Étienne Chouard: Public decision-making from the perspective of the common good: Breaking out of the electoral trap

What follows is the table of contents of a 2016 essay by Étienne Chouard, which Chouard describes as “my most recent methodical comparison between election and sortition”. I will publish my translation to English of the essay in several parts. The original French version is here.

Public decision-making from the perspective of the common good: Breaking out of the electoral trap
A comparison between election and allotment of representatives
Étienne Chouard, 2016
(Original in French, translation to English by Yoram Gat, 2020.)

Part I. A comparison of the general strengths and weaknesses of elections and allotment of representatives

  • (i) Elections infantilize, and in this way paralyze, the voters. They discourage thinking and defending the common good (whereas sortition does not)
    • 1. By definition, elections are aristocratic, whereas sortition is democratic
    • 2. By definition, elections are an abdication, a renunciation of the exercising of one’s sovereignty oneself, it is delegation, it is the renunciation of legislation, whereas sortition is the assertion of sovereignty
    • 3. Elections infantilize, strip of responsibility, dissuade from doing what is right, and distance the people from politics and the common good, whereas sortition encourages, and promotes responsibility for, doing the right thing
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Sortition for selecting civilian police control boards

In an undated proposal by Max Rameau from the an organization called “Pan-African Community Action” the author writes:

A Model: The Civilian Police Control Board
The primary institution for the exercise of Community Control over Police is the Civilian Police Control Board (CPCB).

The CPCB must be comprised entirely of civilian adult human beings- not corporations or human representatives of corporations- residing in the police district. To be explicit, residing means living in, not owning property in, without regard to citizenship status or criminal history.

While some envision an elected board, we propose something entirely different: a board selected entirely at random among residents of the policing district.

There are two (2) main constraints to an elected board. First, elections in the US are thoroughly corrupted by influences of corporate finance on one side and two party electoral politics on the other. Even if multiple communities were to win control over their police, it is not difficult to imagine that after one or two election cycles, your local CPCB would be a corporate board brought to you by [ insert name of powerful corporation here ]. For this board to shift power, instead of becoming another institution to maintain power, it must break through the limitations of electoral corruption.

Second, even elections with minimal levels of corporate or party influence, still occur in a social context. In this social context, elected officials are disproportionately white, male and wealthy- the exact population with the highest level of support for the police. We must devise democratic systems that encourage active participation from those least likely to engage, not those most likely to benefit.

Sortition- government by random selection- is the best way to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to exercise power. The rich and poor, straight and gay, male and female, white and Black all have an equal shot at making decisions through random selection. If we believe that democracy is for everyone, then random selection of officials is the best way to ensure each person can exercise power.
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Defending independence in the age of deep spin

If you know anything about the latest State of the Union Address, you know that after Donald Trump had handed Nancy Pelosi his speech as if she were his secretary when she held out her hand to him to shake hands, Pelosi tore up his speech. Didn’t look particularly well-judged politically to do that to me but there you go. What would I know?

Trump operatives have now released the video (above) of Pelosi tearing up his speech spliced interleaved with Trump’s comments praising heroes like aged soldiers. Facebook have agreed to take down the video as obviously misleading.

(Only kidding. Facebook wasn’t interested in getting in the way of its profits). On the other hand, Twitter has said that the Tweet violates policy that will be enforced when they’re ready to do so on March 2.

I can imagine it’s a scary call for Twitter to say so to the Gangster in chief. Rage will ensue and Donald Trump has a lot of power including the power of his mob. In those circumstances if I were Twitter, I’d be wanting to distance myself from this process, whilst having a decent approach.

I’d do it with a standing citizens’ assembly. If I were Twitter I’d recruit a demonstrably objective selection of ordinary American citizens using the same kinds of methods we use to recruit juries (in which I’d include random selection and representative random selection of various kinds.)
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Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections translated to Japanese

Prof. Seiki Okazaki of Kyushu University, Japan, wrote to draw attention to the publication of a translation of David Van Reybrouck’s book Against Elections to Japanese. It seems the book has generated significant interest in Japan. Prof. Okazaki attributes the positive reception to some extent to the fact that sortition-based judicial institutions have been part of the Japanese system for a decade.

The Japanese translation of David Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections (Tegen Verkiezingen) appeared in April 2019 […] Three of the four national newspapers published a book review: the Yomiuri Shimbun on May 19, the Asahi Shimbun on June 1, and the Nikkei on August 10. Many regional newspapers printed a book review transmitted by Kyodo News. Other newspapers and magazines also reviewed the book favourably. Supported by these reviews, the book was reprinted as early as September 2019.

