Rebooting Democracy candidate is running for Cambridge city council

Keith Garrett, co-founder of the Rebooting Democracy party (named after Manuel Arriaga’s book), is running for Cambridge city council. He was interviewed by Alya Zayed.

[Rebooting Democracy] puts forward a system whereby decisions are made by randomly selected members of the public, who discuss and deliberate the issues before coming to a decision, like a jury – a process known as ‘sortition’.

[Garrett] said: “I’ve stood before for the Green Party and nothing has changed. One of the key things in my life is climate change – although it’s not the focus of my party. I did everything I could and it makes no difference because you’re essentially trying to appeal to people in charge who have a set of vested interests. They’re career politicians. They’re interested in keeping their jobs and staying in that party machine.

“But actually, if you directly devolve decisions to a group of people, you give them true power, and it would solve most of our big world ills, like social inequality or climate change.”

He added: “You have deliberation, you talk, and you listen to each other. It’s ‘optimise’ not ‘compromise’. It’s about trying to find the best decision, not just the one that keeps everyone happy.”

If elected as councillor, he plans to use this kind of thinking to change the council’s decision making process.

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Not a one-off threat

The Morning Star is a UK newspaper which describes itself as “a reader-owned co-operative and unique as a lone socialist voice in a sea of corporate media”.

In a recent editorial it writes:

Groups like Extinction Rebellion (XR) have raised the profile of the climate emergency, forcing politicians to acknowledge it. [But the] link between environmental action and anti-capitalism is one movements like XR have been reluctant to concede.

This probably stems from a desire to appeal to the broadest possible coalition willing to take action, but it is self-defeating.

Green parties that have reached the mainstream through accommodation with the capitalist system in Germany and Ireland have become pillars of the centrist, liberal and environmentally catastrophic status quo.

One approach to circumventing this promoted by XR especially is the Citizen’s Assembly, a representative body chosen by sortition (as a jury is, rather than by election) that stands outside the political system and would be tasked with decreeing solutions to the environmental crisis.

The suggestion has one key merit, in drawing attention to the inability of our current political structures to meet the biggest global challenge of our time.

But it falls into the trap of viewing climate change as a one-off threat that can be seen off independently of our political and economic system, rather than a process driven by the economic system itself.
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The True Representation Pledge

This is the final chapter from my book published last year entitled “True Representation: How Citizens’ Assemblies and Sortition Will Save Democracy.”

What if we were to demand that every candidate for President, Senate and House of Representatives sign a True Representation Pledge? The pledge strategy can be used in any election, in any country, at the national, state, provincial or local level, wherever people want to demonstrate the potential of sortition and citizens’ assemblies, by targeting an important issue that politicians cannot resolve.

In signing the pledge, each candidate would promise, upon being elected to office, that:

  • They would quickly enact legislation to authorize and fund a national (or state, provincial or local) citizens’ assembly to decide an important issue, identified for the pledge.
  • The citizens’ assembly would be conducted with a briefing book prepared to fairly represent the pros and cons of a wide range of views on the chosen issue.
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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 5

Rejecting “realism”

One of the strengths of Open Democracy is its normative ambition. Rather than lecturing readers about the need to be realistic and to accept elitism in various ways, Landemore insists that the democratic ideal of political equality should be taken literally. Calls for various forms of compromise are the norm throughout the scholarly literature of democracy. Often such calls are to some extent implicit (e.g., Dunn, see part 2 of this post series). Occasionally they are unabashedly explicit. In this genre Landemore focuses her wrath on Achen and Bartels.

Achen and Bartels take the Lippmann-Schumpeter-Dunn line of argument one step farther by explaining to their readers that while their impression that government does not in any way reflect public opinion is wholly justified by the facts, their frustration with this situation is wholly due to unrealistic expectations. Democracy implies elections, elections imply elite control, and elite control implies unresponsivity. It’s time to be realistic and readjust our expectations.
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Police Oversight In The United States: Implications For Sortition Advocates/Activists

Recent scrutiny of police misconduct in the United States has provoked renewed interest in civilian oversight. Hundreds of police review boards exist. The vast majority have advisory, not disciplinary power. The boards are appointed, and their composition varies, often consisting of community advocates. Sortition activists in Los Angeles (Random Access Democracy) have had preliminary discussions with city council members in two California cities (Petaluma and Culver City) about the possibility of reforming their oversight boards to include members selected by lot. A previous post in this blog asked for references to any sortition based police oversight board. To date, none has materialized.

