Climate Convention, the Elabe polling institute conducted a poll regarding the attitudes of the French population to the Convention. Like the Odoxa poll, the Elabe poll finds [PDF] that large majorities among the French see the convention’s work as useful and support most of the proposals. Notably, the proposal for a 4% tax on big businesses in order to invest in environmental transition – a proposal that was rejected by Macron – enjoys the support of 83% of those polled.

Most interestingly, the Elabe poll goes farther than the Odoxa poll in asking about the legitimacy of the Convention process itself rather than merely about its outcomes. By a margin of 60% to 39%, the French see the Convention as having legitimacy to make proposals in the name of all the citizens. Support is even higher among the young: 70% in the 25-34 age group and 78% in the 18-24 age group.

The French overwhelmingly support the proposals of the Climate Convention

An opinion poll conducted by the Odoxa polling institute after the release of the proposals of the French Citizen Climate Convention reveal that large majorities support the proposals made by the convention.

Among the top billed proposals, amending the constitution to include preservation of the environment was supported by 82% of those polled. 74% supported mandatory environmental retrofitting of buildings, and 52% supported the creation of “ecocide” as a new form of crime. On the other hand, the proposal to lower the speed limit on the freeway to 110 km/h was met with disapproval by 74% of those polled.

Generally, 62% of those who have heard of the proposals made by the Convention supported them, and majorities felt they were realistic and effective. While 81% of those polled supported putting the proposals to a referendum 73% believed that only a small part of them would be put into effect.