Citizens’ assembly in Ireland recommended

Harald Korneliussen points out the following development:

Oireachtas [the Irish parliament, -YG] Joint Committee on the Constitution recommends significant changes to the implementation of the PR-STV Electoral System in this country

The Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitution, in a report on the electoral system published today, recommends substantial changes to the operation of the PR-STV electoral system in Ireland which it considers would significantly improve its functioning.

It presents 29 recommendations for improving the system. Areas identified where improvements are required include: the level of women’s representation; the voting age; the filling of casual vacancies; the transfer of surplus votes; ease of access to the ballot on election day; the number of seats that are contested in each constituency; the manner in which constituency boundaries are drawn; the filling of casual vacancies in Dáil Éireann; and the proportionality of vote share to seat share.

The Committee underlines the importance of legitimacy in any electoral reform process and recommends that citizens should be given every opportunity to play a part in choosing the system by which they elect their representatives.

It proposes the establishment of a Citizens’ Assembly to examine the electoral system in Ireland, and, if it deems that reform is necessary, to propose change.

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26 Responses

  1. Interesting. Should we assume that a “Citizens’ Assembly” would be randomly selected? There’s no specific mention of sortition in this press release. (My apologies if I missed it.) Is the term “Citizens’ Assembly” sufficiently well-established in conventional discourse that it can be used without further explanation? I’m just wondering, because when it comes to reform proposals like this, the devil is most definitely in the details.

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  2. They speak of Citizen’s assemblies as being an established way of evaluating potential electoral reform. The only way that can possibly make sense is if they are referring to the Canadian Citizen’s assemblies. They were randomly chosen as I recall, although there may have been a significant number of people who refused to serve.

    Wouldn’t it be amusing if the assembly chosen to consider electoral reform pointed to their own mode of assembly as an alternative? I have no illusion it’s going to be that easy, but I’d give a lot to be able to have a long chat with one of the assemblees on the possibility ;)

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  3. > Wouldn’t it be amusing if the assembly chosen to consider electoral reform pointed to their own mode of assembly as an alternative?

    I have been wondering about the same thing – did no one in the Canadian CAs put connect those dots?

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  4. By the way, it is interesting that the PR-STV system that is the point of embarkation for reform in Ireland was also the system proposed as the terminal point of the CA deliberations in BC.

    This lends support, I think, to the suspicion that tinkering with the electoral system is a low-yield pursuit.

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  5. You know my opinions about that: I think PR-STV systems are a huge improvement over single-district winner systems. That they talk about changing it doesn’t mean they don’t agree.

    It seems previously, the attempts to change the electoral system of Ireland have been top-down efforts (from single-party majority governments, no less). The attacks leveled against it haven’t been that it gives too little power to the people, but that it gives too much: Representatives of major parties are apparently in more danger of being replaced by a competitor within their own party than with someone outside it, and party elites don’t like having their colleagues exchanged all the time. (Why the electorate of Ireland bothers with such challenges is another matter: Voting in the Dáil is almost always along party lines.) The “strong goverment” argument has also been used, and that is clearly antidemocratic, in that its proponents want a government with more freedom to ignore dissent and minority interests.

    But calls to reform for these reasons failed twice in referendums. The current calls for reform are of a different variety: They have to do with the financial crisis. They are bottom-up. Like Iceland, they thought they were doing great, until things collapsed. Like Iceland, they aren’t too happy about their politicians right now.

    I strongly doubt that the outcome of the current process will be rejection of STV-PR in favour of FPTP. The public wants to rein in their representatives, not give them more power. Probably, this will mean gender quotas, larger districts, funding reform, and transparency demands. All nice things, in my opinion. But if they knew of it at all, or learned of it, I think the Citizen’s Assembly would seriously consider variants of sortition as well.

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  6. It certainly is ironic that Citizen Assemblies are deemed suitable for deciding these decidedly technical issues, yet are not suitable for the normal run-of-the mill issues that parliaments decide.

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  7. Yes. But their reasoning is plain to see in the documents: It’s not that they’re optimistic about citizens’ competence in these matters, it’s that they are pessimistic (realistic) about politicians’ conflict of interest in these matters.

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  8. Nevertheless the confidence in citizen competence (in itself a major step) is all that we need from the perspective of this forum.