Is sortition the answer to better police oversight? Probably not, at least not directly. If review boards were randomly selected, their actions and recommendations would likely be more independent. But police in the United States are immunized from oversight by a complex system of laws, police union lawsuits, and court decisions grounded in the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a document promoted by the Fraternal Order of Police that proposes limits to investigative and disciplinary power over police abuses, and is woven into law in sixteen states. Meaningful oversight is more than a matter of picking better panels; it needs to involve legislative change.

It’s beyond the scope of this article to provide more detailed information about police oversight, but the following references, while by no means exhaustive, may be helpful to those interested: Campaign Zero is a website dedicated to ending police violence in the U.S. Arrested Oversight provides an in-depth analysis of how civilian oversight should function and how it fails. Why police so rarely get charged, Newark’s Citizen Disciplinary Board, and A proposal to give civilians more say reveal perspectives from opposite sides of the country.

Democratic lotteries might yet have a role to play in oversight. A citizens’ assembly, for example, could be designed to study the problems of oversight, then deliberate, and propose recommendations for improvement. These might include recommendations concerning police unions, which often sabotage oversight in ways hidden to the public. If the idea proves useful, it’s likely that many such assemblies would be needed to address conditions that vary from city to city and state to state.

Sortition advocates looking to demonstrate the usefulness of lottery based panels as direct solutions to community problems might want to consider areas such as housing, redistricting, urban development, etc., before tackling police oversight.

What If A Citizens’ Assembly Decided Trump’s Second Impeachment?

(Written before President Trump’s second impeachment trial on January 18, 2021)

The U.S. House of Representatives has impeached President Donald Trump for a second time, but the Senate will not conduct its trial until after Trump has left office.

The difference between political and deliberative decision-making is that one is based on winning the next election and the other is based on seeking the truth. Professional politicians do not deliberate. They calculate. With each decision, the underlying consideration is the impact it will have on votes and donations.

Republican Senators will consider convicting Trump, but most are afraid, not only of Trump supporters hurting their chances in the next election, but of Trump supporters hurting them physically. Senator Lindsay Graham briefly broke with Trump, declaring that “enough is enough.” But he was soon advising the President again after being threatened by angry Trump supporters at an airport.

Few politicians have the integrity or courage of Justin Amash, the lone Republican congressman who voted to impeach President Trump in 2017, knowingly sacrificing his seat in Congress. Or the ten Republican representatives who voted for a second Trump impeachment, with Liz Cheney boldly stating that Trump “summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack.”

While some of his opponents think Trump should be tried, convicted and banned from holding federal office in the future, others argue that a failure to convict him in the Senate will strengthen him politically and still others claim that if he’s out of office the process is not legal.

I’d like to suggest a novel resolution. What if we let “the people” decide?

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Police Oversight Commissions by Chosen by Lot?

Two city councils in California (Culver City, Petaluma) have people on them interested in reforming their police oversight commissions to include members selected by lot. Talks are exploratory at this point, but our group of California democratic lottery activists (Random Access Democracy, or RAD) is advocating with City Council members. We could be more effective if I could hear from anyone in the Equality by Lot readership who has any experience or information that would help us make the case. Right now I do not know of any examples of police oversight commissions chosen by lot. Are there any? Can anyone direct me to any references about them? At this point I know of two apposite resources:

  1. Community Control of Police: A Proposition
  2. Shaunsky Colvich of Democracy Without Elections recently mentioned that Lincoln Steffens, in his book, The Shame of the Cities (1904), described how “a grand jury effectively fought police corruption in Minneapolis. Back then grand juries (selected by lot) had far more power and weren’t as limited in scope or discovery as modern grand juries are, which are usually just rubber stamps for prosecutors . . . never calling their own witnesses or being allowed to do their own research anymore.”

Covid Treatment Lottery

“For patients with similar prognosis, who cannot be separated in other ways, a random allocation, such as a lottery, may be used”, says the protocol.

So says a Report in the Daily Telegraph (UK) of 5th January by Paul Nuki titled “Covid ‘lottery’: Doctors draw up triage protocol in the event treatment has to be rationed” (Telegraph usually paywalled, but this seems open-access)

It refers to a paper in J Medical Ethics “Development of a structured process for fair allocation of critical care resources in the setting of insufficient capacity: a discussion paper” also accessible f.o.c.

This is circulating in NHS hospitals as a proposed protocol.

The protocol – drafted by medical, legal and palliative care specialists at the Royal United Hospital Bath NHS Trust – is the most sophisticated attempt yet to devise an ethical system for rationing care in the event that there are insufficient resources to treat everyone.

Now this is exciting! But it is not new. Right from the start of organ transplantation (1960s) such moralistic contentions were weighed up.

