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.

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.

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.

Bellon: The sortition pandemic

A column by André Bellon, July 7th, 2020.

This is not the first time that I opine on sortition, but addressing this matter seems to me more and more necessary in view of the avalanche of commentary which has accompanied the celebrated “Citizen Convention for the Climate”.

If the advocates of sortition were able to appear for a while like dreamers, they are now showing their toxicity. They are now are now no longer merely asking us for a convention aimed to enlighten public decision making. They are now demanding an allotted parliament. Considering, with much justice, that the elected do not represent the voters any more, they are not trying to redefine the mandate of the elected. They are proposing to suppress the voters.

An so, Jacques Testart conjures up an allotted constitutional assembly. Just that! The legal expert Dominique Rousseau, who constantly criticizes universal suffrage – which he falsely associates with abbé Sieyès – asks for a new deliberative assembly formed by sortition. To justify his request, he declares: “The nation has its chamber, then national assembly. The territories have theirs, the senate. The citizens, who are everything in society but nothing in its institutions, should have their chamber as well”. Beyond this far-fetched argument, Rousseau feels that in order to be truly represented, the citizens should no longer be voters. To be consistent, he opposes the popular initiative process (référendum d’initiative citoyenne) because it could “ask about the reestablishment of the death penalty, citizen preference or the preventative detention of sexual deviants?”.
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Macron “accepts all but three” of the CCC’s 149 recommendations

RFI reports:

A day after a powerful push by the Greens in French municipal elections, President Emmanuel Macron on Monday vowed to speed up environmental policies – promising an extra €15 billion to fight global warming over the next two years, and throwing his support behind two referendums on major climate policy.

Macron was responding to proposals put forward by the 150-member Citizens Climate Convention (CCC), a lottery of French people chosen to debate and respond to the climate challenges facing society.

During a meeting in the gardens of the Elysée Palace, Macron told convention members that he accepted all but three of their 149 recommendations which would, he promised, be delivered to parliament “unfiltered”.
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Testart on democracy, democratic debate and citizen power, Part 1

Jacques Testart, a prominent French biologist, is a long-time advocate for citizen power, especially as it concerns control of science-related issues. His work in this area stretches back decades. In 2002 Testart co-founded the Association for Citizen Sciences. In a 2017 interview (Le Comptoir, Part 1, Part 2), parts of which are translated below, Testart discusses democracy, public debate, and citizen control of science.

Science, such as economics, could be a carrier of truth because of its neutrality. However, among other examples, the basic axiom of the Work Law forced through, against the opinion of millions of workers affected, rests on a certain “scientific” concept of economics. This law is a good demonstration that this supposed neutrality which economics maintains is in fact such in the eyes of the minority in power alone. When the social contract is under stress, when the decision-makers prefer Capital over the people, it may be necessary to try and consider about how it is put together, in order to be able to improve democracy. Jacques Testart, formerly a research biologist and “father” of the first French test-tube baby, now devotes his time to this goal, notably through the Association for Citizen Sciences. With this in mind, he has recently published “Rêveries d’un chercheur solidaire“, “L’humanitude au pouvoir – Comment les citoyens peuvent décider du bien commun” and “Faire des enfants demain“. We went to meet him. In the first part we discussed the collapse of democracy, in which the flag barriers of Truth are thoroughly involved. The means for making democracy work are discussed in the second part.

Le Comptoir: We hear here and there that democracy is experiencing a “crisis” of representation. Due to the professionalization of politics, the elected are no longer (if they ever were) really representative of their voters, but are rather members of a political-media-financial oligarchy. What do you think?

Testart: That is obvious, yes. The problem is knowing if those who occupy the leadership circles are leaders or representatives. They consider themselves to be leaders because they are elected, and therefore have popular support. But originally, the rules of the game were aimed at – and things must get back to this – them being only representatives. They ability to initiate during their term should be limited by their initial mandate, accounting for unexpected developments. In no case should they be allowed to take decisions that do not conform to the promises for which they were elected. I believe this is a really fundamental point. It is this which dispirits a lot of people, politically, and leads them to abstain. It lead to the rise of the “everything is corrupt” attitude on which the extreme right prospers.

Le Comptoir: May we say that this crisis of representation is also due to an appalling lack of debate regarding issues regarding which there is a consensus among experts in media? I am thinking specifically regarding assisted reproductive technology and the barrage of articles published daily about new “advanced” technologies, presenting all manner of gadgets and announcing “revolutions” to come, from self-driving cars to the bionic prostheses.
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The French citizen convention on the climate: the endgame


Florent Gougou and Simon Persico write in La Vie des idées about the approaching culmination of the French citizen convention on the climate and how its work should be translated into policy. They find the use of a referendum particularly appealing. Also included in the article is the useful chart above comparing along several dimensions the makeup of the French National Assembly to that of members of the convention (which were selected to reflect the makeup of the French population).