    Keith

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  9. > I think PR-STV systems are a huge improvement over single-district winner systems. That they talk about changing it doesn’t mean they don’t agree.

    So, you think that the policy outcomes in Ireland is generally clearly superior to those of the UK, say? How does the advantage of STV over FPTP compare to the advantages that the reforms considered now (“gender quotas, larger districts, funding reform, and transparency”) can be expected to yield over the current Irish STV system? If STV still leaves much room for improvement, why was the BC CA reform focused solely on the switch from FPTP to STV?

    By the way, where does you wealth of knowledge about Ireland come from?

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  10. Was that meant sarcastically? I just read up on it. There’s quite a lot of material about the two attempts to instate FPTP, for instance. I also know a bit about the Irish system because I’ve read a good deal of academic literature about “traditional” electoral reform (not to sortition, in other words).

    Yes, I think the policy outcomes in Ireland are generally superior to those in the UK, in the sense that they are more in line with what the people want. This may not always be a good thing in every particular case, of course. I regard the strongly social conservative policies of Ireland as a consequence of more direct popular control – some of them have been bad, in my eyes (and I even consider myself a social conservative). You see a slightly similar trend toward social conservatism in Switzerland.

    On the other hand, the Republic of Ireland never started a war in a distant country, nor have they ever had a government comparable to that of Margaret Thatcher (who in 1983 got a majority government with 31% of the voters, and whose rule I regard as a disaster).

    I think there are gains to be had from some of the current proposed reforms, but little compared to the gain from going from FPTP to STV-PR.

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  11. > Was that meant sarcastically?

    Not at all. I was truly impressed. Wow, you guys are a suspicious crowd.

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  12. > I think the policy outcomes in Ireland are generally superior to those in the UK, in the sense that they are more in line with what the people want. […] I regard the strongly social conservative policies of Ireland as a consequence of more direct popular control

    When it comes to social mores – abortion, etc. – which have little impact on the elite, there may be more leeway for expression of popular sentiment. This is not the case when it comes to economic matters – the major economic trends of the last few decades have been similar in Ireland and in the UK, to my admittedly limited knowledge: growing corporate power, financialization and concentration of wealth. Most recently, as well, “austerity”, serving elite interests, is being imposed as a response to the economic crisis both in Ireland and in the UK – with Ireland leading the way.

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  13. True. Economically, like Iceland, Ireland has been effectively ruled by an elite with certain ideas.

    The problem, as I see it, isn’t that the Irish people had no occasion to kick out this elite. They had. It’s that just like they have strong opinions on social mores, they have weak ones on economic matters. They allowed themselves to be persuaded by a minority with strong opinions backed up by apparent authority (in Ireland’s case, Chicago school economists). And why shouldn’t they, as long as the “Celtic Timer” appeared to be going strong?

    In other words, their problem wasn’t lack of power this time, it was lack of knowledge.

    Would the current reforms have helped? I think maybe. Maybe a little. Homogeniety makes groups more vulnerable to manipulation, and things such as gender quotas do at least reduce homogeniety somewhat.

    (As for being suspicious: Sorry. I am perhaps a bit too sensitive about the fact that I am not an academic.)

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  14. That should be “Celtic Tiger”, by the way.

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  15. As an Irishman I feel I should join in this debate! Having read the proposal I can’t help feeling that it is the elite (now a very discredited bunch)(see Fintan O’Toole ‘Ship of Fools’ 2009 – a great read btw) are groping towards a bit of respectability.

    The proposal may be a ‘verdict first, debate after’ ploy, just like the EU referenda – ‘we’ll keep at it until you give us the right result!’

    (I left Ireland some 45 years ago, so I’m only an observer)

    I concur with everything Harald says – knows his stuff!

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  16. > The problem, as I see it, isn’t that the Irish people had no occasion to kick out this elite. They had.

    Was there a credible alternative? In the US and in the UK the elites were (and are) united behind the exploitative agenda.

    > In other words, their problem wasn’t lack of power this time, it was lack of knowledge.

    I don’t think it is a matter of “this time”. Formal popular power that is useless in practice is the hallmark of the electoral system. There are several reasons that the power remains a formality. Lack of knowledge and an inherent lack of motivation for acquiring knowledge are important reasons for the impotence of the voters.

