Significant support in European countries for citizen assemblies as a complement to parliament

A recent poll finds (p. 129 and on) that the public in France, Germany, the UK and Italy is generally supportive of using allotted bodies to discuss and form opinions regarding various matters, with two thirds of those polled supporting using such bodies to address national-level issues.

Most surprising is the finding that about 30% of those polled support having such bodies used systematically to complement the work of parliament. The fact that there is widespread support for establishing a political power which is independent of the elected bodies is most extraordinary since there is no precedent for such an institution in modern times and since there has been no significant advocacy for such an idea by any established political power.

In addition, a large majority of the citizen polled believes that the decisions made by the allotted bodies should be binding: 55% supporting, 23% undecided, and only 15% objecting.

(Thanks to André Sauzeau for pointing out this poll.)

Public Support for Citizens’ Assemblies Selected through Sortition

A new paper explores public opinion in the EU regarding sortition based decision-making bodies. The paper was written by Jean Benoit Pilet, Damien Bol, Emilien Paulis, Davide Vittori and Sophie Panel.

Title: Public Support for Citizens’ Assemblies Selected through Sortition: Survey and Experimental Evidence from 15 Countries

Abstract:
As representative democracies are increasingly criticized, a new institution is becoming popular in academic circles and real-life politics: asking a group of citizens selected by lot to deliberate and formulate policy recommendations on some contentious issues. Although there is much research on the functioning of such citizens’ assemblies, there are only few about how the population perceives them. We explore the sources of citizens’ attitudes towards this institution using a unique representative survey from 15 European countries. We find that those who are less educated, as well as those with a low sense of political competence and an anti-elite sentiment, are more supportive of it. Support thus comes from the ‘enraged’, rather than the ‘engaged’. Further, we use a survey experiment to show that support for citizens’ assemblies increases when respondents know that their fellow citizens share the same opinion as them on some issues.

Democratic lotteries featured in FastCompany

Democratic lotteries and our organization, of by for*, were recently featured in a piece in FastCompany. The article introduces selection of representatives by lottery, the history in Athens, Democracy R&D, and our recent Citizens’ Panel on COVID-19. It will be followed up by a ‘World Changing Ideas’ podcast episode within the next month.

Excerpt below and full article here: What if we replaced elected politicians with randomly selected citizens?

For Cronkright, drawn-out election cycles—filled with stump speeches, attack ads, and super PACs—are dysfunctional. The candidates are often “slick and vicious performers” trained to put on a show and say the right things, who spend most of their time fundraising. “We are awarding power to those who can win, and keep winning, cutthroat popularity contests,” he says. When elected, many politicians are then at the whim of parties, lobbyists, and corporations and don’t have personal incentives to make the right decisions for the average Joe. “To me, they’re the least qualified bunch to represent us,” he adds.

Real representation can only be achieved by putting ordinary people in charge of governing. That means “representatives” should reflect the greater population’s demographics, but also its struggles, fears, hopes, and values. These people would be accountants, waitresses, engineers, business owners, single mothers, and students, who are actually affected by the decisions they make for everyone. “If they sink the ship,” he says, “they, too, are going down.”


Trust in government and corona virus deaths

The scatterplot above shows the association between trust in government in EU countries as measured by the Eurobarometer 92 back in November 2019 and the publicly available count of corona deaths per 1M inhabitants as of March 6th, 2021 in those countries (data).

A standard regression (solid line) shows a negative relationship with each percentage point of trust being associated with a decrease of about 15 deaths per 1M inhabitants. (A more robust regression procedure – dotted line – shows even steeper association.) The share of this association is about 15% of the total inter-country variance in corona deaths prevalence in the EU, and about 25% of the variance when the outlying data point of Cyprus is removed.

There are at least two possible mechanisms that could be offered to explain the association. The first is that both trust and corona deaths are affected by government competence. Lower competence is associated with lower trust and with higher pandemic death prevalence. Continue reading

Sortition in the Harvard CS department

Prof. Ariel Procaccia is giving a course at the Harvard Computer Science department titled “Optimized Democracy”. Procaccia has been writing about sortition for a while and sortition plays an important part in this course’s syllabus:

Students in the course explore the mathematical bedrock of democracy itself, and then build upon those foundations by applying computer science theory to some of the most vexing problems facing modern policymakers.

For instance, one topic covered in Procaccia’s course, sortition, dates back to the very first democracy in ancient Athens. Citizens seeking a position on the Athenian governing committee would self-select into a pool of candidates, intended to be generally representative of the city population, and then magistrates would be chosen by lot.

Fast forward 2,500 years and this method is still being used to form citizens’ assemblies. These assemblies have been used most prominently in Ireland to discuss constitutional reform and in France and the U.K. to debate environmental issues.

But there’s a problem.

“There is this tension between giving everyone a fair chance to participate in the citizens’ assembly, and this idea that we want to represent the population at large. The people who volunteer have a large self-selection bias,” he said. “That leads to very compelling algorithmic questions of how to balance these issues.”