2019 marked the 10th anniversary of the the lay judge trial system and of the mandatory prosecution through citizen review of non-charge decisions. These are both reforms related to the criminal justice system in Japan enhancing the participation of citizens using sortition in a procedure that was until then exclusive territory of professionals. As the Supreme Court noted, the lay judge system has become well accepted and acquired legitimacy in Japanese society. Japanese citizens have become familiar with sortition in the judicial system and realize how this enhances quality and democracy in the courts. This is probably one of the reasons that Japanese citizens are interested in the central arguments developed in Against Elections and why sortition was not immediately rejected a proposal unfeasible for Japanese society.

However, the most important factor for the book’s success is the wide and deep distrust of party politics. Opinion polls show that about 40 percent of Japanese voters support no political party.

OKAZAKI Seiki, one of the translators of Against Elections, proposed to replace the elected House of Councillors with the sorted House of Citizens. He suggests that the sorted House can exercise veto power over the decisions of the elected House (Okazaki Seiki, “Election and Sortition,” Kenpo-kenkyu (Review of Constitutional Law), No. 5, November 2019, pp. 87-96. Written in Japanese).

2019 review – sortition-related events

As I have done at every end-of-year of the last 9, I am offering my summary of notable sortition-related events that occurred over the last year.

As polls indicate that people continue to believe that governments do not represent them, the idea of the single-issue citizens’ assembly made strides in various European countries in 2019. In France, the Citizens’ Climate Convention is taking place, where 150 allotted people are tasked with selecting ways to address the climate crisis. This body is relatively high profile and received attention by various writers. A similar body is being demanded in the UK by the Extinction Rebellion movement.

Scotland had a citizens’ assembly for “shaping Scotland’s future”.

Participations journal devoted a special issue to sortition. 24 papers dealt with various aspects of the topic. The book Legislature by Lot, with the papers from a workshop by the same name was also published.

A citizens’ assembly on Brexit was widely discussed in the UK.

A permanent allotted body was instituted by the German speaking community in Belgium and by City Hall in Madrid.

The increasing use of allotted citizen bodies resulted in increasing scrutiny of the ways in which they are constituted and run, as well as their institutional role.

Citizen Climate Convention: Become a Democratic Assembly!

An open letter to the members of the French Citizen Climate Convention from several mass-action environmental organizations was recently published in Reporterre – a French environmental daily newspaper. [Original in French.]

A Citizen Climate Convention has been convening since October 4 over the course of 6 sessions of three days each until the upcoming January. How to make sure this unprecedented test of collective democracy, which gives 150 allotted citizens the power to deliberate measures for reducing France’s CO2 emissions by at least 40% in 10 years, does not end up as a tool of self-promotion for a government whose real policy for the last two years has been so blatantly anti-environmental that it forces Nicolas Hulot, its very moderate minister of the environment, to resign? That is possible if the allotted rely on their popular legitimacy in order to change the nature and the objective of their upcoming deliberations. It is for this democratic usurpation that we are calling.

What is it that makes you legitimate, more legitimate in any case than the committee that is supposed to “govern” you? It is not that fact that you were allotted according to social-professional or geographic “representivity” criteria defined by the polling institute. This representativity has no democratic value. The fact that an allotted woman is a self-employed resident of Brittany like me does not in any way guarantee that she would faithfully represent my political convictions. It is therefore not the allotment according to social-professional categories which makes you close to your fellow citizens, but rather the fact that you share their situation of democratic dispossession. In these dying days of this deceptive regime of “representative democracy”, we are all reduced to being nothing more than private individuals, deprived of any meaningful political power.
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Kovner: The Jurga System

A post by Alex Kovner.

In The Jurga System, I outline a complete democracy centered around citizen juries. At its core is a sharp division of democratic policy making into proposing and deciding. While this is conceptually simple, it is surprisingly difficult in practice. Doing so requires liberal use of the “blind break” to ensure that proposers cannot corrupt the decision process, and vice-versa. The book looks at this dynamic in great detail as it applies to all branches of government.

While the scheme outlined here will not be implemented anytime soon, it is a good thought experiment regarding what a complete political system based on citizen panels might look like. It also suggests a different direction from what we see today: instead of open-ended citizen assemblies tasked with generating grandiose proposals, we should prioritize citizen juries with narrower mandates but binding authority to act. Only this way will sortition become a regular, indispensable feature of democracy.

Full text available to download: https://alexkovner.com/2019/11/12/the-jurga-system/.