    And, lacking any visibility into what the long term effects of public policy are, voters have no choice but to focus on the short term effects (as well as on the politics of slogans and prejudice), leading to voting based on “prosperity” (and mores).

    If all of that is happening in PR systems to a similar extent that it happens in FPTP systems, then it is hard to become enthusiastic about the advantages of the former.

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  17. >> The problem, as I see it, isn’t that the Irish people had no occasion to kick out this elite. They had.

    >Was there a credible alternative? In the US and in the UK the elites were (and are) united behind the exploitative agenda.

    Let me throw the question back to you with a little twist. Imagine that instead of parties fielding candidates, candidates were drawn randomly (and voted for as usual). Would there have been a “credible alternative” then? I think not. The people weren’t really opposed to the “exploitative agenda”, because they didn’t recognize it as such. So even if the process of fielding candidates was perfect, they probably wouldn’t have had alternatives.

    Would sortition help with this? Maybe, but I doubt it. The critical voices in the economic crisis, from Paul Krugman to Doris Dungey, were people with great education and great confidence in their abilities. You couldn’t count on someone like them to be drafted. As for the moderately educated, moderately confident people that would be drafted, do you think they would seek out their opinions? Or would they just seek out the opinions of the Celtic Tiger’s cheerleaders (who were after all, also highly educated and confident)?

    I think any advantage an allotted assembly has in this case, strictly speaking comes from them being less homogenous, not from them being more representative interest-wise. It’s in nobody’s interest to be fooled by a con-man.

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  18. To sum up a bit (I see I may have been a bit unclear): I do not think that the Dáil’s supposed lack of representativeness is responsible for the dubious economic policy. They may be very representative interest-wise, and still be able to get fooled.

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  19. Harald –

    Let me start my response by acknowledging that the issues we are talking about here are quite complex. If there were clear simple answers we wouldn’t be stuck with the electoral system for so long. I believe sortition is an important part of the solution but I don’t think it is an easy cure-all.

    To answer the specifics of your argument: I think you are conflating two associated, but quite distinct, issues.

    The first issue is the availability of platform alternatives. In theory, an electoral system is supposed to offer a wide range of platforms. These are systems of policy options, each one substantiated by a set of values and a theory of the impact of policy on outcomes. In reality that doesn’t happen, for various reasons, including the fact that elites share many interests and so do not offer alternatives on those issues, but also, importantly for our purposes, that evaluating a set of values and a theory of causality for consistency and realism is something that requires significant sustained effort, an effort that is completely disproportional to the reward (the ability to cast a more informed vote), and thus it is an effort that most voters would not undertake.

    If most voters would not bother to evaluate a set of platform alternatives, it is even more unlikely that a group of random people would suddenly develop such a set of platforms on demand, having been allotted as candidates. That is, I am in agreement with you that under your hypothetical candidate selection method no clear alternatives to the elite ideology and platform would instantly be offered.

    On the other hand, one can expect that such alternative platforms would be developed if public discourse were not completely dominated by elites. A democratization of mass media is a policy that may be pursued by a representative government – it is certainly not being pursued by the elite government produced by the electoral process.

    The second issue is the existence of specific policy alternatives: Whether alternative platforms are available or not policy alternatives to those of the elites do exist, and would very likely be pursued if the decision-makers were representative. One does not need to articulate a comprehensive platform in order to, for example, raise taxes on rich or to reverse policies that weaken worker power in the workplace or pursue many other policy alternatives that are available at any point in time. Delegates, having been empowered to act on their understanding, will very likely pay much more attention to the arguments raised by the various experts than the average voter does and will be in a much better position to assess the values of those arguments than the average voter is. They will also be in a position to develop a first hand understanding of things rather than be completely dependent on experts. (By the way, I don’t know who Dungey is, but I am very far from considering Krugman as being a particularly wise voice on various matters, including in economics. A recent article of his about China, for example, is simply childish. Of course, compared to Greenspan et al. he is a giant.)

    Thus, I disagree that (even if public discourse is dominated by elites as it is now) public policy would not have been very different if the delegates were representative of the interests and ideas of the people at large.

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  20. > The proposal may be a ‘verdict first, debate after’ ploy, just like the EU referenda – ‘we’ll keep at it until you give us the right result!’