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.
Continue reading

Landemore: Open Democracy, part 4

Landemore describes (p. 34) Bernard Manin’s analysis of the electoralist regime as a mixed regime whose oligarchical element is the use of elections which favor those who have a chance to be elected and whose democratic elements are the periodic renewal of the mandate and – to a lesser extent – from the principle of the freedom of opinion and from public debate of ideas. She then discusses how this regime is defended by two normative political scientists: Nadia Urbinati and Jurgen Habermas.

For Urbinati this regime is democratic because representation is “a mode of participation that can activate a variety of forms of control and oversight”. The representatives supposedly give voice to their voters and create an alignment between voters’ wishes and actual policy outcomes. Landemore rejects this “metaphorical” participation as being unconvincing.

Landemore describes Habermas’s model as resting on deliberation in two tracks – the mass track and the decision-making track. Landemore sees the model as lacking an explanation of how the mass track influences the decision-making track in a meaningful way. Even if it did, she asks, how is the unregulated mass discussion a proper way to set the decision-making agenda? In particular, mass deliberation inevitably leads, Landemore says, to the formation of parties and thus to partisanship which is antithetical to deliberation.

In short, Landemore points out, what seems like a fairly straightforward point, that “deliberative democracy” is some combination of naive wishful thinking and apologia for the status quo. What is less straightforward is why, given that Landemore recognizes that this is the case, she continues to “embrace” this theory of democracy.

The road not taken

In the second section of chapter 2 Landemore asks why the new regimes of the end of the 18th century represented an ideology of competence of virtue of the leadership rather than an ideology of mirroring of the people or a leadership which is “the people in miniature” – when both ideologies were available and discussed at the time. One possible answer, which Landemore attributes to Yves Sintomer, is that the missing ingredient was a grasp of statistical sampling. Another answer is Manin’s claim that the notion of consent of governed, expressed through voting, was dominant.
Continue reading

Lotteries instead of point-scores on exams: A great quote from Peter Stone

A story in the Irish Times (25th Feb 2021). This is a paywalled link. The full text of the article appears below.

The Leaving Cert is not fair. Why not just replace it with a lottery?
Joe Humphreys
Unthinkable: We can no longer plead ignorance of the inner workings of our State exams

‘I think recognizing the wider role luck plays in society is very important,’ says TCD political scientist Peter Stone.

The Leaving Cert has had an untouchable status in Irish life. It may be a brutal memory test but it is our brutal memory test – a rite of passage nearly as old as the State itself.

In the past 12 months, however, the bonnet has been lifted on this national treasure and we can no longer plead ignorance of its inner workings. The attempt to manufacture a distribution of grades under pandemic conditions equivalent to those produced by the annual exams has spotlighted long-running questions of fairness.

As a test of ability, the Leaving Cert is fair in the narrow sense that a bobsleigh race between Jamaica and Norway is fair. Contestants do not start with the same advantages, and the format – which lends itself to a parallel grinds industry – gives an extra edge to students from better-off families.

However, there’s a second matter of fairness surrounding the appropriateness of using the Leaving Cert to determine who gets what college places. This must be considered against the backdrop of stark figures showing that, on average, a third-level graduate earns much more over her or his lifetime than a worker who doesn’t have a degree – at least €100,000 more, according to one conservative estimate.
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Democracy Should Just Work

In my new post, I argue that parliamentary procedures can be eliminated with the adoption of the superminority method. The advantages of this are enormous, since legislatures are widely ridiculed for the way rules can be manipulated to advantage. Instead, the superminority rule reinforces two main principles:

  1. Procedural inevitability – Agenda items are guaranteed to reach a conclusion.
  2. Substantive uncertainty – The outcome of all agenda items is genuinely unknown when proposals are written.

Once these principles are followed, legislative politics becomes painless to the general public. Democracy just works.

Landemore: Open Democracy, part 3

The crisis of representative democracy

Landemore again goes to the heart of matters when she states at the beginning of chapter 2:

My main point in this chapter will be to trace a certain understanding of the “crisis” of contemporary democracy not so much to contingent external factors (though they obviously play a role) but, rather, to the more fundamental democratic flaws in representative democracy’s original design. The main problem, I will argue, is that representative democracy was designed on the basis of electoral premises that prevent even its best, most democratized contemporary versions from reaching the full potential of genuine “popular rule”, that is, a rule that empowers all equally.

Due to these democratic flaws

the cognitive dissonance between the reality of the regimes we live in and the democratic expectations people attach to them can only grow over time.

Too often the crisis of confidence in electoralist regimes is attributed to a plethora of circumstances that are supposedly incidental, non-inherent to the regime itself: everything from globalization to technological change to polarization to Putin. In contrast, Landemore’s agenda is refreshingly clear and principled. While accepting that at least some of those phenomena have their effects, she does not see these are being root causes but, to they extent they are influential factors, as being symptoms of the root causes that are inherent to the electoralist system (p. 32).

It is unfortunate that this clarity is attenuated again by the mandatory gesturing toward propriety. First, why would Landemore write about a design that “fails to empower all equally” because it is based upon “mistaken premises” if by her own account the electoralist design had explicit anti-democratic objectives? Implying that the founders were incompetent democratically minded law-givers is somehow more acceptable, it seems, than maintaining consistency with the previous analysis and inferring that the founders quite competently designed an impressively successful anti-democratic system.
Continue reading