In Seattle the so-called ‘God committee’ was set up to make these difficult choices (reported in Calabresi & Bobbit (1978) Tragic Choices). The committee eventually found that it was too agonising to make these choices, and passed the task back to the medical practitioners. In the end it was felt that only medical  factors should be taken into account. Even if no overt rules on social merit were in place, we should not be surprised if the doctor, genuinely uncertain on medical grounds,  was to pick the ‘nicer’ of the two patients.

A secret lottery?

Elster (1989) in his masterly ‘Solomonic Choices’ gives the example of child custody cases, where the judge is frequently unable (in his own mind) to give a clear-cut decision. Yet decide he must, so he goes ahead, dressing up the verdict with trappings of rationality.

This, claims Elster, satisfies both parties, the winner praising the wisdom of the judge, the loser cursing his bias. No doubt a similar process might go on when a medical doctor decides, even if partly randomly and in secret, between her two patients: So long as both patients believe that their case is decided clinically by an expert, then both winner and loser may find it acceptable.

The doctor herself may even be a bit cognitively dissonant—convincing herself that she is doing the right thing for the right reason, exercising judgement based on intuition  rather than validated knowledge. This form of fudging may be acceptable all round, but it is fraught with dangers.

If fakery is suspected, patients rapidly lose their trust in their professionals. Unwitting discrimination seems inevitable. True expertise will fail to develop unless its limits are acknowledged.

Against a lottery is Greely (1977) who suggests that if recipients can argue about any allocation, they feel more satisfied. Anand was also interested in what is called ‘voice’—that one of the reasons a coin-toss was thought to be unfair is that it deprived customers of a say in the decision.

In favour of a visible act of coin-tossing Calabresi & Bobbit explain that it draws attention to the fact that resources are limited. Edgeworth (1888) suggested another benefit would be that the public, seeing a random drawing take place, would be alerted to the ‘aleatory nature’ of the decision. Bureaucrats might not like having such attention focussed on this shortage of resources and their uncertain knowledge.

[This was part of my 2006 thesis Who Gets The Prize. It can be viewed in full on my website www.conallboyle.com]

Wang Shaoguang and Yves Sintomer on sortition

A 2019 hour-long discussion on sortition at Shandong University with Wang Shaoguang and Yves Sintomer was recently published by its moderator, Daniel A. Bell.

This is a rather wide ranging discussion, and its lack of focus is somewhat of a flaw, in my opinion. Ideas on various matters are expressed. Many of those are well-hashed ideas, and the discussants are content to simply repeat them rather than examine them critically.

One idea that I think is relatively novel is briefly offered by Sintomer toward the end when Bell asks for proposals for applying sortition:

I would give the power to citizen juries randomly selected to judge politicians, when they are accused of misbehavior. Because I don’t trust other politicians to do this, as in Brazil or in the USA, where the impeachment is voted by the Congress. I think it’s a bad setting. And I don’t trust judges for judging politicians. Because judges are a very specific, professional body, and very often, a highly conservative body. I trust more randomly selected citizens to judge politicians when they are accused of misbehavior.

Galland and Schnapper: Citizen conventions and representative democracy, Part 2/2

The second part of an article in Telos by Olivier Galland, sociologist at the CNRS, and Dominique Schnapper, researcher at the EHESS and an honorary member of the Constitutional Council. The first part is here.

2. The choice of those of those responsible for the organization of the discussions, for informing the people convened by selecting the “experts”, for helping them to form an opinion, for writing and disseminating the conclusions must meet specific conditions as well. Who will select the people in those roles and what will be their legitimacy for making choices which may guide the conclusions of the deliberations? On this issue, it is important to distinguish clearly, when organizing the deliberations, between testimonies of scientific experts and those of other actors – activists, representatives of the state, trade unionists and business people. A distinction must be made consistently and meticulously between objective data – even if it is controversial – and opinions or beliefs which are a matter of ideological or political convictions or personal or group interests. Such a distinction is necessary so that the members of the conventions would be able to form judgement which is as informed as possible, especially in an era where mistrust of science has increased dangerously.

The members of this type of conventions can make political choices, but when they do so, they must be fully aware of the reasons for their choices and of their full implications. It is also necessary to shield them from pressure and influence that they may be subject to by activists and lobbies outside the convention. The experience of the CCC seems to show that risk is very real. A trial jury must be protected from outside influences in order to make its judgement impartial, but how can “a citizen convention” be protected against pressures originating from activists and interest groups?

3. However, the most decisive is the definition of these “conventions”, which are unmentioned by the constitutional texts and the democratic tradition: except for their makeup and their function, what is their purview, what is their legitimacy?
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