Deciding together: The citizen convention on the climate and the democratic challenge

Now that the citizen convention on the climate is drawing to a close, how should the proposals of the allotted citizen be made into policy within the framework of the a democratic process? What place and shape should a referendum take within the political decision-making?

In the weekend of June 19 to 21, the 150 citizens allotted to the citizen convention on the climate will meet for the last time in order to conclude their work. Two essential points will be on their schedule. The first is finalizing the list of proposals that they will hand to the executive, and more broadly to the French people. The second is choosing the legal mechanisms by which a decision would be made regarding those proposals: executive orders, legislation or through a referendum.
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Altman: Strengthening Democratic Quality: Reactive Deliberation in the Context of Direct Democracy

A 2014 paper by David Altman, professor of political science at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, proposes using citizen juries as part of the intiative/referendum process in a way that goes beyond Citizen Initiative Review.

Strengthening Democratic Quality: Reactive Deliberation in the Context of Direct Democracy

David Altman

Kellogg Institute for International Studies – Working Paper Series #400

Abstract: Acknowledging that mechanisms of direct democracy can fall prey to narrow and egoistic interests (regardless of how legitimate they may be) and that legislatures do not always have the incentives to articulate responses to those narrow interests, I propose a hypothetical reform: any time a popular vote (i.e., initiative, referendum, or authorities’ referendum) is held, representative and direct institutions should be supplied with a stratified random sample of eligible voters convened to advance citizens’ counterproposals. This original institution—which does not exist even in the places where direct democracy is most developed—would discuss, deliberate, and offer an alternative or an improvement to a policy question that is to be decided in the near future; it would refine and enlarge public views on a contentious topic, providing meaningful political choices, and thus strengthening democratic quality. In arguing for this, my research takes insights from two real-world situations—Uruguay’s two 2009 initiatives for constitutional reform—in which citizens’ counterproposals could have played a crucial role in informing public views on a contentious topic and offered an alternative to both sides of the debate.

Kerlouan: Macron treats the allotted citizens like children

Philippe Kerlouan writes in Boulevard Voltaire.

Citizen Climate Convention: Macron treats the 150 allotted citizens like children…

One may ask oneself how can 150 citizens, selected by lot in order to create proposals for addressing global warming, be “France in miniature” and represent “all the significant sections of French society”, as the co-president of the governance committee of the Climate Convention asserted they are. One must believe that the allotment was balanced according to some statistical measurements. But nevermind! The Athenian democracy at the time of Pericles designated numerous officials using a lottery. Chance is maybe the most effective way to turn equality for all and social-professional diversity into a democratic system.

We should also have confidence in the people so selected and not consider them second class citizens. As they met on Friday, January 10th for another weekend of work, they were able to pose questions to Emmanuel Macron, who attend in person for the occasion. No doubt he had nothing better to do in these troubled times. One of the participants, quoted by the Le HuffPost, observed that it is “scandalous that he chose this date in order to clown around in front of the Convention whereas he would have done better to take care of the pensions”. But our president must have had his reasons.
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Trust and the competition delusion: A new frontier for political and economic reform

The Griffith Review has just published a substantial essay of mine that I’ve been working on for some time. It begins with some basic economic ideas, but broadens out to much wider political matters – comprehending our interest in sortition. I reproduce the introductory section below after which you’ll have to hightail it to their website to finish. But it would be good to see you back here for comments which aren’t provided for on the Griffith Review website.

Designing institutions to force (or nudge) entirely self-interested individuals to achieve better outcomes has been the major goal posited by policy analysts for governments to accomplish for much of the past half century. Extensive empirical research leads me to argue that instead, a core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans.

Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Lecture, 2009

SINCE ADAM SMITH, economists have marvelled at competition’s capacity to improve our world – not by fostering virtue, but by harnessing the opposing self-interest of buyer and seller in a market. As Smith himself famously suggested, instead of trusting his wellbeing as a consumer to the benevolence of the butcher, baker or brewer, he’d rather rely on their regard for their own interests in competing for his custom.

There’s a lively debate today about how to inject greater competition into Australia’s notoriously oligopolistic industries – like finance, retail, fuel, energy and telecommunications – not to mention our new global digital overlords like Facebook and Google. And there’s a more ideologically charged debate about whether competition will drive better or worse outcomes in sectors where non-market values are important – like health, education and social services.

Having offered some thoughts on those issues elsewhere, in this essay I discuss something more fundamental and, because of that, widely overlooked. We’re falling for the ‘competition delusion’ by which I mean this: In our embrace of private competition as a goal, we mostly pass over a prior issue – which is the terms on which that competition takes place. That’s undermining trust in a remarkably wide range of institutions in our economic and public life.
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