Chouard: An allotted referendum chamber

Etienne Chouard, who has been the most vocal and consistent French advocate for sortition, is having somewhat of a day in the limelight in the context of the Gilets Jaunes protests. Chouard’s other major procedural proposal is the Popular initiative (in french: Referendum d’initiative citoyenne, often referred to as RIC).

A major issue with the popular initiative process, which is practiced in Switzerland and in various US states, is the ballot qualification process. In order to cut down the number of proposals on the ballot to a reasonable number, some hurdle has to be introduced. This hurdle is usually set as the collection of a large number of signatures. This makes qualification resource intensive and thus much easier for elite interests than for the average citizen.

In an interview (original in French), Chouard lays out an interesting alternative:

Chouard: “The RIC makes it possible for a group of people, or for a single person, to pose a question for the whole of the people. One of the first questions to ask ourselves is how many people can legitimately pose a question. In Italy, in Switzerland, it is 100,000, 500,000. It could be a million. It is for us to decide. […] I would say that a single person should be able to pose a question.”

Of course, the immediate consequence of this proposal, unlimited RIC without a minimal quota, is chaos. To handle this issue, the blogger proposes a “referendum chamber” whose members are allotted ordinary citizens, as in the Athenian democracy.

Also worth noting, and commending, the way Chouard affirms his democratic convictions in response to the standard question about the danger that his proposed system would produce bad policy:

I am a democrat. That means that I support the people deciding their destiny themselves and making the most important decisions themselves. At the same time if we are really democrats and honest, then we must expect that from time to time there would be issues, which can be important ones, about which the people would make decisions that would not be the ones we would make.

The full interview (almost an hour) is available as a video.

More sortition in the Guardian

In October, the Guardian published an excerpt from Tim Dunlop’s sortition-advocating book “The Future of Everything”. Today, James Bridle offers the readers of the Guardian to apply sortition to the Brexit issue. (Of course, he is not the first with this idea.)

How can we break the Brexit deadlock? Ask ancient Athens
James Bridle

Citizens’ assemblies have their roots in sortition – selecting citizens at random to fill public posts – which was once central to democracy

In the central marketplace of ancient Athens, around 350BC, there stood a machine called the kleroterion. This was a six-foot-high slab of stone that had a series of slots on the front, and a long tube bored down from the top to the base. Those up for selection for the various offices of state would insert metal ID tags, called pinakia, into the slots, and a functionary would pour a bucket of coloured balls, suitably shaken, into the top of the tube. The order in which the balls emerged would determine who took which role, some for the day, some for a year.

2018 review – sortition-related events

This is the end-of-year summary of notable sortition related events for 2018.

Sortition received some increasing attention in the English-speaking world in 2018. The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College has announced the creation of the Bard Institute for the Revival of Democracy through Sortition. Richard Askwith and Tim Dunlop published books advocating for sortition. Selina Thompson put on a sortition-themed play and organized a sortition-themed workshop. Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections was (dismissively) reviewed in the New York Times. Sortition was featured in the Left-leaning magazine Jacobin as well as on BBC radio, and was mentioned in the Washington Post. Canadian scientist and environmentalist expressed interest in drawing politicians from a hat.

Brett Hennig’s TED talk about sortition was featured by TED on their main page, generating a spike of interest in the idea, including by Beppe Grillo, co-founder of the Italian electorally successful Five Star movement. Another spike of interest in sortition followed media reports about the arrest of a sortition advocate who allegedly planned to blow himself up in an attempt to draw attention to the idea.

Late in the year, sortition was on the agenda of two mass-action movements: UK’s Extinction Rebellion and France’s Gilets Jaunes.

Earlier in the year elites continued to express their dissatisfaction with the way elections are turning out. A proposal was made to use sortition to improve citizen behavior. Former UK prime minister Gordon Brown made a similar suggestion in the context of Brexit. The Ireland abortion referendum that approved the recommendations of an allotted chamber was held as an example to emulate.

Reports about sortition being used or advocated at local government appeared in the press. An initiative for appointing judges by lot is under way in Switzerland. Charlie Pache, a Swiss sortition activist, promotes single issue allotted citizen panels. Academic conferences about sortition were held in Belgium and in the US.

In France, the discussion has moved beyond the initial stage of unfamiliarity into some substantive discussion of the details of applications of sortition. A member of La France insoumise who was allotted to its electoral committee expressed disillusionment with the process. Other FI activists claim that “so far, the allotted have had no real power”. Michel Quatrevalet, a power industry professional in France, complains that the so-called participatory democracy process that was part of the process for the creation of a French multi-year energy plan was a sham.

Democracy For Young People: a provocative podcast

Democracy For Young People is, in my opinion a very compelling analysis of the ills of our democracy. It’s a very simple idea – which is that electoral democracy massively underrepresents three classes of people whose influence on democracy the great anti-democrats of the ancient world (i.e. all the thinkers whose work has come down to us in any substantial form) were most hostile to. The young, the poorly educated and the poor.