    I forgot to voice my support for such suspicions.

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  21. Sortitioned elects will not be hampered by elite bias to problem solutions.

    They will input their own bias.

    Being sortitioned, this bias input will reflect bias that exists in the general population in proportions existing in the general population.

    Why is this concept so difficult?

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  22. > Why is this concept so difficult?

    I think most of us here accept this concept. (Keith Sutherland is, I think, the exception here – he believes a minority of left-wing radicals will somehow effectively brainwash the allotted delegates.)

    The question raised by Harald is, I believe, whether the popular bias is different from the elite bias. Would, say, an allotted Irish chamber have made policy choices over the last few decades that were significantly different than the choices the elected chamber made?

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  23. I think popular bias is a slightly weird term. Biased compared to what? The results you’d get from a referendum where everyone voted, are different from what you’d get from a representative allotted assembly, that is true. Like Yoram Gat(?), possibly unlike coach, I feel the latter is a more correct assessment of the people’s will.

    The core of the problem, I think, is that economic policy is both a question of competence and of values. Sortition was invented to give good answers to questions of value and interests. A common argument for election over allotment was that it would give rulers that shared the interests and values of the electorate, but were more qualified to answer questions of expedience as well (in other words, not just what we should do, but how to do it most effectively). Most here question that, of course.

    But my point was that Ireland’s economic problems might well be a consequence of the politician’s lack of expertise, not any inherent conflict of interest with the electorate. I think that as Parliaments go, the Irish one is rather good on that score. But they got a ‘stupid’ Parliament! even though they are no doubt well above average in terms of education and cleverness, they have mostly the same kinds of cleverness, and the same kinds of knowledge. So they also had mostly the same blind spots, and were fooled in the same way.

    There’s a saying: don’t explain with malice what can be adequately explained with stupidity. Following that, I see no evidence in Ireland’s financial crisis that the Dáil is corrupt, or that STV doesn’t let voters express their desires.

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  24. > But my point was that Ireland’s economic problems might well be a consequence of the politician’s lack of expertise, not any inherent conflict of interest with the electorate.

    Of course, the politicians, being part of the elite, profited by those same exploitative policies that they enacted, so you are asking us to believe that this was merely a happy coincidence for them.

    This puts me in mind of the following tale: After harvest time the peasants bring their sacks of grain to the miller to have it milled. One night, miller hears some noise coming from the mill. He goes into the mill and sees one of the peasants taking grain from the various sacks in the mill and putting it into his own sack. The miller confronts the peasant:

    “What are you doing? Why are you taking grain from those other sacks and putting it into your own?”

    “Um… What? Is that not OK? I guess I am just a fool and didn’t realize that I should not be doing this, ” the peasant replies.

    The miller then inquires: “But if you are a fool, why are you not taking grain from your own sack and putting it into the sacks of others?”

    “I may be a fool, but not such a fool,” retorts the peasant.

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  25. > Of course, the politicians, being part of the elite, profited by those same exploitative policies that they enacted

    But did they? In particular: were they among those who profited after the bubble burst?

    It may be harder to prove one way or another for Ireland. But here in Norway, where income and wealth statistics are published for everyone (yeah, you can look up me too if you’re curious!), the politicians are not that rich. Yes, richer than average, but not in the 1% richest. Norway has a PR electoral system, rather different from Ireland’s, but generally seen as less democratic, since it’s closed list (more power to party members). True, it would be less person-oriented, which may be an advantage as wealth is concerned.

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  26. These are an interesting empirical question, and a very interesting data set. Someone must have done some work on this?

    There is some data for the US as well, BTW, since elected officials have to provide some rather imprecise disclosure. I am fairly certain that in the US elected officials are not simply richer than average but outstandingly rich. Of course, some of the rewards are provided by the grateful plutocrats after the elected officials leave office – these would not be visible in the disclosures.

    Another issue to consider is ideological screening. Even if the officials do not stand to benefit, or stand to benefit only moderately, they may very well be screened ahead of time for ideological tendencies. Thus, even if they are economically representative, they may still be ideologically unrepresentative. (Of course, people tend to get upset if their exploitative ideology does not result in some personal rewards sooner or later.)

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