Debate: for and against allotting our political representatives

Henri Vernet, January 6th, 2017

Democracy. Several candidates for the Elysée are proposing sortition as a complement for elections.

Having citizens participate in political life through… sortition. The idea may appear to be unknown, but it is making its way in the upcoming presidential campaign. Is it the accessory needed to fight the falling turnout rates and the mistrust of the political “system” which many French people feel excludes them? Several candidates for the Elysée are proposing this device, in one form or another, in their programs. Arnaud Montebourg wants to have a citizens’ senate allotted from the electoral registry. Jean-Luc Mélenchon has already “experimented” with the mechanism by allotting some of the delegates to the convention which hammered out his program.

At the same time Emmanuel Macron proposes that an allotted citizens’ council will audit the president of the Republic every year. Others as well, among the Right as well as from the Left, view this mechanism – which evidently does not replace elections – as one of the ways for renewing political practices. The grand return of sortition, which was a major force in the Athenian democracy of ancient Greece? Already, several countries like Ireland, Estonia and Iceland have used sortition over the last few years for addressing issues as important as constitutional reforms. In France the debate is ongoing…

QUESTION OF THE DAY: Should our political representatives be allotted?

IN FAVOR, Romain Slitine

Professor of political science in Paris and president of the association for open democracy. Author, with Elisa Lewis, of “Citizens’ coup. The initiatives that reinvent democracy” (La Découverte).

Why do you advocate allotting citizens?
Romain Slitine: It is one of the responses to the crisis of democracy. We reduce our political life to elections, and we venerate them as if they are the only legitimate mode for sustaining our democracy. Yet, on its own, election favors a small elite of political professionals. The citizen is reduced to a voter: “vote and we will do the rest” may be the motto. As a result, citizens leave the parties, avoid voting and distrust the elected…

What can sortition do?
It allows assuring, if it is associated with a system of representational quotas, a representation of the diversity of the population. For example: the workers and employees represent 50.5% of the population in France, but only 2.6% of deputies. A second desirable quality is that such a citizen assembly can reform the foundations of our politics, without being captured by the politics of politicians because its members are not standing for reelection.

Why aren’t the elected making those reforms?
As the saying goes, one does not ask the turkey to make Thanksgiving dinner! The political class is unable to reform itself.

Would this risk a conflict between the elected and the allotted?
I prefer to talk about a power equilibrium. Today we have bicameralism in France. One can imagine replacing the Senate with an allotted assembly. This system would have many advantages over the existing mechanism of selection of Senators, which is totally opaque and ossified.

Any example where this works?
In Iceland, in 2008, after the financial crisis where the political class was discredited, they entrusted an assembly of 1,000 representative people, selected by lot, with a task of reflection about the basic directions and values of the country. Another example is Ireland. In 2013, 66 allotted citizens worked along with 33 politicians on a constitutional reform, notably regarding a delicate subject in a conservative catholic country of gay marriage. Thanks to this approach a constitutional referendum won approval of 62%.

NO, Jean-Louis Debré

Former president of the Constitutional Council. Former minister of the interior under Jacques Chirac, former president of the National Assembly (2002-2007).

Arnaud Montebourg proposes setting up an allotted citizens’ Senate. How good an initiative?
Jean-Louis Debré. We must be careful of false good ideas. Lawmaking is not an inconsequential act: the law is a judicial instrument, which is imposed on everybody and demands of those who are in charge of it the capacity to understand legal techniques, to go beyond the reflexive “just do it this way”. It must be positioned at a distance from demagoguery and populism.

Sortition is demagogic and populist?
In what way do the allotted embody the national will? Democracy assumes that the people, through universal suffrage, designate their representatives who in this way gain the legitimacy for setting the laws and governing the nation. This is the reason for elections. If tomorrow deputies or senators receive the mandate for lawmaking through sortition, who holds to account those so selected?

What is the risk in this system?
If the “elected” intend to change the law because it is not convenient to them, there will be no possibility of opposing their will. This will result in great judicial instability, detrimental to any economic activity. Entrepreneurs, craftsmen, merchants, liberal professions, etc., need stable laws in order to develop. Government authority, in a democracy, rests on the confidence in parliament members and requires a political majority to govern. This is incompatible with the rulers being allotted.

How then to revitalize politics?
Direct democracy relies on assembling all the people, rather than their representatives, in single place, and having them vote directly in a single instant, as in the ancient Roman times. However, that is difficult with more than 44 million voters. The modern political systems combine elections of representatives of the people with referenda, direct democracy with representative democracy. If we wish, it is always possible to open the grand field of the referendum. But let’s not be the sorcerers’ apprentices.

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2 Responses

  1. Debré’s relatively frank explanation about how the people cannot be trusted with serious power and how they are dangerous for economic development is illuminating. It is hard to imagine a politician who is still actively competing in elections making such statements. This is also interesting in the context of Debré’s statements about accountability.

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  2. Debre’s scepticism is over persons elected by lot, not “the people”. He is happy for the people to elect representatives and to participate in direct democracy. As to whether or not those elected by lot would represent the considered will of the people, that is a further argument that is not entered into in this post (apart from Slitine’s casual reference to “representative people”). The fact that an allotted Senate would look more like [France] does not automatically mean that it would will like everyone would under good conditions — especially given the high level of voluntarism (and small number of allotted members) in his chosen example of the Irish constitutional convention (I have no knowledge of the level of voluntarism in the Icelandic convention).

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