I thought the ‘solutions’ section would end up at selection by lot, but it moved right along from that to lowering the voting age (dramatically!). But then the conclusion on what to do was an afterthought, and not really the focus of the podcast. The analysis was compelling. It’s good points are that the ideas are very simple, clearly important. They’re also clearly right to some extent, though of course there could be very wide reasonable disagreement on that extent.

So I recommend it.

Gordon Brown embraces citizens’ assemblies

In a thoughtful contribution to considering the governance of Britain in the context of the still running Brexit fiasco, Gordon Brown offers this suggestion:

We must renounce the unsatisfactory, inward-looking, partisan and inevitably piecemeal decision-making process of the past 30 months.

In the old days, political parties saw their role as aggregating and then articulating grassroots views. But to the British people the parties seem – like social media – to be dominated by those with the loudest voice.

[…]

I envisage bringing together in each region a representative panel of a few hundred citizens, engaging them in a day’s dialogue to deliberate on arguments presented by informed opinion leaders and advocates from both sides — and testing whether pro and anti-Brexit voters can find any common ground.

The Justice Initiative: Appointing the Federal Judges by Sortition

Collection of signatures for the Justice Initiative has been going on over the last month. By autumn 2019, the initiative must be signed by 100,000 citizens for it to qualify for the Swiss ballot. Although social networks are playing an increasingly important role in politics, the collectors of signatures on the street need convincing arguments.

The website is in French, German, Italian and Roman. I translated the German text using automatic translation and made some minor corrections. For those who can read German, here is the original text:

Bundesrichterinnen und Bundesrichter sollen Entscheide frei von Interessenkonflikten und politischen Einflüssen fällen können. Das ist heute nicht möglich.

Um von der Bundesversammlung als Bundesrichterin oder Bundesrichter gewählt zu werden, muss eine Person heute de facto einer politischen Partei angehören und über gute Beziehungen zu Entscheidungsträgern verfügen.

Dieses Beziehungsgeflecht besteht auch nach der Wahl in das Bundesgericht und kann die Entscheide der Richterinnen und Richter beeinflussen. Zudem kann mit der Drohung der Abwahl, Druck auf Richterinnen und Richter ausgeübt werden.

Deshalb sollen Juristinnen und Juristen alleine aufgrund ihrer Fähigkeiten – auch ohne Beziehungsnetz in die Politik und Verwaltung hinein – Bundesrichterin und Bundesrichter werden können. Und als solche sollten sie auch bei unbequemen Entscheiden keine Nachteile zu befürchten haben und nicht abgewählt werden können.

Diese Ziele werden mit der eidgenössischen Volksinitiative «Bestimmung der Bundesrichterinnen und Bundesrichter im Losverfahren» erreicht.

Richterkandidatinnen und -kandidaten dürfen einzig aufgrund ihrer fachlichen und persönlichen Qualifikation am Losverfahren teilnehmen. Das Losverfahren garantiert eine faire Besetzung des Bundesgerichts, ohne Rücksicht auf allfällige Parteibücher. Die im Losverfahren bestimmten Bundesrichterinnen und Bundesrichter, bleiben bis zur Pensionierung im Amt.

Translation:

Federal judges should be able to make decisions free from conflicts of interest and political influences. That is not possible today. To be elected by the Federal Assembly as a federal judge or a federal judge, a person today must de facto belong to a political party and have good relations with decision-makers. This network of relationships also exists after the election to the Federal Supreme Court and can influence the decisions of the judges. In addition, with the threat of dismissal, pressure can be exercised on judges. That is why lawyers should be able to become federal judges on their own merits – without a network of relationships in politics and administration. And as such, they should not have to worry about consequences of uncomfortable decisions and about being voted out. These goals are achieved with the federal popular initiative “Appointing the Federal Judges by Sortition”. Judge candidates may participate in the process solely on the basis of their professional and personal qualifications. The sortition system guarantees a fair composition of the Federal Court, regardless of any party membership. The federal judges, who are determined by lot, remain in office until retirement.

This might be a very important step for the use of sortition in present society.  And not limited to the appointment of judges. Let’s hope they get the 100,000 signatures in time.

Fishkin: Random Assemblies for Lawmaking? Prospects and Limits

James Fishkin’s contribution to the September 2017 workshop “Legislature by Lot” was titled “Random Assemblies for Lawmaking? Prospects and Limits”:

Abstract
A randomly selected microcosm of the people can usefully play an official role in the lawmaking process. However, there are serious issues to be confronted if such a random sample were to take on the role of a full-scale, full-time second chamber. Some skeptical considerations are detailed. There are also advantages to short convenings of such a sample to take on some of the roles of a second chamber. This article provides a response to the skeptical considerations. Precedents from ancient Athens show how such short-term convenings of a deliberating microcosm can be positioned before, during, or after other elements of the lawmaking process. The article draws on experience from Deliberative Polling to show how this is both practical and productive for the lawmaking process.

Keywords
Athens, corruption, Deliberative Polling, elections, minipublics, nomothetai, representative democracy, sortition

In arguing for short term “Delibertive Polls”, Fishkin offers three problems with long-term allotted chambers: (1) lack of technical expertise, (2) potential for corruption, and (3) not maintaining what he calls “the conditions for deliberation”.
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